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"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is a short story by Ursula K. LeGuin, first published in 1973.  Clocking in at four pages, it is one of shortest truly great short stories I am aware of. Finding, somehow, the dilemma at the exact epicenter of politics, ethics, and the value of happiness, it poses a question so central to human nature that maybe there is no way to ask it except through fiction. But if you don't read closely, you'll miss what the question is.

The story -- there is no plot, as such, though I will avoid quoting the ending so you can experience it for yourself, if you wish to -- is about a city in a fantasy world. The city is called "Omelas." (Le Guin later wrote that she got the name while driving past an exit sign for "Salem, O." and spelling it backwards.) It is a city of perfect happiness. The people of Omelas are all of them healthy, wise, learned, graceful, peaceful, and skilled at whatever profession they love most. The narrator of the story, in fact, spends a good deal of the four pages convincing us that she is really being serious, that the city of Omelas and its people really are perfect.  

How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.

Further, even though "Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King," the narrator assures us that there is no King, and that the laws of Omelas are "singularly few."  And, "As they did without monarchy and slavery, so they also got on without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb."

So we are to understand that Omelas is perfect politically, as well as personally.  Indeed we can see that the two are one, here. Finally the narrator implores the reader to simply imagine it for him or herself. She does not personally think that there are any recreational drugs in the city of Omelas, for example, but if you do, dear reader, then let the drugs be as perfect and non-addictive as you please.

And she pauses, the narrator. And it's here that the point of the story starts to come home. "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy?" She thinks we do not. And she's right: for some reason this sort of thing just doesn't click. We can imagine the perfect happiness, or think we can, but we do not believe it. So, in order to bring the city of Omelas within the scope of realistic acceptability, the narrator adds one more thing. She adds a room. In a paragraph so powerful it ought to be enshrined next to the best of Shakespeare, the narrator goes on to describe it. The room is somewhere in Omelas. About three feet by five. It is Abu Ghraib in little. It is Guantanamo Bay. It is a black site, though everyone knows it is there. And there is a child in it.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.

The narrator knows that this is enough to get us to believe in the people of Omelas. The people of Omelas are now, if not realistic, at least possible. They are no longer a violation of the logic of human nature. The point Le Guin here makes through the narrator is at once very simple and very, very profound. At the intersection of the believability of fiction and the tragedy of human nature, she asks, "Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?"

Why should that be, though? Why does the logic of perfect happiness dictate that there be such a room, such a child? Is this a point about human nature or a point about the believability of the stories we as humans tell, and is there a difference?

The narrator then goes all-in. "Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible." The thing that is not credible, but yet is true, the narrator assures us, is that some of the people of Omelas, leave. I won't quote this last bit, because I should rather let you experience the end of the story as Le Guin intends. But I do want to make a point. If we are not very careful here, we will think that this is the point of the story, to ask the reader, to ask us, "Are you the type of person who would stay in Omelas, or are you the type of person who would leave?" And, of course, that is one point. But not the main point.

The main point, I think, is slightly hidden near the end. As the narrator describes the people who decline the bargain, she mentions the place to which these people go. It is a better place than Omelas; she says, almost in passing, "I cannot describe it at all."

Recall -- and this is the thing that would be easy to miss -- that this same narrator just spent the beginning of the story describing a city of perfect happiness to us. And she did it very well. She did not introduce the tragedy, the price, the child, until later on. And yet here she is, now, saying that she cannot describe this place that is better than Omelas, at all. One would have thought that the better place would simply be like Omelas, minus the hidden room, minus the tormented child. But the narrator could have described that; in fact, she did. So the place to which the decliners go must be some other sort of place, entirely.

The point here is very deep. I think the idea of the story is that the narrator cannot violate the logic of human happiness, which requires a price, a flip-side. Our very conception of happiness, perhaps, has built into it a notion of the impossibility of perfection. This being the case, the fact that there must be a price of some sort -- not so dramatic or singular as the price of a tormented child in a locked room, but a price none the less -- seems inescapable. The place where the people who decline the bargain of Omelas go must therefore be a place where something other than happiness reigns; a place where some other inconceivable concept applies.

Now, after all of that, I will finally to get to my point. What are we getting in return for Guantanamo Bay? What are we getting in return for the Global War on Terror? Go back into Le Guin's story, take out the words "happiness" and "joy," and insert the word that strikes you as best capturing what the American people are getting in return. Is it "safety"? Is it "justice"? Is it "peace"? Is it "No attacks on American soil in seven years"?

On January 22, Reuters published an article by reporter Sayed Salahuddin headlined Guantanamo closure too little too late: ex-inmate:

The closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison will do little to erase the blot on the U.S. rights record unless other U.S. detention centers are also shut and inmates compensated, Afghan and Pakistani campaigners said on Thursday.

-- snip --

"He is closing it in order to put an end to the criticism from human rights groups and also to get rid of the bad image it created for the Americans," said Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan who spent more than three years imprisoned at Guantanamo.

"But he needs to restore justice for prisoners who were persecuted there during investigations," he said. "There were innocent people imprisoned there. He needs to put on trial those who were involved in the persecution of inmates."

I'd ask you to imagine for a moment that you live in the fantasy world in which Omelas exists -- not in Omelas itself, and not in the indescribable city at the end of the story, but in some ordinary town a few miles over from Omelas. Now, suppose that one day the people of Omelas let the tormented child go. They just sort of open the gates to the city and let that kid in the room wander off. How long do you think it would take you to forgive them? Would you ever forgive them?

Perhaps it gets worse. On January 23rd, the New York Times published an article by reporters Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane headlined Where Will Detainees From Guantanamo Go?

Republican lawmakers, who oppose Mr. Obama’s plan, found a talking point with political appeal. They said closing Guantánamo could allow dangerous terrorists to get off on legal technicalities and be released into quiet neighborhoods across the United States. If the detainees were convicted, the Republicans continued, American prisons housing terrorism suspects could become magnets for attacks.

Keeping in mind that Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the man connected to the 1993 bombing of the world trade center, and the man who actually called for attacks on American soil should he die while in prison, is being held in North Carolina, it is worth asking whether the Republican scare-mongering is playing on conceptions of peace more narrative than rational.

This is part of the point about the necessary flip-side of some conceptions of political justice, peace, and tranquility that I think Le Guin's story brings out, if read closely. Which of those conceptions do we have, which do we want? Recall, we are dealing with a political party, the Republican one, that calls itself "brave" but does not think the United States Constitution is worth 3,000 civilian lives. What exactly do they mean by justice or peace? What work are those concepts doing for them?

As it turns out, 50% of American men support the use of torture under some circumstances, with 49% opposed. 31% of American women support the use of torture under some circumstances, with 65% opposed. Especially in the case of the men, this is very bad. All of this is enough to make you wonder how the very way we think has been twisted by the war on terror. Have we gotten to a place where we cannot imagine "safety" or "peace" without a prisoner in a room, somewhere? Worse, "happiness"?

The task before us is not to walk away from this Omelas we have constructed, but to find a way to redeem it in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of the children we held there. I don't know if we can; but I don't know what other project could possibly be more important. This is first and foremost a political task, but it once again shows that political decisions are mortal and more than mortal: they proclaim who we are, and to those who live after us, they proclaim who we wanted to be.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:01 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I've read just enough of UKlG's works (20+ / 0-)

    ...to be impressed by her style but, wow, I have to go back and read more.

    Thanks.

    "Certainly the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet, you can't win." Lazurus Long

    by rfall on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:05:03 PM PST

    •  Thanks srkp, for putting a link up. (25+ / 0-)

      Space. It seems to go on and on forever. But then you get to the end and a gorilla starts throwing barrels at you. -- Fry, Futurama

      by LithiumCola on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:20:33 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  HTML version here (13+ / 0-)

        "Don't hope for a stronger America. Vote for one." - John McCain. And I did!

        by cartwrightdale on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:23:09 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  And... (13+ / 0-)

        ... thank you for a very fine post.


        Someone call the girl police and file a report...

        by Page van der Linden on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:32:30 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  A note for future reference (10+ / 0-)

        and thanks for a great diary, LC.

        One question I would ask is what of those who do not walk away, but seek to change Omelas from the inside, seek to free the tortured child?

        There is no walking away for many of us, but there is a recognition that the basis for our 'happiness' desperately needs to change.

        DelicateMonster a slightly left of center reading experience

        by DelicateMonster on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:35:05 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  See: Man and Superman (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          DelicateMonster

          Delicate Monster you are one amazing mind. Love your many insights.

          The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution. Paul Cezanne

          by MeToo on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:45:02 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  We can't walk away (7+ / 0-)

          We can't walk away from knowing the child is there.

          We can't walk away from knowing that some of us think it is right for the child to be there.

          We can't walk away from knowing that some don't know the child is there.

          We can't walk away from knowing we are the prison nation.

          We can't walk away from knowing we are a cruel, uncaring, and unjust nation.

          We can't walk away from knowing.

          We can't walk away.

          •  But... (5+ / 0-)

            As most of us with a clue have long since found out, if you just go up to people and say, "We are a cruel, uncaring, and unjust nation", you're Not. Gonna. Get. Anywhere.  You have to appeal to their higher values.  For some reason, the left of center has had this blind spot about how to approach people, and it's done real damage to the reputation of left-of-center politics.  

            Imagine you say "We are a cruel, uncaring, and unjust nation" to a conservative voter.  How is that voter going to react?  Try putting that "liberal empathy" into play and imagine how that statement would fit into a conservative value system.  The cruel, uncaring, and unjust MUST DIE!; Just Bob says America is cruel, uncaring, and unjust; therefore JUST BOB SAYS AMERICA MUST DIE!  JUST BOB HATES AMERICA!!!  

            And that's not all:  Conservative Voter is an American and is a generally good person.  If Just Bob hates America, he hates Real Americans and therefore hates Conservative Voter.  Conservative Voter has done Just Bob no wrong, so Just Bob hates Conservative Voter for nothing.  

            So there's a whole host of pseudo-logical associations that open up if you start with the wrong opening.  

            The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

            by Panurge on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 10:13:47 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  If I hated America (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              brein

              I'd walk away.

              If there is a significant percent of the population that thinks as you do, perhaps I should.

              •  Who said I thought that way? (0+ / 0-)

                See what I'm talking about?  No, you don't, or else you couldn't have written what you did.  I wrote, "Some people think this way, and you need to understand that"--and SOMEHOW, you decided that meant I thought that way.  How??

