Originally a Twitter thread, posted on March 25, 2020 (minor edits for clarity)
It’s no secret that I orbit Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”. I read it first when I was 11 or 12. It started my relationship with ethics, utilitarianism, pro-social responsibility, …everything. I love it & hate it. (It’s short.) https://sites.asiasociety.org/asia21summit/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/3.-Le-Guin-Ursula-The-Ones-Who-Walk-Away-From-Omelas.pdf
But the TLDR: once upon a time, the magical city of Omelas was prosperous & healthy & happy. But the magic only existed for the citizens of Omelas through the torture of a single child. Everyone, once in life, was taken to see the child. Everyone knew the basis of their contentment. Most people accepted that the price of their own comfort was the agony of that neglected, abused child. But not everyone. Some walked away, into darkness and the unknown. Their fate, and future actions, is left ambiguous in the story.
(It’s the complacency of the city and the abdication of those who walk that infuriates me about TOWWAFOmelas. But the idea of what comes after they walk is what keeps me orbiting the story.)
It’s also no secret that all of Rien’s Rebellion (psst: first is free) is an extended dialogue with Omelas. I make it fairly clear in The Committed Ones . The denouement in Foundation is a version of the results of an Omelatic decision.
For any future students who ever want to write about it, this is me, being the Voice of God: Yes, Rien’s Rebellion speaks on and argues with the themes of Omelas. Omelas is a central metaphor within the world building and characters express and refute the principles of the city.
I could probably even make an argument that Omelas made me a PTSD specialist. My first encounter with the story was as an abused child. My abuse was not what the child of Omelas endured, but I recognized the power being extracted from a family’s scapegoat. That’s not strictly metaphorical power, either. In an abusive family dynamic, the scapegoat becomes the focus of at least one person’s destructive & antisocial needs & expressions.
Which means that abuser can displace their rage and thus maintain pro-social behavior: job, status.
We’ve all seen news stories where a community expresses shock when an abuser is revealed.
“I never saw anything like that!”
“He’s such a good coach!”
“He really cared about his students.”
Those are expressions of the compartmentalization that enables abusers.
A successful abuser is calcuating in their ability to focus their aggression on someone they deem insignificant, powerless, and in their control. If they spread their aggression widely, including people with more power than they? They’re going to get caught and stopped. Which is why the “he couldn’t help it” argument is worthless. A person who targets their aggression at one/few people is in control of that aggression most of the time, uses it intentionally & selectively. He’s in complete control of it. He could help it, & did, most of the time.
A successful abuser also compartmentalizes their pro-social behaviors. Being a beloved coach/minister/teacher is their transactional way of earning balm for their conscience. They balance the abuse exercised on one child/person with good behavior cookies they earn elsewhere. Of course, they’re often grooming their next victim — or a whole crop of them — while earning those cookies, but they believe that the good they do for a large group makes up for the targeted abuse they inflict on one. It’s part of the self-protective delusion they maintain.
Thus, Omelas is the story of an abusive family expanded. The adults gain access to wealth, comfort, power through their ability to suppress & channel their anger towards one scapegoat. The other children share the wealth, and to preserve themselves, placate the most powerful. And eventually, most people puts the abuse they witnessed out of their minds and go about their day.
Mostly, everyone in Omelas is a culpable bystander, doing their best to forget that someone, somewhere, is starving a child to death. They also try to ignore the idea that the next child could be their own youngest sibling, or their own child, or a friend’s child. Because the text of Omelas doesn’t mention how the child became the child, or what happens when the child invariably dies and is replaced.
Omelas is portrayed as happy, save the malcontents who slip away into the darkness. Those malcontents aren’t specifically, themselves, tortured. But they are traumatized. Their society forces them to be helpless & complicit. The malcontents are the definition of bystander trauma.
The very first action required to heal from trauma is to get out of the trauma. You cannot heal from abuse while being abused. And so the self-exiling Omelates are practicing the necessary first action — to get themselves to safety. What happens after is ambiguous.
Presumably, their first task is to manage their individual hierarchies of needs — food, shelter, companionship. They have a lot of learning —and unlearning — to do in the early days of exile, because abuse has always ensured their needs were met. They must undo that programming. They definitely have to cope with knowing they’ve been conditioned to prefer the comfort & ease Omelas offered.
I bet 99% have days when they just want to return to Omelas’ daily simplicity. Their selfish, exhausted brains whisper, “It’s just one kid nobody wants anyway…”
Worse, there have to be a few who think, “Okay, how about rebuilding that system, but with slightly different magic. One less cruel.”
“Maybe it won’t be so bad if the sacrifice is one old man who has outlived his family.”
“Someone already disabled.”
“Someone who isn’t from here.”
Hello, Omelas has come to the United States.
And to the world, but some in the US are talking about intentionally letting 3-4% of our population drown in their own bloody sputum for the sake of a few people’s stock portfolios.
And some are taking this black magic seriously.
The moment we start the equations for the moral calculus to permit the idea of a sacrifice, we’ve lost. We’ve already decided some nebulous, undefined person or group is an object for exploitation.
Because we do not live in a magic world where suffering fuels the greater good. The only thing that comes from more people getting COVID19 is more people get ill. More people suffer for a short time. More people take permanent lung damage. More people die.
Those deaths do not fuel the machine that makes ventilators or masks. If anything, they make the economic machine work *less* well. Because when an ICU RN’s father or brother dies of the illness she’s fighting, that RN is less effective at providing care to her patients. Not because she wants to slack off, but because she’s distracted and hurting. If the dead is the son or the sister of the man who oversees a filament welder in a mask factory? Same thing. The electric line woman’s partner dies in the contagious illness ward? That electrician is less able to go fix a power line that fell. And so on to universality.
