America This Week: "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"
Walter and Matt discuss the short story classic by Ursula K. Le Guin
Per a reader request, Racket is going to start creating separate transcripts just for the literary discussions in “America This Week.” In this episode, Walter Kirn and I talked about Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” an unnerving story about a perfect society that’s fueled by the secret suffering of one child
Walter Kirn: This is the story from 1973. It’s extremely short, as you and I said before the show. It’s almost like the outline or the treatment for a short story rather than a short story in itself. And it describes without a lot of specifics, a wonderful society in which everybody is happy. It’s summer, they’re preparing for their summer festival. It’s like Lake Wobegon where it was said to be, “All the children are above average, peace reigns, happiness...” We’re told that there is no guilt in this society, that one of the secrets to its happiness is no one feels any particular guilt about anything. And Le Guin hesitates to describe the society specifically because she knows all readers have different ideas of what a happy world would be. And she says, “Well, just insert your vision of what a happy world is.”
If she says, “If you need orgies in this world, if you need to believe that everybody’s sexually liberated and having a great erotic time, imagine that. Whatever it is you need to imagine in an ideal society, go ahead.” That’s a strange move in a story. Usually, the writer takes that on herself to come up with a specifically inspiring world. She says, “Just imagine anyone you like.”
It’s like a hypnosis tape that says, “Go to a relaxing place from your youth. I don’t care what it was. Just go to one. You get to choose.” And then she, after luring you in by this hypnotic prompt to imagine a completely serene and cheerful society where there’s no black, there’s no guilt. There may even be orgies that you get to be the most beneficial participant in, she says, there’s one problem with the society. It all depends on the suffering of a little child who’s kept in a basement, kept off to the side in this compartment that she’s never allowed to leave.
The child doesn’t get any sunlight, barely gets any food, is covered with sores, sits in its own excrement and just is miserable 24 hours a day. But it’s only one child, and though everybody in the society knows that their happiness is, in a way, the negatively contingent on this child’s unhappiness, they all get used to it. Because in the utilitarian analysis, for many to be happy at the expense of one tiny miserable child that isn’t even seen that often, who wouldn’t take that?
Matt Taibbi: And surrounded by mops.
Walter Kirn: Yeah. She’s in a mop closet, the child. Who wouldn’t take that deal? And for anybody who believes in the utilitarian analysis of society, I guess, that’s not a problem. But for anybody who doesn’t, it might be. And so the reader is just basically confronted with this notion of a happy Disney society that has no problems except for this secret of a suffering child on whose unhappiness everybody else’s enjoyment depends.
Matt Taibbi: It reminded me a little bit of The Picture of Dorian Gray:
Matt Taibbi: There’s a passage:
They know compassion, it is the existence of the child and their knowledge of its existence that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they’re so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniffling in the dark, the other one, the flute player could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.
We hide away in the attic our secrets and our monstrousness, and that’s what allows us to have this superficial happiness. The difference between this story and the Wilde story is that it doesn’t come crashing down in the end, some monstrous moral lesson, that’s just the way it is. But this idea that happiness is predicated on somebody else’s secret suffering, that’s pretty creepy and disappointing.
Walter Kirn: And that the happiness of the collective is dependent on this misery of an individual. But there are many such stories, and I think a lot of them came out in the early ‘70s, frankly. I don’t know if you remember The Wicker Man, the movie where this island off of Scotland has this festival where they sacrifice someone to a sun God every year so that the crops will grow… We had The Lottery in which a random person is chosen in this little village to be stoned to death to keep the cycle of agriculture and social peace running. But this story is different than all those in that it doesn’t involve a sacrifice. It involves the ongoing suffering of someone, and I think that makes it particularly apt for our era of cancellation, in which we don’t sacrifice somebody and have this cathartic ritual going back to early mankind in which we somehow get all of our anger and jealousy out in one scapegoating. Like I say, that’s a common trope. It goes back to the golden bow and all these other studies of mythology. It goes back to the New Testament.