                The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

                by Panurge on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 06:37:34 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  Wrong again (0+ / 0-)

                  From your first reply:

                  As most of us with a clue

                  Your attitude is insulting, but that's no wonder:
                  http://en.wikipedia.org/...

                  Panurge is one of the principal characters in the Pantagruel (especially the third and fourth books) of Rabelais, an exceedingly crafty knave, a libertine, and a coward.

                  •  Yes. (0+ / 0-)

                    And I'm obviously not getting anywhere with you, which kinda proves my point.  

                    I said taking your line would not work.  I said, "You have to appeal to their higher values."  You replied that conservative voters think as I do, which I don't understand.  (A libertine and a coward I may be, but I'm not that crafty.)

                    The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

                    by Panurge on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 10:12:47 AM PST

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  You don't understand, indeed (0+ / 0-)

                      You replied that conservative voters think as I do, which I don't understand.

                      Perhaps that's because you insist on putting words in my mouth that I didn't say.

                      But you're right. We're not getting anywhere. In closing, you have misrepresented my words and my intent.

                      Good day to you, sir.

                      •  OK, let me start over. (1+ / 0-)
                        Recommended by:
                        thoreau247365
                        1.  I feel that calling America "a cruel, uncaring, and unjust nation" will not get us anywhere with conservative (and many moderate) voters.  Do you agree?  
                        1.  The reason for this is that many conservative (and many moderate) voters will reflexively take such a statement as mere "hatred of America".  Do you agree?
                        1.  I don't subscribe to the perspective articulated in #2, and I don't appreciate it when people think I do.

                        The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

                        by Panurge on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 01:30:09 PM PST

                        [ Parent ]

                        •  If you insist (1+ / 0-)
                          Recommended by:
                          Remain calm

                          I'm 63 years old.
                          I was raised in a Republican household.
                          I was on active military duty 6/63 - 11/73.
                          I am not a registered Democrat.
                          I am a card carrying member of the Veteran's Party of America.

                          In short, I'm a fairly conservative person, however:
                          I did vote for Obama.
                          I did contribute to Obama's campaign repeatedly.
                          I did attend rallies for Obama.
                          I did phone canvassing for Obama.

                          As to when the Republican Party went wrong, take your pick:
                          The advent of the Southern Manifesto.
                          Nixon's Southern Strategy.
                          The Moral Majority.
                          Reaganomics.
                          Newt Gingrich.

                          Feel free to choose more than one answer or add to the list.

                          So, all in all, no, I don't agree with your point of view in any way, shape, or form. It may be you are misinformed or have some strange stereotypical views on who supports Obama, who is a conservative, what it means to be a conservative, and what a conservative's reaction to my statements might be.

                          Perhaps your clue is not as strong as you think.

                          •  Huh? (0+ / 0-)

                            What do you think my views are?  I was just saying something about tactics.

                            The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

                            by Panurge on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 06:35:07 PM PST

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  Until we agree on definitions (0+ / 0-)

                            we really have nothing to say.

                            The religious right are not conservatives.
                            The neocons are not conservatives.
                            The bigots and racists are not conservatives.
                            The dominionists are not conservatives.
                            Rush Limbaugh is not a conservative.
                            George W. Bush is not a conservative.
                            Dick Cheney is not a conservative.

                            If you're still confused perhaps it's because you have bought into the MSM definition of conservatives.

                            A conservative protects "Things Permanent". The land should not be poisoned, BLM land should not be overgrazed, and forests should be managed for future generations.

                            I believe that drinking from rivers and streams should not kill people or livestock.

                            I believe in the Constitution and the rule of law.

                            I believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people, not for corporations.

                            I believe that elected and appointed officials, from the president down, are servants of the people, not their rulers.

                            I believe in separation of church and state.

                            I believe that having more people in prison than any other country in the world is a horror.

                            I believe that having a higher percentage of our people in prison than any other country in the world is a disgrace (land of the free?).

                            I believe congress getting automatic pay raises while the minimum wage is static for ten years is cruel.

                            I believe that the only industrialized country in world that doesn't have universal health care should be ashamed.

                            I believe that sending young men and women off to war and neglecting them when they come home is criminal.

                            I believe that any action that improperly prevents or discourages people from voting should be prosecuted.

                            I am a conservative.

                          •  Fine, OK. (0+ / 0-)

                            You haven't quite answered my questions, but OK. And I'm sorry you're so exercised by my line of questioning--I really don't get it.  

                            BTW, what's the difference between you and a liberal?  Sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, maybe?

                            The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

                            by Panurge on Tue Jan 27, 2009 at 06:02:47 AM PST

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  I haven't answered your question (0+ / 0-)

                            because we don't speak the same language and I can't answer your question in a meaningful manner using your definitions. I'm fairly certain you aren't even asking the right questions.

                            Your first reply in this conversation was highly insulting and I can't get over that. Sorry.

                            There are more than a few conservatives or former conservatives here at dkos. In my own experience I've seen the country dragged ever to the right for forty years and I don't like it. What passes as the Republican Party today is an assemblage of fringe elements, each of which is an embarrassment. They have no center.

                            I was raised with whites only drinking fountains and blacks in the balcony in movie theaters. But I also remember that it was a conservative icon, Eisenhower, who sent the 101 Airborne into Little Rock to integrate the schools. Shamefully that was the trigger for the Southern Manifesto and the end of the Democratic South. It was also Eisenhower who warned us about the military/industrial complex. There's some rich irony in there somewhere.

                            I might fit comfortably into the liberal wing of the Republican Party. It seems many have forgotten there was once such a thing. But don't get me started on the Dulles brothers. The '50's were not a utopian age. I'll leave it to you to read some history.

                            But now that I have given you my definition of conservative, perhaps you would be so kind as to share your definition of liberal, then, after some negotiation I'm sure, we can talk.

                            As for sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll...
                            I have some good memories. ;-)

                          •  Look... (0+ / 0-)

                            The only thing I was really saying was that it's not smart to take certain attitudes or rhetorical angles when trying to convince people.  That's it--it really was.  You can agree or disagree--it's not a matter of having to define terms.  It applies whatever you call yourself.

                            The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

                            by Panurge on Wed Jan 28, 2009 at 10:47:18 PM PST

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  And I object to (0+ / 0-)

                            your certain attitudes and rhetorical angles. Go back and read what you wrote. There's more than a little disdain there and what's with the shouting and the inappropriately places periods?

                            But anyhow, so long, and thanks for all the fish.

                          •  OK. (0+ / 0-)

                            I'm sorry I insulted you.  

                            But sometimes I hear things over and over and they just tick me off.  You said something that ticked me off.  How about this:  Saying what you said to people you're trying to convince is counter-productive.  Is that better?

                            The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

                            by Panurge on Thu Jan 29, 2009 at 05:16:29 AM PST

                            [ Parent ]

                          •  Accepted (0+ / 0-)

                            Your assumption of a conservative's reaction is based on another assumption, that all conservative are the same. As I said earlier, there are more than a few conservatives or former conservatives here at dkos including Markos himself. I rather doubt that many of them (us) are (were) ideological conservatives.

                            Speaking for myself, I'm a fiscal conservative and a social liberal who believes there is a time for Keynesian measures. The distance between pragmatic conservatives, such as myself, and moderate liberals is small enough that the labels only get in the way.

            •  I see where you are coming from. They are in (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              DelicateMonster, brein

              denial.  I have always been curious about WHY they are so invested in that though.  Why do they need America to be mythologically great and exceptionally special?  

              "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him. Mark 12:17

              by bkamr on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 11:20:33 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  It's what we've been taught. (0+ / 0-)

                And I can see it, too.  I think we care so deeply for much the same reason.

                The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

                by Panurge on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 01:30:48 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

        •  it is ever a work in progress--the human (0+ / 0-)

          condition and each of us in our own experience of life and self-development.

          Find your own voice--the personal is political.

          by In her own Voice on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:47:48 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  They don't (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Matt Z

          because the scenario in the story is an artificial black-and-white one: if they save the child, the good life is destroyed, guaranteed.  That's not a dig at the story, which I think is very good and powerful, but the analogy with real-life isn't exact, because (a) saving our child may increase our risk in some areas, but will probably actually improve our country's safety by making us less hated; and (b) we ain't living in no Utopia.

          •  do you honestly think that we could live the way (0+ / 0-)

            we do without exploitation?

            The Coltan that makes every cell phone, computer and eletronic device work in this country comes from child slaves in the gold coast \ congo region of Africa. The Sudan is shelter compared to the Congo. And don't even talk about oil.

            The business community, MSM, and a portion of our population would FREAK OUT if we stopped hurting that baby.

            That baby pays our bills, that baby makes us rich.

            Bananas, coffee, chocolate, diamonds...  Vietnam's babies had tin and rubber and we had to bomb them. Iraq's babies have oil. Afghanistan's babies have the worst luck, they happened to be born on "The graveyard of foreign armies". Obama will love them appropriately, watch.    

        •  Another point of view, re Argument from Authority (3+ / 0-)

          After reading the article I was also wondering whether the population of Omelas hasn't be seduced by the good old "Argument from Authority". That is, that maybe they may have simply been told over a long period of time that their good fortune will end if the child is freed (".... They all know that is has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, ... depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.")

          But how do they know? Have they just been told that for so long by some ancient authority from the depths of time? Maybe it's a just myth, but one that they're now unwilling or uncourageous enough to question; that it just seems too dangerous or difficult to challenge the status quo. I see similarities in this story to the reasons behind, for example, human sacrifice in pre-Columbian Meso-America (like the Mayans), e.g., that they believed it had to be done otherwise the sun would not rise the next day, or the rains wouldn't come, or the world would come to an end. Well, Mayan and Aztec human sacrifice is no more, and we're all still around and the world hasn't come an end (yet).

          So my point is that how do we know that if the child was freed, that something bad would (or would not) indeed happen to the community--all we have is the statement and belief that something bad would happen; that doesn't mean it actually would. Maybe it's nothing more than just a fairy tale and nothing would happen at all if the child was freed! But to go against the certainty of belief and authority would require an enormous act of courage from individuals and the community--and many times it just easier to live with the certain evil within us (especially if that attitude is encouraged by authority and tradition), then it is to challenge the evil but face uncertain consequences.