The economic machine runs on two fuels: money & time. Time is the greater limiter than money —to teach a person to make (even part of) a level II protective garment means training & at least a few imperfect products & therefore waste, when we don’t have time or materiel to waste. All economies depend on the time and attention of humans. Those are the limited resources, more limited because COVID19 forces us to sideline many of the ways we *can* borrow/buy another person’s time. Everything from a quick sandwich to daycare and child education to elder care. Money is almost trivial in this accounting.
If there’s any magic in our world, it’s our collective spell to make money exist. We agree it’s worth something. We imagine it into being. Literally: bank credit that becomes a mortgage is imaginary until it hits the seller’s account. Then it becomes real — the seller can go buy whatever she wants. There is no gold, no giant reserve of essential goods for which money is merely a token. Our money exists because we say it exists & will remain money. (Article 6 & Amendment 14 of the Constitution. We will pay the debts.)
As long as we agree we can buy stuff by invoking the Holy Chip & PIN, it’s real. That’s all that matters: we agree on this spell. It’s worked incredibly well for hundreds of years. (Please, go read David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years. Freshwater Econ is full of 💩.) Localized inflation (such as price gouging) happens when we’re not quite as good at maintaining the money spell as we usually are, or, as now — when we suddenly discover an actual time deficit — we don’t have enough time and attention to produce a desperately needed thing.
(The last three, and maybe eleven, years have actually been a rear-guard action against the opposite of inflation, because we have a subset of the economic machine who believes too hard in money, and they’re hoarding it beyond all possible utility. I present billionaires.)
Pumping more imaginary money into the economic machine right now will make it work more efficiently. Right now, that money needs to be paying for people to stop torturing the child beneath Omelas. We need to pay people to stay home. We can do that in a few ways — send cash, suspend all rent & mortgage & tax payments, use the payroll system to just push normal wages at those who get them, use income tax records to push 1/12 of someone’s claimed self-employment income at them each month until we can re-open.
(Why, yes, I did just make an argument for paying accurate taxes as a freelancer/contract/tipped worker.)
Or some combination of all of these.
Money is imaginary — it’s a standardized lubrication that allows all parts of the machine to cycle and maintains social relationships.
“But if we dump 2 months’ of payroll into the US economy — “ Yeah? It’s not that much, about $145B a week to just flat replace everyone’s wages. Thing is? That money was going to be there anyway. It’s not a token. It’s an imagined construct. 2 months ago? We imagined it fine. Tossing $1.8 trillion (2 months of payroll) that we expected to be there and imagine into existence into an actual pot is just… actually doing business as normal.
Here’s the other thing: if we do the job we’re assigned — most of us sit at home, stay there — the currently inflated markets will stabilize. You don’t need hand sanitizer if you’re at home and not going anywhere. You have a sink & soap. You don’t need a mask if you’re home. Putting a two month pause on mortgages, rents & taxes doesn’t change those assets. Ensuring everyone has enough money to pay for their essentials keeps everyone stable.
Think of it as an intentional, medically induced coma to let the fever burn itself without doing brain damage.
(Also, seriously, giving the planet a little breathing space to clean up some of our mess. This pause is not just good for flattening the COVID19 curve, it’s lessening air & water pollution. A couple months might buy us a year of climate stabilization time. That’s not nothing.)
And by staying home, we reduce the friction (personal contact) in the machine (society) that is causing the spread of the infection.
If I could, my first act would be to freeze the stock market for the rest of Q2, while we distribute 2 months of wages as normal.
Because Wall Street appears to have the most difficult time adjusting the power of their spell. People trading in the stock market believe too hard that the money is the thing, and when confronted with the idea that maybe they’re wrong?
They panic and start hoarding it.
(That’s what a sell-off is —converting debt-as-asset (stock) to the perception of liquidity (cash). Also how I know they believe too hard in their part of the spell — nobody drives a Brinks truck to their house & hands them fat stacks. It’s just electrons dancing on a screen.)
And this ties back to Omelas because the ones making the survival of their stock portfolios paramount are using the Omelasian magic in its most exploitative form.
Not just one kid, but lots of people. Not for the good of all, but for personal insecurity and to soothe fear. They’re prizing an imaginary construct over the completely material real world.
And my bet is THAT type of behavior pushed people to leave Omelas. They couldn’t help the child, but they could stop contributing to the child’s pain, and stop tacitly encouraging it in others.
But Omelas was magic.
They were able to leave.
In this world, there is no walking away, not for anyone. There is no life boat off this planet. Even if we outsource the child torture to the sweatshops of Pakistan and Bangladesh and Honduras, we are still torturing the child.
It hardly matters to whom we outsource the torture… it’s still performing the equations of moral calculus that turns life into assets. Once that calculus is performed, the sin is committed.
There is no right path that starts with human sacrifice.
Yes, COVID19 will kill people. It already has, and it will keep doing so.
It’s different when it’s done intentionally, through depraved malice.
We can’t walk away. We have to stay in Omelas. There is no planet B.
But we can lessen the torture.
Never again is now, and forever.
And it starts with recognizing the spell we all use, and changing our relationship with it.
Our power is we are the government. We own it. And we do our parts as a member of the whole.
It’s our spell. We define it.
PS: Go find NKJemisin’s short “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”. It’s in *How Long ‘til Black Future Month?*
It also refutes the idea of abdication and abandonment. Of the two worlds, I want NK’s.