Saturday, December 16, 2006

Revisiting an Old Post ("Omelas In America")

So, let's start out with one biblical verse, the one that I tag as the motto for my life--Matthew 5:16. In speaking with his disciples, Jesus instructs them to shine as a light to others, so that those others will see the good deeds of the former, and praise God for them. It is a simple, but very compelling, request, right? Well, for a moment, let's stop there...

We will move on to about two days ago. While returning to Houma, Louisiana, after a trip to its much more economically progressive sibling, Lafayette, my friends and I got into a discussion about the current state in affairs in our state. Anyone who knows me knows that I am never short of opinions about that topic--nor do I really ever let up on how far behind I think that my hometown is becoming. But during the discussion, my friend Cy asked me if I had ever read a short story titled The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas. Actually, I had never heard of the story, but when I did read it, I was left with a lot to ponder.

In the story, which I am just completing this morning, Omelas is a place of happiness. Festivals ring in the new seasons. The people never trouble themselves with the concerns of technology or politics. Laws and governance are minimal. And life itself is just summarily good. But that goodness is not without its own price. You see, locked away in the dank confines of a dark and imposing basement is a child---weak, neglected, and unloved. It is through his incarceration that serenity has fallen upon Omelas. (Please do not ask how; it is just that way.) And so, no one would ever dare consider releasing the child, or ever consider comforting the child, for fear that, if they did so, then all of the happiness in Omelas would be lost.

Sounds mortifying? It is...

On occasion, there are those in Omelas who are also equally mortified, when they succumb to the realization that their happiness and bliss is a result of the debasement of one lonely and feeble child. These are the ones who walk away from Omelas. They leave behind the place of prosperity, willingly marching into one of unknown suffering, and they do so because they cannot stand the thought of a good life rooted the commission of so much torture on a small soul of so little understanding.

Sounds incredible? It is...

The only problem, though, is that, to me, this fictional story is a painful metaphor for our very real lives.

I know that I have rattled the cage and proffered a statement that could provoke disagreement, but you will have to hear me out. You see, we modern men and women might never deliberately lock a singular child in a dungeon for our own benefit. And as Michael S. Malone eloquently pointed out in a telling 1998 article, "Here at the end of the millennium we're all so proud of our enlightenment. We walk out of 'Amistad' and 'Titanic' comforted in the knowledge that, unlike our lesser mortal predecessors--say, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Mrs. John Jacob Astor--we would never consider owning slaves or treating the lower classes like subhumans." But then Malone adds, "..[W]e have our own dirty little prejudice that, like slavery to a South Carolina tobacco grower in 1830, seems so much a part of the natural order that we scarcely notice it, much less feel the need to defend it." Yes, the scary fact is just that: here at the beginning of a new millennium we do not view all of our peers as equals, and more and more of us are becoming too self-absorbed to care about the plight of our fellow man.

America has been a blessed nation. We have set the standard for modernity since the closing days of the second global war. We have transformed Western culture and spread our decadent consumer habits around the world. We have led the world in scientific innovations, military prowess, and the overall prosperity. And today, even as our lives make the painful transition into the Third Wave, we still celebrate our overarching success. If Rome was the light--then America shines as bright as the sun, itself. But at what price?

You see, in my own opinion, Omelas is very real, and every American has lived and is living in it. And that child locked in the basement has existed in two forms since the inception of this nation. Scholars and leaders like Senator Barrack Obama like to talk about America's original sin. That the enslavement of people was necessary to construct this country in the age of agriculture is hardly a secret to anyone, and that, for one hundred years after that, minorities were flagrantly, and even violently, disenfranchised is not up for debate, either. They were the first child debased and denied, in order for those of another era to find happiness. But today there is a new original sin, a new child in the basement that I believe could tear apart the heart of our nation. The sin is poverty, and the child is actually the culmination of millions of Americans suffering through its malaise each day.

We are often tempted to laud low unemployment numbers in this country as an indicator that more and more Americans are partaking in a self-sufficient way of life, but the truth is that there are a lot more people unemployed than the government actually documents. And that is to say even little of those who are under-employed. Then there are a sizable of folks---about 15% of the population, to be accurate---who live each day at risk without adequate health-care coverage. What's more, about 13% of Americans live below the poverty level, and that number is up sharply after a steady decline in the 1990's. And perhaps astoundingly, 24 million children under the age of six live below the poverty level. Indeed, we can blame it on whatever we want--free trade, Bushonomics, racism, blah blah blah--but the fact is, we have a true crisis in this country, and yet, so many of us go about our daily lives with little more than indifference or contempt, much like our fictional counterparts in Omelas.

If the numbers don't shock you, then perhaps the implications might. What will happen to a child who spent nights on a street, as others walk or drive on without care? How will he come to view the world around him? What about those without enough to eat or those who barely have the resources to sustain basic living conditions? What will happen to the adults who cannot find work, because their rudimentary jobs are exported, rather smartly, to foreign labor markets? How will all of these people come to view this nation? The easy answer is, with bitterness and disdain, and unlike the tepid soul locked away in a facetious cell, these collective souls might one day cry out against the darkness that they have come to loathe, against a system that they think has neglected them.