And in those stories, there’s somehow a magic that comes of the sacrifice, but in this story, it’s that often some corner obscurely in a way that and cannot deny there is misery. It’s ongoing misery, and that misery is somehow mystically the support structure for your happiness. And it asks the question, the story, would you be able to be happy? Would you be one of the festive enjoyers of the summer festival? Or would you be, as in the title, one of the people who walks away from this society? And at the end of the story, she says, for some reason, it’s hard to imagine why, and we don’t really have insight into their processes, their thinking.
Some people can’t deal with this, and they walk away, they leave the place. I can’t imagine what society they’re imagining, what do they think the better world they’re going to is? But there’s something about this arrangement that they can’t countenance. And these stories are morally simplistic in some ways. The reader is always invited to imagine that they’re the one person who wouldn’t throw a stone or would walk away from the society whose secret sustenance was the misery of an imprisoned child. But the good stories ask us whether or not we really are not the heroes at all.
They ask us whether, in fact, we are currently abiding in a society which depends on unseen misery, which we all secretly know about, and we’re not walking away. And as a metaphor for the world now, I think it’s a pretty good one. Every day that you go to buy your Starbucks or every day that you log on to Netflix, you know that a bomb is falling in the Ukraine. It might be a bomb put there by the evil Putin, or it might be one of ours. But every day you know the suffering is increasing. You know the people are dying. It was certainly the way it was in the Vietnam era when this story was written. We had that searing picture of the napalm child or whatever sitting out on maybe railroad tracks or something.
Matt Taibbi: The running girl.
Walter Kirn: Yeah, running girl. Well, that one too. There was also a baby on a train track. And maybe that wasn’t Vietnam era, I’m confused. But we had the running girl. She wrote this story at precisely that time. We also in, the early ‘70s, were very aware of Anne Frank, the little girl who’d been hidden throughout World War II. It was a heroic story, but at the same time, the image of a child imprisoned while adults go on about their business, I think, had unconscious resonance in that period. What would it be now?
Matt Taibbi: We all know that we’re getting iPhones for cheap, but that’s because you got 13-year-olds somewhere in China or Indonesia who are making parts for pennies in the dollar. We’re all aware that somewhere in the world people are working in atrocious conditions to deliver us the goods and services that we use every single day, and that we order conveniently through Amazon painlessly with no human interaction whatsoever. And on some level, all of us are aware that not too far away from us, in most cases, there are families that are going to bed every night and they’re dividing up a cheeseburger into five parts to feed their kids or whatever it is.
Once you get people to accept all the fact that this is going on all around us, it’s just overwhelming you. There’s a limit to how much you can think about all these things. And once you stop, I think that’s when we become the good citizens of Omelas. That acceptance of our culpability is it becomes part of a secret compact for the rest of the world.
Walter Kirn: But what’s great about the story is that it doesn’t allow the reader or the hypothetical citizen of Omelas any outs. You see, we can tell ourselves that the child laborers making the tennis shoes that we’re right now running down the street in our suburb using is temporarily yes, suffering, but their whole economy is being brought up. It’s at an early stage and everything’s going to get better in Cambodia or wherever it is once more investment comes in. It’s a temporary state.
We can tell ourselves that a war going on will end and, “Anyway, it’s a war we didn’t want and so don’t blame us.” But in the story, she’s very uncompromising and stipulating that this child will never be released, will never be happy, and there is no way to construe this child’s predicament except as permanent and absolute. And you are not allowed any of the rationales or any of the fantasies that we use in life to excuse away the suffering that may underlie our prosperity or our peace. It says you have to be able to deal with it. And it seems that most of the people in her society have. Remember, she goes on very early about how there’s no guilt. Most people have somehow conquered any guilt response over this predicament. And I think in that sense it does what literature does that the news can’t in that it makes a very pure pristine case for this quizzing feeling that we have that real life situations don’t, because they always offer us an out, a rationale.
