Does "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" relate to American culture today?

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I would suggest that Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas " has a universality about it such that it can quite possibly be applied to just about any society or culture in human history and still hold relevance. The modern-day United States is certainly no...

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I would suggest that Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" has a universality about it such that it can quite possibly be applied to just about any society or culture in human history and still hold relevance. The modern-day United States is certainly no exception.

Even as it is painted in terms of being a thought experiment, the imagined utopia of Omelas can be understood as a microcosm for all of civilization: because just like Omelas, civilization itself has been built on suffering (and this applies regardless of what periodization we would wish to examine, whether it be Ancient, Classical, Modern, etc.). That same observation can be found in the modern-day United States.

Consider, to give one example, the dramatic wealth disparity that can be observed in the United States and the degree to which a large proportion of its population lives below the poverty line. Furthermore, you can expand this criticism to address the subject of capitalism itself, which has always been built on exploitation (and think about the ways in which that exploitative element continues to exist, well into the present).

In short, LeGuin's vision of Omelas retains its relevance today. This same problem of suffering remains very much present in the modern-day United States.

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LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away for Omelas" critiques the philosophy of utilitarianism, which promotes a "big picture" mentality by focusing on the greatest good for the greatest number. As long as most people are finding their lives improving or staying the same in terms of income or other measures of life quality, the destruction of a few by the system is chalked up as simply the price of progress.

The American system is like Omelas because it assures that there will be winners and losers, and having a certain number of those who suffer is seen as a reasonable price to pay for the way competition, at least in theory, hones us and causes us to excel. In recent decades, as has been widely publicized, the gulf between the winners and losers of the economy has been widening massively.

LeGuin's story critiques the kind of society or world we live in, in which a certain number of lives are trampled on for the greater good. She would say it doesn't have to be this way: we have ample resources and can find a way to care for even the least fortunate of our world's people. But often in our society, as in Omelas, the winners can harden their hearts and rationalize allowing the world to remain the way it is. It is interesting that in LeGuin's story there are those who accept the abused child and those who leave, but apparently no people work to change the system to see what happens if they actually do take care of the child.

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Absolutely, this story relates to contemporary American culture. Many Americans have an uncanny ability to close their eyes and ears and hearts to the suffering of those around them. We find it easier to simply ignore the problem and go on with our lives than to acknowledge the problem and what the problem says about our country. In 2016, for example, 12.3% of households in America experienced food insecurity, according to the USDA. That means that the individuals in these households did not know where their next meal was coming from. Most of us like to believe that we are a country that takes care of our own, that we are strong, that we prize community, and that we have good moral values. However, our refusal to acknowledge that we have a broken system that privileges some and makes life more difficult for others, that not everyone has an "equal opportunity" to thrive, has created a system wherein more than a tenth of American households cannot count on their next meal. How are we taking care of these individuals? We aren't—we know they exist and we ignore them, or we find ways to justify our refusal to assist them, just like the people of Omelas find ways to justify the treatment of the child in the closet. The country functions, in part, because of workers who do not earn a living wage, who cannot even afford to feed their families, and yet we consistently ignore their contributions to the fabric of American life, and we refuse to prioritize their dignity and offer them a living wage. They are but one of the children in our closet.

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LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" may relate better today to American culture than it did when it was written as so often today truth is valued only for its use to a select group or to a particular individual.

This story explores people's notions of reality, and in contemporary culture there are often individuals who adjust their concepts of reality to fit their desires. One well-publicized incident which can exemplify the selective truth of Omelas is that of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal of Jerry Sandusky. Mr. Sandusky was a married man, who often had sexual encounters with student athletes and boys in a camp situation, as well as in the basement of his house. Because some of these incidents took place in this basement, it is hard to believe that Mrs. Sandusky was not aware of her husband's aberrant behavior. Perhaps, then, Mrs. Sandusky ignored the "degraded child[ren]," choosing the "vapid, irresponsible happiness" of which LeGuin's narrator speaks.

One insight on "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" is the following:

A person cannot accept happiness that results from the immoral and cruel victimization and suffering of others.

Certainly, this astute insight on LeGuin's story applies to the situation of Mrs. Sandusky's choice of ignoring the truth--or, at least, her choice of rationalization of the truth. 

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