          And of course I could be totally wrong, and by means unstated the community will indeed disintegrate if the child is freed. But even then would that still not be the right thing to do? I still think so, although if the community survives it would certainly be totally different than the one that came before.

          As for those who leave Olemas, I don't know. I'm still thinking over various possible interpretations, with no one that stands out over the rest in my mind as of yet--except that sadness is a definite part of each.

          What I love about this short story of LeGuin's is that it contains all these wonderful written dilemmas, with no pat answers--which is part of its charm and its disquietude--along with a strong tone of ambiguity--which also had to be one of LeGuin's intentions.

          Why did we bother to defeat the Soviet Union if we were just going to become it? -- Molly Ivins, RIP, January 31, 2007

          by dewtx on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 01:41:26 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  I am sorry I did not see this sooner (0+ / 0-)

        I wish when one subscribes to front pagers, one would get all the front page articles noted too!

        You made a great connection here. Really, really good.

        "One cannot fight against war. One can only see it for the vulgarity it is, and choose...to walk away from it." - Thom Hartmann

        by mieprowan on Tue Feb 03, 2009 at 09:17:55 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  and also, too; you are famous! (0+ / 0-)
        well, you were already famous, at least here, because you are so good. But also, too; you are now famous with my mom! and to whom I sent a link of this post you wrote, and who was rendered speechless, which has never happened before in my own personal experience.

        I'd build the link into this comment, but the retro thing where you can't do that is happening right now, where you get the different screen and not the HTML tabs.

        So, below.

        http://getthewholepicture.blogspot.com/...

        Oh, and I made sure she (and everyone else I sent this link to) also got the downthread link with the story, which I had not myself ever read before, though I am a big Leguin fan myself, and much thanks for this.

        And to think, LC, that I knew you before you were a front pager, let alone before you rendered my mother wordless. Dang.

        "One cannot fight against war. One can only see it for the vulgarity it is, and choose...to walk away from it." - Thom Hartmann

        by mieprowan on Tue Feb 03, 2009 at 10:27:34 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Matt Z, Remain calm

      I read the Usenet newsgroup ALT.GOTHIC (don't laugh--we get into some pretty deep threads over there), and there was a moderately long thread just a few days ago from a senior poster who'd had a dream about a situation very much like this.  Another poster mentioned Le Guin's story (which I'd never heard of before) and linked to the Wikipedia article.

      And wouldn't you know, just four days after the direct reference is first made, a post based on it shows up on the front page of Daily Kos, and you post a link and I get to read it.  Now I'll have to, you know, buy something...

      The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

      by Panurge on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 09:54:56 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Beautifully stated, LC (13+ / 0-)

    an analogy worthy of LeGuin herself.

    Steny Hoyer = a slam dunk argument for term limits

    by jlynne on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:11:32 PM PST

  •  Ursula LeGuin is probably one of the (27+ / 0-)

    greatest authors of the last 50 years.  

    The Disposed is a brilliant book.  

    I first read the above story in freshman English at Iowa State University.  And the story bugged the hell out of me.  I couldn't decide if those that walk away are any better than those that stayed.  

    Anyway, massive props on this diary.

  •  We cannot undo what has been done. (18+ / 0-)

    America has always been a complex assemblage of contradictions. The Constitution raises lofty principles about human freedom, but began with some people worth 3/5 of other humans.

    America's growth was based upon genocide, yet we have been a beacon of freedom to the world.

    However, we do not need to create evil to be good.

    Despite our claims of belief in God, we lack faith.

    "It's the planet, stupid."

    by FishOutofWater on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:13:57 PM PST

  •  Thanks so much! (11+ / 0-)

    We read that in English a few years ago and I've been looking for the title ever since.  Thanks!

  •  Was LeGuin perhaps deriving her (21+ / 0-)

    example from Dostoyevsky? In The Brothers Karamazov at one point Ivan asks his monk brother Alyosha if he would, hypothetically,  consent to the torture of an infant if it meant well-being for the whole rest of humanity. (Alyosha says no.) LeGuin's example sounds similar.

    Dammit, it's time for some poetry! And some news!

    by Yosef 52 on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:17:01 PM PST

  •  That story is a masterpiece (24+ / 0-)

    making real what we try to make unreal with terms like "collateral damage."

    I'm not trashing your book. I'm trashing your philosophy of life. -Jon Stewart

    by Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:17:24 PM PST

  •  Is Gitmo really our child? (33+ / 0-)

    I think it's a more universal theme like that.  Look at our impovershed.  Look at those who toil in sweatshops so we can have cheap goods.  Look at the environmental destruction carried out to enhance our "standard of living."  Look at the slavery that still exists in our world.

    I think these are our children.  Just because Gitmo was closer to a dark room with a child being tortured in it than those things are doesn't mean that it was the worst thing about our society.

  •  Excellent piece, LC. (14+ / 0-)

    I've thought many times about "The Ones..." the last few years. Unfortunately, I think many Americans are much like the citizens of Omelas; they are perfectly content to enjoy their utopia that is built on suffering... as long as they don't have to be the ones suffering.

  •  Ursula was so awesome... (6+ / 0-)

    Perhaps inevitably, she lost her grip after the Seventies heyday. Grew too didactic and hectoring.

    Everyone should check out her last great short story, "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight".

    It's impossible to describe or categorize. Awesome, awesome chunk of slipstream/magic realism.

  •  The moral of the story boils down to this (20+ / 0-)

    the ends do not justify the means.   If a"perfect, just" society depends on the suffering of one individual, that society is morally corrupt regardless of how moral or just it is in other areas.

    I forget where I read this, but a great philosopher stated that the ends never justify the means because there are no ends, only what we are doing now.  Our actions today define who we are, not what we hope to do tomorrow.  

    Electing a Republican is like hiring a carpenter who thinks hammers are evil.

    by dotalbon on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:19:30 PM PST

    •  Aristotle taught we are what we repeatedly do (13+ / 0-)

      Thus, we cannot easily distinguish between ends and means. The means we choose define who we are, and choosing who we are is the end (purpose) of life.

      "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

      by Bill White on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:22:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Social scientists have a term for that (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Cassandra Waites

        it's called "Path Dependence." You make a choice, and it constrains the further choices you have available to you. As an analytical tool, it's great for predicting the arc of some social phenomenon or trend.

        But as a real-life thing, it plays out more like this: Make enough choices that keep the child in the cell, and it's nearly impossible to figure out how to undo those choices to get back to the point at which you could have freed the child.

        It sucks, frankly.

        Comfort the disturbed. Disturb the comfortable.

        by Killer of Sacred Cows on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 12:33:19 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  However, (6+ / 0-)

      it brings up a big question:  what's the alternative?  Where do they go?  Are they going to a world where a lot of people suffer and it's perfect for no one (ie, the real world)?  That's not a better alternative, IMO.

    •  Too pat (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Matt Z, JesusFists, rossl, tart tatine

      I don't think it has a pat moral, because it doesn't offer a real conclusion.  The diary has one thing wrong in its description, and that is that the place the people walk away to isn't said to be better than Omelas; it's merely said to be "indescribable".  We don't know what happens to them, at all-- maybe they are happier, maybe they pine for Omelas, maybe they suffer.  We don't know.

      So I think the story is written not to provide us with a completed moral, but for us to draw our own moral-- and that's entirely up to us.  There are some who would honestly accept the torture of that one child for the sake of the many other children who live happy lives.  They would draw a different moral from the story.

      It's hard to accept the premise that the child's suffering is necessary because there's no explanation, but it helps if one tries to make up an explanation.  Maybe a message from the future says that this child will become the next Hitler.  Maybe the child is genetically engineered so that its happiness releases a deadly plague.  Whatever you like.  With a more concrete causal link between the suffering and the utopia, perhaps it is easier to understand the dilemma.

      •  that was my one beef with the description too (0+ / 0-)

        In fact, the narrator could not possibly know that the destination of those leaving Omelas is in any way ideal - as she says in her second-to-last sentence, "It is possible that it does not exist."  That distinction really made me read the story in a different light than LithiumCola did, as the prudence of the emigrants' decision is left in doubt.  To me, the explanation of the final, titular theme resolved a completely different issue: whether such a perfect society could exist without a metaphorical safety valve to allow freedom to those unsatisfied with Omelas's bargain without allowing them to overturn the delicate status quo.  It would in essence provide for an opting out of the social contract, as Locke believed should be possible in any free society, but was necessarily limited by our nationality at birth.

        I realize that this makes the emigrants from Omelas look like potentially dangerous usurpers instead of courageous individualists, as they've been portrayed above.  I think the message to take away from my interpretation, though, is that societies that approach the ideal of Omelas could not arise as such through consensus, and moral calculus is not as clear-cut or universal as most people like to imagine.  In other words, what may indeed be perfect happiness for some is intolerable for others, so much that they leave everything they know and everyone they love to take an unknown journey to the far-off mountains and, perhaps, beyond.

        •  Two random thoughts (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Dragon5616

          whether such a perfect society could exist without a metaphorical safety valve to allow freedom to those unsatisfied with Omelas's bargain

          Somewhat tangential, but this reminds me of Huxley's Brave New World, which also features such a safety valve, in the form of exile for freethinkers.  While the book's primary society sounds rather horrible (though it's Utopic for most of its residents), the existence of that option keeps it from being an entirely dystopic vision like 1984.

          moral calculus is not as clear-cut or universal as most people like to imagine

          And that made me think of Godel's incompleteness theorem, which says that no mathematical system can be both complete and consistent.  Perhaps this story might be a demonstration of an equivalent version of moral law: that no moral system can be both complete and consistent.  Perhaps there IS no right way to deal with the child, there is no moral solution, and people can only deal with the situation the best they can.

          •  I'm currently teaching BNW (0+ / 0-)

            so I have been relating the story to it as well.

            But I think LeGuin is on a deeper level. I think LeGuin's premise is that happiness cannot exist without sadness (else how would we know we were happy?). The narrator cannot describe where the others go because the narrator cannot see a society with goodness and happiness that does not also contain (by necessity according to the premise she adopts) the obverse.

            The narrator does not deny such a place can exist but it is, in effect, in another dimension given the world view that with happiness must come suffering.

            As a student of the Tao, LeGuin would probably have seen happiness and suffering as inseparable.

            "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics." --FDR, 2nd Inaugural Address

            by Dragon5616 on Tue Jan 27, 2009 at 08:13:04 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  There Is Never Redemnption for Bad Acts (8+ / 0-)

    There is sometimes redemption for bad actors.