In Omelas, there’s no way you can pretend this kid’s going to grow up happy or this is happening to them because they were bad, or they come from the wrong group or whatever.
Matt Taibbi: The news teaches us to blame suffering on an outgroup.
Walter Kirn: And in that sense, the news has a consolatory function. In other words, it allows us all to believe that the terrible things about our world are temporary, justified, part of a process, inevitable, et cetera, so that we don’t have to feel bad about. The news tells us that wars are somebody else’s fault, that economic suffering is often transitional or transitory, or is the result of bad people and bad rulers that we’re going to get rid of. And insofar as the country is in a moral panic, and it’s in about 10 of them right now, we tell ourselves that canceling people, censoring them, ruining their lives, throwing them into silence and ignoring them is somehow always deserved, part of the engine of progress.
I saw a tweet the other day by a recording artist who somebody had said they didn’t like their song. It was too politically correct. And this guy said, “You’re not the people I want at my concerts anyway. I’m glad this offended you because now I know there’s one less in my audiences.” So our little children locked away now are all there because they were bad. And our media has developed about a thousand ways of convincing us that anybody who’s unhappy or upset or losing out is defective, wrong, politically backwards, socially unacceptable in some way. We can’t just stare at the fact that they exist, that we have constructed a society that depends on losing. We’ve even constructed a media and a discourse, which depends on constantly kicking people out, silencing them, and even villainizing, vilifying them.
Matt Taibbi: That closet is getting a little crowded in the modern landscape. We keep shoving people in there, the number of people who are shoved to the side. This story’s concern with suffering, but there’s also like an element of modern media of just exile where we take people and they’re no longer discussed or they’re un-personed. But the overall effect is the same. It’s the strengthening of this collective at the expense of the individual, the idiosyncratic individual, which coincides with our AI topic, right? I mean, the broad mean stays healthy, unconcerned, guiltless, and then we keep stuffing the ugly human, sore covered human side of ourselves that’s in a mop closet and is really 10 years old but only looks six.
Walter Kirn: The other brilliant feature of this story is that it stipulates the absolute minimum of suffering. It’s only one person, one child, and you don’t see them. It whittles it down to its theoretical minimum and says, “Would you still be content if it were only one?” Because we live in a world of course where millions suffer. Tens of thousands die. Maybe hundreds of millions are without the resources for thriving. But if it were only one, would you be okay? And the story says most people would be. It’s Buddhist in it that it doesn’t criticize them. In fact, it’s only doubt. It’s about, “Who are these people who walk away? What are they thinking? I can’t quite imagine.”
Matt Taibbi: “Where do you think they’re going?”
Walter Kirn: Is there a better world? Is there a world where they could be a better situation than this? Are they crazy?” Oftentimes in real life, Matt, people come to me and say, “Hey Walt, you got a lot of criticisms of society and politics, and you seem to have a lot of dissatisfaction with the way things run. You don’t agree with the censorship regime, and you think surveillance is a restriction of liberty and the mental freedom of the human being. Yeah, okay, but let’s be real. Could we have our society and all the good things that confers without all these things that you are down on? You’re not a very realistic guy, Walt. In fact, you’re just playing a game because you know down deep that indeed your prosperity, your ability to speak, the computer that you’re talking into right now are all predicated on a certain amount of warfare, suffering, injustice, inequality and so on. You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too…”
Matt Taibbi: My final thought on this is just this has been an ongoing theme in a lot the anti-disinformation stuff is that they’re not content to have you sit there in silence and not have an opinion. They’re not content if you quietly express displeasure. They want you actively expressing support for it and showing somehow that you’re on the right track, otherwise you’re accruing negative thoughts, you’re going to end up being demerited according to all these algorithms. And that’s disturbing.
Walter Kirn: To sit it out.