Sounds unlikely? It is not...

Perhaps one staggering difference between the people of Omelas and the modern American is, we no longer deliberately imprison our brethren. Slavery, after all, is a practice left in a time long behind us. Even still, in our new age where knowledge trumps brawn, many of us are largely not doing a thing to help others rise above their misery. And therein lie the seeds for discontent and rebellion. You see, when we come to feel that the problems of our fellow Americans are, in fact, not our problems, when we fail to become involved by helping to better the lives of others, and when we decline to give willingly to improve the world around us--it is only a matter of time before the world comes calling. And at that point no amount of prosperous living, no degree of happiness, and illusions of security will protect us from the malice and resentment of those dejected and disaffected.

Think of the Bolsheviks. Think of the Italians at the rise of the fascist movement, or the post-WWI Germans and their contempt for the Jews. Think of Rawandan Hutus. Think of the Cultural Revolution in China. Think of this nation at its birth, or in the wake of the assassination of MLK, or even the city of Los Angeles in 1992. Think of any conflict where order imploded largely because the poor and the disenfranchised finally felt that they have had enough. The results become sweeping, terrifying, and unforgettable.

There are those who would think that my assessment of Omelas and its comparison to America are a bit of a reach. (Fatalist, right, OB?) But I do not waver on this one. You see, I am deeply convinced that there are many people who would think of themselves as that child in the locked room, and even if society did not deliberately put them there, those people are going to say that America is Omelas, riding this suffering for as long as prosperity will be allowed. The fact is that many Americans feel no less used up, beaten down, exploited, abused, discriminated against, and so on, than they did during the age of agriculture. And they will easily related to the cowering child.

But at some point even the weak can find the strength to be aggressive and to fight back in his own defense. Perhaps it will begin with a curiosity, and a realization that the mops initially used to intimidate him are nothing more than the weapons that he'll need to shank his captors. What then?

At this point, I am reminded of an opening passage from the 1994 article by Robert Kaplan, titled "The Coming Anarchy", which is the most amazing essay ever written. In that passage, the author quotes the words of a government minister in western Africa:
"In forty-five years I have never seen things so bad. We did not manage ourselves well after the British departed. But what we have now is something worse—the revenge of the poor, of the social failures, of the people least able to bring up children in a modern society." Then he referred to the recent coup in the West African country Sierra Leone. "The boys who took power in Sierra Leone come from houses like this." The Minister jabbed his finger at a corrugated metal shack teeming with children. "In three months these boys confiscated all the official Mercedes, Volvos, and BMWs and willfully wrecked them on the road." The Minister mentioned one of the coup's leaders, Solomon Anthony Joseph Musa, who shot the people who had paid for his schooling, "in order to erase the humiliation and mitigate the power his middle-class sponsors held over him."

Sounds tragic? It is...

When I write like this, or speak openly about our need to address America's newest original sin, people tend to remind me that I do not sound like a good Republican spokesman. And, well, maybe I do not. But I think that I have come to the same understanding as the ones who walked away. I think that I have looked upon the face of the child, and had to reconsider my life. I know that I have been blessed, that my life has been as good as any in Omelas; however, there are those around me who have not been so fortune. And just knowing that means I now have an obligation to do my part to balance the scales, to improve the lives of others in any way I can. To be sure, such an effort may take away from so much of the happiness I could have. But, then again, when faced with the likely consequences of inaction, I think it is clear that benevolence is better than indifference...Sorry, if it does not stick to the party lines, but conviction surmount politics on any given day.

I think that one point of this story is certainly telling us that we all have a great opportunity here. We can think less of ourselves and our own happiness, and choose to be charitable and selfless. We can share what we have with those who have not, and encourage them to do the same. We can, as Jesus instructed, shine as a light, so that others will come to know the goodness of Our Creator. And through all of this, we can avoid any potentially painful results of our new original sin. Of course, we might incur some suffering for our sacrifices, but the apostle Paul reminds us that long-suffering is a cornerstone of our Christian lives, and that we are laboring together to build God's place on this world.

Now I have to ask, would you be the ones who walk away from Omelas?

Matt 5:16

1 comment:

Pettus said...

I'd walk away from Omelas, dawg. But where am I going to go? (Just kidding.) Seriously you raise some bold points, as usual, Gary. Almost every great thing, especially this country, has been built on the backs of simple, helpless folks. The only problem is that most people do not admit that. That's why we play down or don't talk about slavery or sweatshops or work camps or imperialism or stagnant blue collar jobs. At least you finally understand. Too bad they are going to boot your ass out of the GOP for an essay like this though. But it's good, Gary. Welcome to where you belong...HARRELL FOR PRESIDENT!

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