  •  What's wrong with our puppet regime in Kabul? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dotalbon

    No way should the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan be walking around a free man, and the spokesperson for people who were actually wrongfully imprisoned.

    -5.38/-3.74 We're currently in a sig interregnum. A siggie vacante, as it were.

    by Rich in PA on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:19:46 PM PST

  •  Story's Central Pt. is identical to Christianity (19+ / 0-)

    ...the central point of the Christian religion is that Christ died on behalf of everyone's sins, so that people who accepted Christ could be free and happily secure that their sins would be forgiven, and they would be assured of an afterlife that is similarly blissful to Omelas.

    The parallel with the story goes far deeper than just that that, however - as a central issue with the Christian religion is precisely, "can you believe this is really true? (another term for this is whether you are able to acquire and maintain "faith").

    I'm not posting this thought as any sort of religious proselytization, nor to be critical of the LeGuinn story as somehow unoriginal (it is at the very least an origional take on a similar theme).  Rather, it's to recognize that neither is the basic theme an origional one in our culture.

    •  Wow (5+ / 0-)

      I never thought of it that way.  That'll have me thinking all night...

      •  If we adopt the Christian world view (11+ / 0-)

        (and I do, with some free thinking stuff added in)

        It seems a rather basic premise that our salvation requires that Jesus (as a human being) suffer grievous torture and a cruel death. That said, our salvation also requires that we imitate Jesus and be willing to face our own Good Friday (perhaps in different degrees) so that we may come to our own Easter.

        = = =

        A variation on the story -- what if each citizen could "serve" a year (or a lifetime) in that dungeon and achieve the same result for the community?

        Who might choose to enter the torture room?

        "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

        by Bill White on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:29:26 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  What do you think volunteering for Iraq is? (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          AlanF, MeToo, Yamaneko2, Rick Winrod

          Unfortunately, the results are not necessarily as described in the user manual.

          "It's the planet, stupid."

          by FishOutofWater on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:59:56 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Jesus did choose to do so of free will. So, (10+ / 0-)

          is it to walk away from Omelas, or is it to walk to the center of Omelas and be there with the child?

          "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him. Mark 12:17

          by bkamr on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:34:36 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Three thoughts. (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          LihTox, bkamr, mojave sky

          That said, our salvation also requires that we imitate Jesus and be willing to face our own Good Friday (perhaps in different degrees) so that we may come to our own Easter.

          You have hit upon the difference between the Religious Right and what used to be the Christian mainstream.  From the viewpoint of Christianity starting from St. Paul going through Desmond Tutu and every Christian whose presence is a blessing to humanity, that requirement is not freethinking but the strictest orthodoxy.  

          A variation on the story -- what if each citizen could "serve" a year (or a lifetime) in that dungeon and achieve the same result for the community?

          The same result would not be achieved without extinguishing the concept of gratitude and perfection in treating PTSD that is as yet unknown.  The person who underwent the torture would, after his term, be recognized by all as one who made the sacrifice.  He and his brothers and sisters in the ordeal would share an experience that none others have endured.  The imprint of the torture would make him flinch, duck, cry or rage in ways that would mark him as strange and "other".  Introducing "the other" into such a society would probably be deadlier than re-introducing smallpox.  

          Finally, extend the compass of creatures who can suffer.  To the Catholic right, Omelas' torture reserved for the unborn who are aborted.  To animal-rights advocates, the intense suffering of animals submitted to painful experimentation, slaughter and the horrific operations of industrial farming is the torture.  Worse, is there a calculus that relates the suffering of humans to that of animals (or even plants)?

          2009: Year of the Donkey. Let's not screw it up.

          by Yamaneko2 on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:00:21 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  William James probably agreed with you (5+ / 0-)

      and his story (is that from which this story was derived). Per Wikipedia:

      "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (Variations on a theme by William James)

      "Seeing our planet as a whole, enables one to see our planet as a whole" - Tad Daley

      by Bill White on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:25:03 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  What does that make the people who walk (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dotalbon, rossl, Edgewater

      away, in your interpretation?  Non-christians?

      Space. It seems to go on and on forever. But then you get to the end and a gorilla starts throwing barrels at you. -- Fry, Futurama

      by LithiumCola on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:27:43 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  My comment is thematic parallel, not theological (7+ / 0-)

        ...and refers more to the dilemna of those still pondering whether a place like Omelas can be true (or whether the promise/sacrifice of Jesus Christ and consequences can be true)...not on what happens to those who decide either isn't possible.

        I'm just pointing out the basic parallel in themes and issues between the Omelas story and the essence of the Christ story, stripped of some other details.

      •  Beautifully written diary - thanks n/t (0+ / 0-)

        "The time for justice is always right now!" - Samantha Booke, Wiley College debate team, 1935

        by Edgewater on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:19:18 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Expanding the analogy (4+ / 0-)

        I don't think the analogy is the same because the child did not choose to suffer and Jesus did, plus the child suffers forever while Jesus suffered only a few hours.  I also don't think this is what LeGuin had in mind, at all, but that doesn't mean the metaphor isn't interesting in its own right.  

        Therefore... perhaps the people who stayed in Omelas are the Christians who look at Christ's sacrifice and feel a sense of relief, while the ones who walk away are the ones who look at the sacrifice and feel inspired.  There was a great story on This American Life about an evangelical pastor who stops believing in Hell, which makes the people around him wonder "Without Hell, what will keep people from behaving ethically?  What will keep people from coming to church?"  The sort of Christians who need the threat to Hell to keep them in line-- if we take Hell away-- are the ones who stay in Omelas.  But some Christians try to stay true to Christian teaching, not out of fear of punishment, but out of a sense of honor: if Christ will sacrifice himself for me, I need to repay the favor.  
        The people who leave Omelas know that they can't stop the child's suffering, but their sense of honor forbids them from taking advantage of it.  And maybe when they leave, they go in search of a way in which they can make their own sacrifice, in repayment of the debt.

        My apologies for the explicit Christianity here; I try to avoid doing so in public fora but the topic called for it.  As a universalist (i.e. a Christian who doesn't believe in Hell; small u because I'm not a Unitarian Universalist), I like to think I'm one of the ones who leave, but in reality I'm probably just one of the ones who thinks about leaving, maybe has a bag half-packed for the trip, but hasn't quite managed it yet.

        •  wow--I'll be thinking about this for DAYS (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          LihTox

          perhaps the people who stayed in Omelas are the Christians who look at Christ's sacrifice and feel a sense of relief, while the ones who walk away are the ones who look at the sacrifice and feel inspired.

          Politics is like driving. To go backward, put it in R. To go forward, put it in D.
          President Barack Obama. At last.

          by TrueBlueMajority on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 05:10:18 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  The problem I have with Christianity as a concept (7+ / 0-)

      is not whether the story of Christ's divinity is true(it may or may not be)but with the underlying moral message.  I think the notion that you can achieve redemption at the end of your life simply by saying "I'm sorry" to God, rather than atoning for your sins to those whom you have wronged, is convenient for the sinners but not moral in any human sense.

      Electing a Republican is like hiring a carpenter who thinks hammers are evil.

      by dotalbon on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:29:19 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I prefer to think of Christianity's concept as... (6+ / 0-)

        ...not that atonement isn't an important element, but rather that it wouldn't be sufficient without God extending grace.  That's what the theme of Christ's sacrifice is really all about - mankind is inherently sinful, but that can be forgiven through grace, because there doesn't exist any adequate measure of what is "sufficient" atonement.  But that doesn't mean that atonement is irrelevant or unimportant - without that effort, the other side of the message is that you probably aren't sincerely asking for God's grace.

        OK, now you've about exhausted the extent of my core Christian theology.  Again, I didn't intend this subthread to be one of proselytization, but rather to highlight the interesting strong parallels with LeGuin's story, even though there's no overt attempt (nor perhaps even intent) by LeGuin to tie the two together.

        •  I agree (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          TrueBlueMajority

          If you've lived your life wantonly under the impression that you'll be able to make a deathbed confessional and wipe the slate clean, then you're not going to be able to repent sincerely when the time comes.  Sure, you'll feel pretty sincere about wanting forgiveness because you're freaked out over dying, but you're not going to feel sincere regret if your entire life has been a con job against God.  But it is possible for someone to have genuine repentance late in life, even on one's deathbed, and if it's sincere regret then that is enough.

          Jesus talks plenty about serving other people, about doing right by them-- clearly he considered it to be important, and not something you can get out of on a technicality.  So do most Christians believe.

    •  they both draw from the scapegoat mythos (6+ / 0-)

      more here

      "This just can't get more disturbing!" - Willow

      by myriad on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:51:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Interesting shade of meaning. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        TrueBlueMajority, Matt Z

        I had suspected on reading this short story that those who wandered were lost to madness- released by the shock of seeing something that made no sense to them in their previous existence. Perhaps these people are the scapegoats- fully aware, and yet somehow perceived to be the damaged goods. Of course the real problem lies in the original condemnation- who or what began this sacrifice in the room? The most chilling line in the story, for me, was the ambiguity of whether the child was in a public building or a private residence.

        "In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the
        cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room."

        How could the narrator not know the precise location? That is not duality- that may be the insight of madness- the narrator may be one of the wandering few. In which case, per other posts on this thread, this is also a buddhist story as much as a christian or jewish story.

        The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution. Paul Cezanne

        by MeToo on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 08:19:31 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Interesting thought. (6+ / 0-)

      I suppose the difference a Christian (which I am not) might point to would be that Jesus supposedly chose his martyrdom, or at least accepted it? As opposed to an unwilling sacrifice. Plus it didn't last his entire life. So it was voluntary and temporary.

    •  the sacrificial lamb--the story of many (0+ / 0-)

      cultures and mythologies...

      Find your own voice--the personal is political.

      by In her own Voice on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:52:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  No Exit (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MeToo, bkamr, Dragon5616

      If you take the story to be the human condition and/or the condition of the human psyche in response to the imperfection of life and the existential pain of human suffering, then you might see that each of us suffers the loss of innocence (the torture, murder, abuse of innocence) in our experience of complicity in the sufferance of all.

      So the tortured child lives within each of us and there is no escape--as Sartre once proclaimed (No Exit).

      Find your own voice--the personal is political.

      by In her own Voice on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:03:06 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  No Man is an Island--as (0+ / 0-)

        painfully wrought by Hemingway...