Matt Taibbi: But they don’t want to let you do that. And that’s really troubling that they’re searching you out, not letting you quietly have your own opinion. They want you to make expressions of non-conscious all the time, which is different from what happened even during the Bush years where we had all stories about what went on at the black sites. We had people who protested use of torture and that thing. I think they realized that it’s not good enough to just have those people be an ignored minority. They have to actually be eliminated, I think, in order for this thing to work.
Walter Kirn: I think Abu Ghraib is a great image from reality to parallel the one in the story we discussed. How happy were you with the war on terrorism and how safe we were at home supposedly when you realize that depended on people being hung upside down or having to stand on one foot with a hood over their head? And some people were like, “I’m fine with it,” you know? It is in a way a story about torture and the way it perhaps undergirds normalcy as it were.
Matt Taibbi: And living with it.
Walter Kirn: In real authoritarian societies, totalitarian societies, Kim’s North Korea and so on, there’s often a book that everybody has to be seen reading. Of course, Mao had a book. I’m sure there were books in the Soviet Union that it was good to be seen reading. And maybe in ours it’ll be James Comey’s detective novel. Maybe you’re talking about how they’re not allowing you to just passively not participate, you’ve got to actually get in on the game like those writers who put their blurbs on the cover of Comey’s book. Can you imagine? How does the writer who said, “Hey man, James, as much as I’d like to put my name on your book, it sucked and I just can’t do it now”? Do you think there was that person? If so, they’re quivering at home right now and/or they are one of the bravest souls alive.
But we are always asked to show tokens and badges of our enthusiastic agreement now. Usually, they’re emblems on Twitter and social media. I think that is a problem. We’re no longer allowed to sit this one out or quietly whisper among ourselves that the band sucks. They want us up dancing, clapping, and nothing less will do.
Matt Taibbi: In Soviet Russia though they had a concept called sovok. It’s a play on words because it means dustpan or dustbin, but it’s also short for a Soviet person. And so a person who is a sovok, it’s a specific personality that was everywhere in Soviet Russia. It’s pretty hard to describe, but it’s like a mass man, mass person. One of the characteristics of a good sovok was they could never shut up. You ran into these people in Russia long after the collapse of communism. It was a protective mechanism because under Soviet times, the person who was quiet and looked to be thinking and pensive about something was suspect. So, the safest thing to be was just a babbling idiot who just never stopped talking and saying platitudes over and over again.
The average Soviet person spoke in just constantly in what they call pogovorki, slogans. Like, “He who doesn’t take risks, doesn’t drink champagne” or “Work isn’t a wolf. You don’t have to chase it into the woods.” You just repeat stuff like this over and over again. And that way people know that you’re stupid, which is safe. Meanwhile, if you’re smart and you’re going home every day locking yourself in your apartment to write Master and Margarita or whatever it is, you’re the person who ends up in the bread truck going to Siberia. So I think there’s an element of that with the net age, it’s just those of us who are constantly expressing their non-thought. Those are the people who succeed, it seems.
Walter Kirn: Well, so there we have a best use case for AI because you’ve just described these meaningless maxims and folks sayings that people would babble out to appear to be harmless and unconcerned with things. I think AI could probably every morning generate a script for people that they could just repeat on social media, like, “This is the average completely bought in non-dangerous citizen speak that you can pour out today.” So I might put in the morning, “What should I tweet today and say on Instagram and maybe even on Substack that will keep the state uninterested in me?” And it’ll say something like, “Well, first tweet ‘A penny saved is a penny earned.’ At 11:30, write a Substack about how it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. At three o’clock, put up an Instagram of yourself with a puppy that you rescued from the pound and saying he’s doing great. And at seven o’clock sign off by saying, ‘I don’t think Succession could get any better, but after having seen the last episode, I expect this is going to be the War and Peace of our time on TV’.”
And you’ll have completed an entire day of total, banal invisibility to the state. I think AI would be perfect for that job. Mediocrity, after all, Matt, is the safest place to be, especially when the cops are out, you know?