        I sometimes think the post-war voices of those like Hemingway, Kerouac--those of the Beat Generation expressing such deep existential depression in their patterns of escape in alcohol and soul searching may have been a product of post-traumatic malaise following WWII and the horror of the atomic bomb's release of nuclear holocaust.

        Find your own voice--the personal is political.

        by In her own Voice on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:54:30 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  I read the story in college, and I remember (4+ / 0-)

        thinking that Omelas was a person, not a community, at all.  That there was a part of us that we mangle, lock away, think must be denied and hidden in order to be happy, or appear to be so.

        I don't quite read it that way, now, in middle age. It could be both.  What a terrific short story!

        "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him. Mark 12:17

        by bkamr on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 11:54:15 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  but the alleged Christ's sacrifice was voluntary (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Matt Z, Cassandra Waites, brein

      this is different from the involuntary suffering of innocents for the "good" of all.

      "I hope for peace and sanity-it's the same thing." Studs Terkel

      by cgirard on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:37:55 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Not really a freely "voluntary" sacrifice (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Matt Z

        ...I recall that the idea for Christ to sacrifice himself was not an idea he didn't come up with on his own initiative, but also a fate that was revealed to him by God over which he wasn't offered any option to refuse, as I recall.  It was more like, "this is the plan son, you might as well get on-board with it, cause that's how it's going to be for the good of all humanity on the world".  OK, so the New Testament doesn't use those words, but that's nonetheless a fair modern prosaic encapuslation thereof.

        •  Depends somewhat on who Jesus was (0+ / 0-)

          There are several schools of thought about Jesus: in some, he knows everything from the beginning because He is God.  In others, he starts off as a human being who becomes part of God.  In others, he starts off as God but in becoming human he becomes ignorant of his fate, until it is revealed to him.  Paul and the Evangelists each had their own conception of who Jesus was, and it colors what they write, so that the Bible supports all three interpretations in some parts.

          That said, even if the torture and death weren't Jesus' plan, he certainly had the option of avoiding them: when he's in the Garden at Gethsemane, he knows that they're coming for him, and he could have easily left at any time.  Or he probably could have assuaged the Sanhedrin when he was on trial: the witnesses are said to have given confused testimony, and it was only after Jesus "blasphemed" that they called for him to be put to death.

  •  Ursula K is a goddess; (13+ / 0-)

    she has always been one of my favorites, because she always makes me think (while entertaining me, and moving me with her beautiful prose).
    When I first read this story, it spoke to me of people's willingness to let others suffer, in order to preserve their own comfort.
    Guantanamo is a gigantic illustration of some Americans' willingness to let others suffer, in order that they don't have to be "scared."
    If Obama does nothing else during his tenure as President, he will have my undying gratitude for being brave enough to close Guantanamo and treat those that suffered/are suffering there with justice.

  •  Story reminds me a lot of The Lottery (18+ / 0-)

    by Shirley Jackson.  Also the kobold myth (featured in American Gods by Neil Gaiman).  

    She's making a point about happiness needing sadness, light needing darkness, beauty needing ugliness; but the choice to walk away is the interesting one.

    Healthy Minds in Healthy Bodies, now discussing fitness Tuesdays -- new day -- at 6 PM PST

    by indigoblueskies on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:25:27 PM PST

  •  It's too late for any of that (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    brein, dotalbon, polar bear

    Whatever "credbility" this country ever had was utterly destroyed a long time ago.

    In Wounded Knee.

    •  The power of redemption (6+ / 0-)

      We always like to carve up humanity into little sections like orange slices. Wounded Knee was horrible. All mass slaughters and betrayals of trust are horrible.

      Many tribes did as bad to each other. European soldiers carried their country's flags into battle against other European soldiers, much blood and suffering. African tribes sold members of rival tribes off as slaves.

      The history of humanity is full of conquest and blood, and incredible beauty and grace. It's only when we try to divide ourselves into Us and Them that we start to think in terms of good guys or bad guys.

      If we view America as finite, one separate space inhabited by people who can only repeat their own history, then you are right. It's hopeless.

      If we can find our way to the wider world, and embrace humanity in all of it's good and bad we can realize that it's not redemption that we need. We just need to learn from our mistakes and quit trying to seek redemption through them.

      They may call themselves Republican, I know a Dalek when I see one.

      by high uintas on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 08:04:48 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Most people outside the U.S... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      keirdubois, LihTox

      ...don't know about Wounded Knee.

      Besides, that was a completely different set of people than the people we are now.  Do we have credibility cooties from them or something?  This "too late" business is a big part of the problem.  If it's too late, we might as well just throw up our hands and go home (so to speak).  What do you suggest we do?

      The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

      by Panurge on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 09:39:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The worst thing about you being front paged, LC, (17+ / 0-)

    is the lack of a recommend button.  Now I gotta spell it out.

    Brilliant Essay.  Thanks, once again.

    Are we in the golden age of essays, btw?

    "Well, yeah, the Constitution is worth it if you can succeed." -Nancy Pelosi, 6/29/07.

    by nailbender on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:29:19 PM PST

  •  I've Always Wondered..... (21+ / 0-)

    The story has so many levels of ambiguity.

    Are "the ones that walk away" better people for refusing to be as cruel as those that accept & enjoy the happiness of such a system?

    Or are they just as bad, since they refuse to do anything to change a system that would torture a child, and just walk away from it?

    •  A very good point (5+ / 0-)

      and one I hadn't thought of.  

      Electing a Republican is like hiring a carpenter who thinks hammers are evil.

      by dotalbon on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:31:30 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Right (12+ / 0-)

      Perhaps "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" are those who promise to move to Canada if __ is elected.  ;)

      "Don't hope for a stronger America. Vote for one." - John McCain. And I did!

      by cartwrightdale on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:37:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I think they are better people. (9+ / 0-)

      I think this passage shows the moral ambiguity of either side of the coin:

      They would like to do something for the child.
      But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile
      place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were
      done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and
      be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in
      Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the
      chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

      With this passage, I'm not sure the message of the story is to say that releasing the child is the moral thing to do -- or even the right of any citizen -- which is why I'm not 100% sure it works as a perfect parallel for Gitmo, though I enjoyed the FP essay nonetheless.

      Is it right for any one citizen of Omelas to destroy the happiness of every other citizen, even through a good act? A tough question.

      Perhaps if everyone walked away, if everyone themselves chose a new fate, the child could be free. That's what I've always imagined; that if everyone followed those who walked away from Omelas, the wound would be healed, the child freed, and the wrong righted. If that makes any sort of sense.

      •  WWJD? (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Matt Z, bkamr, Cassandra Waites

        I'm an atheist, but I admire Jesus the philosopher. I think Jesus would have brought the child up out of the dungeon, happiness be damned. He left the 99 to save the one. He shook up life in the Temple.

        Of course, Jesus was never as concerned with happiness as he was goodness.

        "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics." --FDR, 2nd Inaugural Address

        by Dragon5616 on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 08:32:03 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  An interesting thought. (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Matt Z, Dragon5616

          My point was more that it was not neccesarily the right of any singular citizen in Omelas to free the child, but perhaps is moral only if it's collective, that the only individual choice is to walk away. That's what I've always gotten from the story, personally.

          The Jesus story is either highly incredible or quite fictionalized at parts, hanging on the crux of one man (or God/man), but it's the story of an individual. To me, Omelas isn't the story of an individual; it's not about individuals at all.

          Not sure if that makes any sense, so perhaps I shouldn't try to do literary analysis before having my coffee.

  •  See Colbert at 3:15 (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Compound F, dotalbon, kevin k

    "The first Republican who cries "Wolverines!" on the House or Senate floor has to be considered the front-runner for the 2012 Iowa caucus." JF on TPM

    by Inland on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:30:09 PM PST

  •  Powerful diary. (15+ / 0-)

    And this sentence is one of the most chilling in literature: "Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery."

  •  I have yet to read this story... (12+ / 0-)

    ...but I would very much like to.  "The Dispossessed" is one of my favorite novels.

    Your piece makes me think of a vision I had when I was a child.  I dreamed I was secure, happy, and safe, and the dream terrified me.  It took me more than a decade to understand that dream and what it meant to me: it meant that happiness is not the same as right, and that secure is not the same as honest.

    I don't know to explain it: I am a happy person, but I am happy in my anger, my rage and my willingness to fight.  In my dream, all of that was gone-- I was just happy, but I wasn't me.

    Weird.  Hadn't thought about that in years.

    "Nice to meet you, Rose Tyler. Run for your life!"

    by juliewolf on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:35:41 PM PST

  •  This is one of the most (14+ / 0-)

    profound essays I have read at this site.

    It truly escapes me that people who profess to believe in freedom and democracy on the one hand, can condone torture on the other.

    Thank you so much for writing this and bringing this story to the forefront.

  •  Dude! I don't think you remember Vietnam. (15+ / 0-)

    US killed millions of Vietnamese. What we have done and are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan is not even close to what we did in Vietnam.

    "but to find a way to redeem it in the eyes of the world"

    A nation can never "redeem" itself for a Vietnam. It can tell the truth of what happened. That is the most important thing.  Consider the approach of Germany to its war crimes vs. Japan. Germany admitting them, offering restitution for them vs. Japan which denies them angering those in China and Korea who suffered the most.

    Also, I don't think you quite get the punch line in Omelas.  You think it refers to torture when it refers more likely to the fact that the good life in the US necessarily comes at the expense of a very terrible life in countries that supply us with necessities of our good life.

    Working that back to the Middle East, the "children in the room" are the Palestinian children we see on TV every now and then. They are the girls getting acid thrown in the their faces because the princes of the theocracies we support feel little girls should not learn to read or write or have a hope of a good life.

    Do we walk away from our easy life and spend $50,000 for cars to run on hydrogen instead of running on the backs of Palestinian children literally in dark rooms in Gaza?

    That's the question Omelas

    •  I certainly agree that (13+ / 0-)

      the question posed by Omelas has broader scope.  No argument there.

      Space. It seems to go on and on forever. But then you get to the end and a gorilla starts throwing barrels at you. -- Fry, Futurama

      by LithiumCola on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:41:13 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  A few points... (0+ / 0-)
      1.  The girls were in Afghanistan, not Palestine, IIRC.  Whether the U.S. has troops in Afghanistan has no bearing on that.
      1.  How many South Vietnamese were killed by the North Vietnamese, and vice versa?  The U.S. certainly didn't do all of the killing there.
      1.  Personally, I think we could have a perfectly good life and a just economy.  I mean, that's how much money there is at the top, y'know?  Unfortunately, we consumers don't have any say regarding how the money we pay for the things we buy is distributed--and that's why employees need to have a controlling interest of some sort in corporations.
      1.  AIUI, LC's diary acknowledges your point, but ultimately says it may go deeper, into whether the premise of Omelas itself is "believable".  Maybe LC's point is this:  We're being asked to accept an Omelas-like explanation for our situation, but how can we do that if we're not even getting what we're supposed to be getting?

      The '60s were simply an attempt to get the 21st Century started early....Well, what are we waiting for? There's no deadline on a dream!

      by Panurge on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 10:27:59 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  it reminds me of those statistical studies of (6+ / 0-)

    behavioural psychology where volunteers are persuaded to inflict more and more pain though whatever means trhe experiment dictates, way beyind the threshold that logically they have been taught that human beings can tolerate, because they allow themselves to be persuaded by their handlers that it is in the best interests of the majority.

    The capacity of human beings to believe what they are told and taught is in their best self interest appears to me beyond comprehension.

  •  Beautifully put. (5+ / 0-)

    I read that story long ago, and strongly reccommend Ursula LeGuin to anyone who has not read her, yet. "The Dispossessed" was my favorite book for years, and is still in my top five.

  •  LeGuin's story makes me recall that child in that (9+ / 0-)

    "stinking outhouse" in The Brothers Karamazov,
    that child that represents the loss of faith in Ivan Karamazov, and the one that Ivan uses to rebuke the saintly Alyosha. It brings tears to my eyes.

  •  "Pro-lifers" torture children in confinement (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z, brein, polar bear

    "Animal Farm" lives on...

    Well? Shall we go? Bush - the proud arsehole of America.

    by whenwego on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:42:17 PM PST

  •  wonderful to see this on the front page (8+ / 0-)

    Le Guin is one of my true and few heroes. I think without question he's one of the greatest living writers,full stop.

    I'm hanging out for the paperback release of Lavinia here in Oz; in the meantime I've just finished reading her latest trilogy for 'young adults
    (aka everyone) - "Gifts", "Voices" and "Powers".

    The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas quite literally changed my life when I first read it at 13.

    all through my life, Le Guin more than anyone else has taught me more about being human, what it means to strive to be a moral, ethical and compassionate human being; and why we are so good at destroying societies that treasure those values above all others.

    "This just can't get more disturbing!" - Willow

    by myriad on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:44:22 PM PST

  •  Great post! (6+ / 0-)

    It reminds me of a similar story - Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in which someone is chosen to be stoned to death in order to avoid a calamity - you are never told what that calamity is as I recall.  Fundamentalists hate that story!

    I think that torture has no place in civilize society, lest we become the same as our adversaries.  We are better than that - we should follow or better angels on this one.  As to the "Jack Bauer" moment, well I think that if some interrogator comes into such a situation (unlikely except on TV or in movies!) they should make their own judgment and take the consequences.  If they indeed did save thousands they would surly be pardoned by the president.  Giving agents carte blanche allows people to do torture and take no consequences if they are wrong. This is an invitation to the worst kinds of abuses.  However, I have yet to be convinced that torture works even in such hypothetical situations and that information gained by torture can be trusted.  And I am male!!  I just don't drink the junior G-man Kool Aid like G. Gordon Liddy did!

  •  I knew that was it... (10+ / 0-)

    I knew there would be a catch to the story.  The idea that we must have "bad" with the "good" is a lie.  So deep-seated is our despair, our "original sin" if you like, that nearly everyone on earth believes that we cannot have only good.  We think we cannot have good without bad, but I've seen lots of babies, human and non-human, whose sleep was pure, whose smiles came from such peace...long before they had a chance to learn despair.  I don't believe this is balance, this universal idea that we can't have one without the other.  I believe it is the seat of ego's calamity, that part of us that insists we are separate and separated selves, isolated from one another.  

    That's a lie, too.  We are entering a new way of being, and the election of Barack Obama is part of it.  

    Don't take my word for it.  Look inside yourselves.  We need not continue the old ways...I can't say more.  Read my diaries.  Sorry, I got upset.  

    "There are great men and women who go unknown. Their contemporaries ignore them." --Seth.

    by wewhodream on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 05:47:05 PM PST

  •  Too bad this is on the front page (6+ / 0-)

    I wanna rec it. Fabulous post, fabulous story. Ursula is one of my favorites. Thanks.

  •  culturally specific logics (8+ / 0-)

    Why should that be, though? Why does the logic of perfect happiness dictate that there be such a room, such a child? Is this a point about human nature or a point about the believability of the stories we as humans tell, and is there a difference?

    I am always struck by how quickly pattention to these issues can move from a culturally specific context to a universalizing focus on "human nature."

    I think this is part of the specific culture's own logics. It does not exist as specific or limited or particular to itself. It is supposed to be universal. In its own self-referential logics, it is at least the most advanced and best and "modern" etc etc, so its logics must come from "human nature" rather than its own specific (and IMO diseased/distorted) context.

    The specific culture I am speaking of is the European cultural system, which is not specific only to Europe at this time and most certainly includes the United States.

    This cultural system has a core of disconnection, domination and control. From its logics comes a global system in which any sort of well-being for some is built on horrors for others. This is  real situation. It is also a specific situation from a particular cultural system's violently aggressive prevalence on this planet at this time.

    I think the idea of the story is that the narrator cannot violate the logic of human happiness, which requires a price, a flip-side. Our very conception of happiness, perhaps, has built into it a notion of the impossibility of perfection.

    Again, I see a culturally required confusion here between a culturally specific situation and some imagined universal "logic of human happiness." If we can normalize the specific and twisted core logics of this cultural system, pretend that it is not making this disease but rather the disease is so normal as to be the way things are, then the sickness of this cultural system's specific logics -- and wellspring of the horrors their lived realities -- are protected from scrutiny.

    All of this is enough to make you wonder how the very way we think has been twisted by the war on terror. Have we gotten to a place where we cannot imagine "safety" or "peace" without a prisoner in a room, somewhere? Worse, "happiness"?

    This is literally how this system operates at its deepest and broadest layers. We can pretend that it goes away with Guantanamo's end, but it is not so simple. Who suffers for some in this country to have a "good life"? Where do the worst of the actual poisons go, for example and who is affected? Who hurts (and/or dies) so we can have the things we buy, even the necessities? How did this land come to be "the United States" in the first place? What species are hurting and dying right now from this way of life?

    Too easy to see this as just Guantanamo. I don't know what Ms. LeGuin meant to say, but that story to me shows the disease of a cultural system that gives us this calculus to begin with.

    LeGuin's narrator finds she can't describe what is outside of this horror. I am not surprised. It is very nearly impossible to speak of that kind of thing in this cultural language.

    The task before us is not to walk away from this Omelas we have constructed, but to find a way to redeem it in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes the children we held there.

    Interesting and oddly fitting end to the essay. Apparently, the task before us is not to stop the horror wherever it is, however it might make us "look" or feel or lose to do that. It is, instead, to "redeem" this thing in the eyes of others.

    Trying to affect others' perception of us has  likely always been part of the European cultural project in dealing with others; this task set before us at the end itself appears to be part of the culturally specific logics.

    •  Excellent response, thank you. (8+ / 0-)

      Yes, you're right that I conflated the culturally specific concepts of justice, happiness, and so on, with "human nature."  I tried on occassion to be clear that I meant the "the cultural logic of late capitalism" or something like that, but I slipped back into "human nature."

      I did not take myself to be describing a cosmetic project of redemption, at the end. I took myself primarily to be asking about the concepts themselves.  But I can see how it reads as you say.

      Space. It seems to go on and on forever. But then you get to the end and a gorilla starts throwing barrels at you. -- Fry, Futurama

      by LithiumCola on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:01:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I wouldn't worry too much ;-) (9+ / 0-)

        the power of Le Guin IMHO lies in her fundamental grasp of cultural paradigms and how they effect each and every one of us in our understanding and recognition of what is human.

        So if she's got you talking about 'human nature' that's exactly what she is aiming for, because it means she's made you think about all those fundamental definitions from within your and my cultural paradigm. There's no doubt in my mind that she certainly aimed her story at her own culture, and was asking a very pointed and painful series of questions, which to me at any rate boil down to one: - not what, but who are you willing to sacrifice for your own happiness? -

        "This just can't get more disturbing!" - Willow

        by myriad on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:06:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  *nod* (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Matt Z

        I did not take myself to be describing a cosmetic project of redemption, at the end.

        I hear you.

        It's just that so often that is where things go in this culture's actual practice on stuff like this.

        Thank you very much for the reply (all of it)!

    •  All life is suffering (9+ / 0-)

      That common paraphrase of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism should suffice to show that these notions aren't limited to the European culture sphere.

      And in the story of the life of Buddha we find out what one man did and thought, who walked away from his own Omelas, once he found out what had been hidden from him.

      •  not what I am actually talking about (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        myriad

        All life is suffering

        That common paraphrase of the First Noble Truth of Buddhism should suffice to show that these notions aren't limited to the European culture sphere.

        Just to be clear: this is not what I am talking about in my original comment.

    •  I know of another society... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cassandra Waites

      There was once the story of society of people who lived in perfect peace with themselves and their environment in a beautiful place.  They had plenty of food and enough clothing and shelter, and no desire for anything else.  

      The price was coming to the temple when the air-raid siren sounded to get slaughtered by the Morlocks

      We pity the Eloi, but envy the residents of Omelas, even though the Omelas had to live with the knowledge of their original sin and perhaps the guilt.

      2009: Year of the Donkey. Let's not screw it up.

      by Yamaneko2 on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:11:06 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  William James, Dostoyevski... (9+ / 0-)

    The scapegoat theme is strong in humans... Indeed, Biblical. My personal theory was mentioned recently in yet another of my recent adventures exploring my former umbilical cord, and subsequent obsessions with happiness as some sort of measurable quantities:

    Maybe happiness was something seductively plump that shrank, a decrease in the total available happiness. Perhaps Matt Taibbi was on to something when he dissected Thomas Freidman's graphing abilities with the theory that happiness correlates with the size of Valerie Bertinelli's ass. More seriously, and perhaps more likely, David Foster Wallace might have been onto a grand-unified happiness theory that turned out to be a Medusa.

    All theories, once scrutinized, seem like Lego representations in an anti-aliased world.

    Eight years of George Bush have taught me one thing: ethics are now rough, dry shit stuck in the throes of prescription-induced constipation that make Bill Clinton's lapses look like laxatives. Oh, sure, we talk high and mighty about justice, but there is no justice when the high and mighty are involved. We have plenty of punishment for drug addicts, shoplifters, and burglars. But the torturing, mass-murdering, robber barons took over the executive branch walked away very much alive and free, with pallets of I-just-paid-cash-for-this happiness.  One of my complex ontologies theorizes that there's only so much happiness in the world, and the Cheney people have drained the water table (and sullied the rest). How to simplify that...?

    Those people just screamed "Fuck You!" while they fucked you. Kinda screws your whole decade.

    The problem with any scapegoat is that they're innocent. This country was built on the legal idea that it's better for 10 guilty men to go free than for one innocent one to be wrongly imprisoned. Conservatives have always thought that was backwards. Hell, even some liberals, in times of peril, have (Japanese internment camps during WWII, which Elenor Roosevelt was very angry at her husband about). I still hear liberals (brainwashed by 24, of course) say so.

    The other driving principle here is that the constitution (or civil liberties in general) should not apply to non-citizens. This kind of pre-emptive sorting, or dehumanizing, makes it much easier to treat other humans as less than humans, and dehumanization is the first step toward controlling a class of "others."

    We must apply the rights of our constitution to all people, perhaps even to other species to some extent, if we ever wish to find this inconceivable place where the people go when they leave Omelia..

  •  Beautiful piece. (8+ / 0-)

    One of the best I've read here.  Thank you.

  •  Slightly OT: Weird, weird, weird (7+ / 0-)

    I took a forensics class 25 years ago and one of the forensics students recited this story for a competition. I have not thought about this story since then. UNTIL YESTERDAY. I started looking all over the net for it. Unfortunately, I had the name wrong. And now, here it is.

  •  extremely well thought out & (0+ / 0-)

    written.  thanks.

  •  thought provoking stuff. (9+ / 0-)

    I can only say we are a long, long way from any measure of redemption.

    On a different note, I still can't "believe in" Omelas, even with the suffering child, because I can't imagine how that would transubstantiate the nature of the humans living in Omelas such that they might act any differently than "normal."  For example, what would be left in a human if you removed the seven deadly sins?  Lust and anger are obviously adaptive under some conditions.  Gluttony is great when meals are unpredictable.  Pride in oneself can be a good thing, too.  Sloth is a real time-saver.  And so on.  Transubstantiation strikes me not just as myth, but as even undesirable, compared to, say, the judicious (and just) deployment of our inborn tendencies.

    We don't have time for short-term thinking.

    by Compound F on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:33:27 PM PST

  •  Bravo! Well said... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z

    When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

    by choco38 on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:36:20 PM PST

  •  GREAT.... (0+ / 0-)

    now I've got guilt.

    adm

    honi soit qui mal y pense

    by admadm on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 06:39:35 PM PST

  •  If Good Things Would Just Happen To Good People (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lirtydies, MeToo, Matt Z, Dragon5616

    All too often our good intentions end in horror - in fact my idea of "horror" is when good intention and hard work end in tragedy. This what crushes the human spirit.

    If you rescue abused animals, you end up having a sickly animal bond with you then having it die in your arms a few days later. This is horror.

    Even if evil were never punished, it would be enough if good works never ended in tragedy.

    •  sad but not horrible for the animal (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Matt Z, bkamr

      who at least died in the care and safety you provided.

      That is all we truly have to give: compassion, love, kindness. They come from good. You gave well. You need not judge the rest... it is out of your hands.

      Our cat recently died. He was my friend for almost half my life: nearly 19 years. The Vet sent a card:

      "grieve not, nor speak of me with tears, but laugh and talk of me as if I were beside you. I loved you so... Twas heaven here with you." Isla Paschal Richardson

      Peace to you, Good Man.

      The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution. Paul Cezanne

      by MeToo on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 09:12:10 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think LeGuin isn't even convinced. (5+ / 0-)

    How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! but I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you.

    I think her tongue is firmly dug into her cheek. She doesn't think they were wise or ultimately mature adults, and she hopes she cannot convince you that they were. That's the only way the story makes sense to me.

    John McCain: no health insurance for kids.

    by AlanF on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:08:00 PM PST

  •  Beautiful (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MeToo, Matt Z, Dragon5616, BillyElliott

    "Literature" has a lot to teach us and I'm glad to see you using it so elegantly on the front page of DailyKos.  You really helped me connect the personal and the political in a meaningful way...  

    "If you can't lower heaven, raise hell!" - Mother Jones

    by al ajnabee on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:10:27 PM PST

  •  Lyrical and then some diary! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lirtydies, Dragon5616

    Will now make it a point to reread LeGuin.  She was one of my favorites years ago.  

  •  Wow... (5+ / 0-)

    I love that short story, but I never in a million years would have thought to draw the comparisons you did.  Yet it is so glaringly obvious.

    Excellent, excellent article.

    Another straight person for gay rights.

    by Coilette on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:18:09 PM PST

  •  Walking away (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lirtydies, Matt Z, bkamr, Cassandra Waites

    from Omelas is necessary and right. Not a single imprisoned person in Guantanamo will be released into "quiet American neighborhoods" and if anyone in the  GOP really believes that, well they can stay in Omelas. Gitmo is wrong, it was always wrong, and the price we pay for being unconditionally just will not be terrorism. When will the warhawks realize this?

    When I read the Earthsea series a time ago, I thought I would go mad from the beauty of Le Guin's words. Besides Middle Earth "before the Fall", Earthsea is the place I wish I could visit.

    Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.

    by crose on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:18:49 PM PST

  •  Thank you, LC! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z, Cassandra Waites, Dragon5616

    I knew there was a reason you were on the front page.
    This parable really makes me want to grab my students and ask them, how can you not see what we're all going through when we're surrounded by cautionary tales, Cassandras, oracles, fables, and signs that we're going the wrong way? How can we possibly think anything is worth Guantanamo and black sites and spying and torture?
    The Right has given up on this country. I'll take my chances with letting the kid in the room go.

    Don't make first Grandma Robinson whip out the wooden spoon!

    by noabsolutes on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:34:50 PM PST

  •  Not to double-comment, but the ll to MLK: (4+ / 0-)

    In his last speech in support of the sanitation workers' strike, MLK reinterpreted the story of the good Samaritan. He said that many people passed him by, thinking "If I stop to help him, what will happen to me?" But they were asking the wrong question; the question is, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

    Keeping detainees in secret prisons, throwing people we don't like or just allowing arbitrary detentions whether we know the person is guilty or not-- which is what this system does-- isn't breaking a few eggs to make an omlette. It's like breaking a few eggs to make an Omelas. It's relying on the abject misery of some to keep us "safe." From what?

    Don't make first Grandma Robinson whip out the wooden spoon!

    by noabsolutes on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:48:03 PM PST

  •  Wow. Just Wow. I immediately thought (4+ / 0-)

    of the Shirley Jackson construct in The Lottery and did not previously know of this piece. What an singularly emphatic literary slap upon authoritarians.

    You may have just made me pick up fiction, where I left off, 20-odd years ago.

    And turning to our present predicament, we must not let the shades of fear haunt our better angels, for our greatest hope forward is forgiveness as available to the wrongly accused and white-hot justice where deserved. Regardless that the tangle of data on detainees wraps into several agencies, we need to bring them here, and we need to let the next best human construct to truth hold forth. We need the law, as intended by our nation founded on laws, prevail.  

  •  thank you LC for giving us a chance (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wader, Dragon5616

    to think and feel beneath the surface of things.

    Find your own voice--the personal is political.

    by In her own Voice on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 07:55:50 PM PST

  •  Thanks for this article. I read the story (5+ / 0-)

    years ago and have never forgotten the impact.  Thanks to all the people making comments.  This is one of the most thought-provoking forums (?) I've seen on Daily Kos.  

  •  I suppose that many of us have been guilty of (6+ / 0-)

    being the ones who walk away, or even feeling the guilt of such due to what has so often felt like well-meaning, but otherwise impotent struggles against awfulness of the past eight (or 30) years.

    And, most of us still buy cheap crap from China.  But, the Obama run has begun to sensitize us again to the power in regaining dignity for all, not just a few or ourselves.

    I have a new author to follow, thank you.

    "So, please stay where you are. Don't move and don't panic. Don't take off your shoes! Jobs is on the way."

    by wader on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 08:04:44 PM PST

  •  I live less than 35 miles from Butner yet didn't (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LithiumCola, Matt Z, bkamr, brein, Dragon5616

    know this:

    Keeping in mind that Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the man connected to the 1993 bombing of the world trade center, and the man who actually called for attacks on American soil should he die while in prison, is being held in North Carolina,

    As for Omelas, the logic of the story already made it clear that it would pay a huge price for letting the kid go; it wouldn't be perfect any more.  The question of forgiveness is entirely moot in that context, since the city is already undergoing a huge punishment.  As for the child, he COULDN'T just go-- he wasn't equipped, he wasn't educated; he could barely function.  Somebody would have to take him into ANOTHER small room -- a hospital room, or a classroom -- and the prison analogies THERE would CONTINUE.

    As for America, the basic Republican talking point is that even the INNOCENT can't be freed from Guantanamo because THEY are the ones whose UNLAWFUL MIS-treatment has left them ANGRY enough to BECOME terrorists against us.  The guilty are the ones who already had other reasons and had already acted on them.

    The road to hell has not YET been paved with Republicans, but it SHOULD be -- Corrected BumperSticker

    by ge0rge on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 08:10:29 PM PST

  •  Great, great post, LC. A keeper. n/t (0+ / 0-)

    "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics." --FDR, 2nd Inaugural Address

    by Dragon5616 on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 08:58:45 PM PST

  •  Not trying to be snarky (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    phaedras

    but i haven't read anything on the main page this good in ages, the diaries are what usually knock me out here at Dkos.

    Great job, brilliantly done!

  •  Perfect. (8+ / 0-)

    This was my favourite post ever. Amazing job, LC, giving us both LeGuin and your insight.

    Sorry, I just had to reply. I'm an English major and I have to chime in on conversations like this. I miss school terribly.

    So here's how I read the story:

    LeGuin goes to great pains to emphasize that even though the people of Omelas depend upon the suffering of the child for their happiness, that in no way implies that their happiness is somehow false. The way it's presented in the story, happiness is a subjective state of mind rather than a Utopian ideal. It is a gut reaction rather than an intellectual satisfaction. It is the happiness of a first kiss, of a child being born, of being in the company of good friends. No matter how terrible the people of Omelas may feel about the plight of the child - and the story explicitly states that many of them do feel terrible about it - they are unwilling to forego the happiness available to them if they can live with things as they are: The child in the room. The people up above.

    The ones who walk away are the ones willing to embrace an uncertain future, an uncertain path, because they will not compromise their principles for what they see as an unjust situation. Which might sound like an easy enough decision to some, until you try to decide what exactly qualifies as a just situation. Chances are, due to complexities of history and human interaction, every circumstance you will ever find yourself will have involved treachery or unkindness or cruelty at some point. The past is alive: dig deep enough and, sooner or later you'll draw blood. So, with that in mind, how strongly do you adhere to your principles? Strongly enough that you'll willingly forego any form of happiness, so as to not be a party to the slightest hint of injustice?

    That's the central dilemma of the story, in my view. What can we live with? What are we willing to compromise? Because examining both ends of the spectrum - happiness and principle - I think you'll find that both require great sacrifices.

    What can we live with?

    May your anger be righteous.

    by bottlerocketheart on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 10:18:55 PM PST

  •  Perhaps those who left went "elsewhere" (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z, Cassandra Waites, brein

    Which is a reference to Lois Lowry's The Giver, a book that reflects this story as well.  It's a children's book that is usually taught in sixth or seventh grade, and it is also about life in a perfect village, until one boy begins to see and understand how that perfection is attained.

    I read it as an adult, and consider it the best parenting book I've ever read.  We all want to create perfect and loving worlds for our children, but in order to do so, what do we have to pretend does not exists.

    For all those people who were happy in Omelas, they were happy after they new about the child, and with the knowledge that there was always going to have to be another child in the future, someone's child.

    Perhaps they were happy because the knew.  It wasn't a secret, there's no other secret.  Maybe they are happy because one child in a closet is all that's needed to achieve it?

    "You don't ever want a crisis to go to waste. It's an opportunity to do important things you would otherwise avoid." Rahm Emanuel

    by Im nonpartisan on Sun Jan 25, 2009 at 10:24:25 PM PST

    •  Doing the right thing is its own reward. Gitmo (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Matt Z, Cassandra Waites

      must close and the Iraq War must end.  And, whether that will or will not have an effect on our future safety doesn't matter.

      But, I think you have it about right.  There wouldbe many who would agree that it would be a terrific deal.

      "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were amazed at Him. Mark 12:17

      by bkamr on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 12:36:15 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  GREAT POST (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TrueBlueMajority, Matt Z

    Literature begets literature.

  •  Wow (3+ / 0-)

    Thanks to the Kossacks who provided links, I just read the story.

    Wow.

    It is so simple, so clear, so direct.

    Wow.

    "Nice to meet you, Rose Tyler. Run for your life!"

    by juliewolf on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 12:45:50 AM PST

  •  I got angry the first time I read that story (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z, brein

    because it seemed to be turning a three-way choice into a dichotomy: why would the only choices be "stay and put up with it" or "leave"? What happened to "stay and fix it", the only option I could ever see myself choosing?

    It's still a terrific story, however, and one which has stuck with me.

    As for your question about forgiveness? Doesn't it begin the moment regret does, the moment the people of Omelas realise that what they're doing shouldn't be done? I suspect that it would take them longer to forgive themselves, once they'd hit that realisation, than it would take me to forgive them.

    •  It is not a three-way choice unless... (0+ / 0-)

      Britkid, it appears that you really want for there to be a three-way choice in the story-situation.

      It is not a three-way choice unless you succeed in the difficult task of making it so.  Furthermore, from the viewpoint of society, just staying and opposing the situation does not create a third choice.  Allow me to explain.  

      As I read it--and as I understand how society works--when you start thinking very differently from the group, and when you let others know about your opinions, you leave the society, whether you remain physically present or not.

      In other words, if you chose to "stay and fix it", you would still be leaving the society to exist as an insane person does--as an outsider. The dissenter, like the lunatic, becomes an "other", and is considered "not part of us".  The people of the society try to prevent the entry of the new idea into their consciousness because it feels dangerous and threatens the status quo. As a danger to society, you may be imprisoned, hospitalized, expelled, or killed.

      I'm glad you commented because it started me wondering about how one gets from an "us vs them" dichotomy to a situation with more than two choices.  

      How does one get the members of a society to think about a new concept that potentially threatens their view of the world, and threatens the foundations upon which their society has been built?

      IMO, until a few members of the society allow the new ideas into their consciousness, the bearer of new ideas remains a dangerous,crazy outsider who obviously does not understand how things really are.

      I don't know any simple or sure way to convince someone to allow a strange and dangerous idea to enter their mind, but learning to do just that seems to me to be one of the fundamental reasons for the existence of this website and blog.

       

      Bush hijacked the US with lies about 9/11 and crashed it into Iraq, killing over 500,000 human beings. So far, he's avoided arrest and prosecution.

      by Zydekos on Sat Jan 31, 2009 at 04:59:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interpretations (4+ / 0-)

    I've always loved Omelas.  I'm an atheist who has never liked the idea of original sin, so the Christian interpretation of the story rings true for me.

    The Gitmo reading is also insightful -- it is the horrible symbol of everything we have been told we need to do to keep ourselves safe and protect our beautiful homeland.

    More than that, though, I think Omelas symbolizes all of the compromises we make to have an easy life.  Uncompromising idealism pretty much requires being a hermit, a subsistence farmer.  Because living any other kind of life requires doing things you don't like, benefiting from unfairness.  So it's pretty much a question of where on the scale you want to be -- if you want to be as righteous as you can, or if you want to blithely ignore the injustice in the world, or somewhere in between.

    There is so much unfairness in our world that even if you devote your entire life to righting it, you can barely make a dent as an individual.  That is in large part why I'm interested in politics, but that's another story...

  •  Ideals (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Matt Z, Cassandra Waites

    As Ms. Le Guin herself suggests in a later commentary, all the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of "probable causes of future experience". So ideal of "justice for all" as "probable cause of future experience" of justice for all is a noble ideal. An unburdening of the American conciousness from the darkness of the "stone age" practices of the last administration is what Americans will get by shuttering GITMO.  

  •  Wow. Just...Wow. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TrueBlueMajority, Matt Z

    What a powerful & profound diary.  The subject of the diary is critical. And your writing style is excellent.

  •  the broken mold of Omelas (0+ / 0-)

    many a mold i've tryed to fit for what i believed,i would get.in forms of view i'd take hold of it in all that's what confirms each,and every big,and small of it!and in the process i have found swept under rugs heaps of broken mold pieces,on the ground.it's okay to conform,and take from sociatal Q's.if applied equally as news,to all who have views.

  •  My 13-yr-old son ... (0+ / 0-)

    ... made me read this story recently. Thank you for bringing it back to my attention in such an important and well-thought-out way. To redeem the Omelas we have constructed in the eyes of the children ... well, now you've made me cry.

  •  always loved this story (0+ / 0-)

    read it in high school, and I probably still think of it a few times a year. Great allegory for all sorts of things, including Gitmo.

  •  Our support for Afghanistan is more relevant (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Remain calm
    Or rather our support for the war ON Afghanistan.

    People here, at this "center left" site, in a supposedly "center left" country still feel that it's totally unquestionably the right thing to do. As if we have some moral right to bomb all possible religious nuts in Afghanistan, you know, because they were all in on 911. And because we care about women's rights, it's the progressive thing to do, cluster bombs (Hillary supports their use) and depleted uranium. Toys for when the kids grow up, trust me when i say that the Pentagon thinks ahead on some things.

    Gitmo is the tip of the iceberg.    
           

  •  hot damn (0+ / 0-)

    this is one of the best pieces I have ever read on this site, Lithium Cola.

    I have loved that short story for many years, and your take on it, connecting it to current events and Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is nothing short of superb.

    I also want to echo what dewtx said:

    ... they may have simply been told over a long period of time that their good fortune will end if the child is freed...  But how do they know? Have they just been told that for so long by some ancient authority from the depths of time? Maybe it's a just myth, but one that they're now unwilling or uncourageous enough to question; that it just seems too dangerous or difficult to challenge the status quo.

    LeGuin is brilliant, and so is this diary.  Excellent, LC!!!

    Politics is like driving. To go backward, put it in R. To go forward, put it in D.
    President Barack Obama. At last.

    by TrueBlueMajority on Mon Jan 26, 2009 at 05:08:00 PM PST

  •  Leaving Omelas for a "Better Place"? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LithiumCola

    Thank you for bringing this wonderful story to my attention. The metaphorical parallel to Guantanamo is clear. I have found myself reconsidering the story several times over the past few days.

    I have one problem with your interpretation of where people go when they walk away from Omelas. You say,

    As the narrator describes the people who decline the bargain, she mentions the place to which these people go. It is a better place than Omelas; she says, almost in passing, "I cannot describe it at all."

    I believe that it is your opinion that those who leave Omelas go to a better place. I think that I agree with you, but my reading of the ending did not give me any clue as to whether the place they are going is better, worse, or is death or nothingness.  She says,

    They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.

    To me, the ending leaves the question open.  When I first read it, I thought of death, then of maturity and one of its hallmarks being that one is able to experience and contain contrary feelings at the same time.  Then I thought of enlightment.

    To me, her statement that "sometimes a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home"

    suggests that leaving Omelas is preceded by a period of reflection and increased awareness of what is really going on in Omelas. Leaving, which is always done alone, is similar to independent thought.

    I think she is suggesting that thinking differently from the majority, or being truly awake, is necessary to personal growth, but that it isolates one from society.

    The enlightenment is a good thing, though it may make one's life a lot harder.

    So thanks again for the diary and the intellectual stimulation.

    Bush hijacked the US with lies about 9/11 and crashed it into Iraq, killing over 500,000 human beings. So far, he's avoided arrest and prosecution.

    by Zydekos on Thu Jan 29, 2009 at 09:57:03 PM PST

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