Worse Than Fiction: America’s Overcrowded Cellar
In a 1973 short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin describes a peculiar city where the inhabitants’ prosperity depends entirely upon the endless suffering of a single young child, locked away forever in a cellar. The townspeople ignore the child’s pleas for release because they have learned that his salvation will destroy a world that is utopian in every other way. As Le Guin writes:
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.
Although we may be tempted to look for parallels between this troubling tale and the ills of contemporary U.S. society, our attention should instead be drawn to two striking differences. First, whereas in Omelas one child tragically suffers for the welfare of everyone else, in the United States today many, many more children are abandoned to a metaphorical cellar -- not for the greater good, but merely to preserve or enhance the lives of a privileged relative few. Second, the distressing arrangement is unalterable in Omelas, fixed in place by the author’s construction. In our world, the current system instead reflects an outrageous lack of political will and courage.
Who are our country’s cellar-dwelling children? They include the child whose parents have lost their jobs and cannot find the work needed to pay the bills and keep their home. They include the child whose future prospects and enthusiasm for learning have been crushed by too many days in the overcrowded classrooms of an underfunded school. They include the child denied life-transforming treatment for a debilitating illness because her family could not find affordable health insurance. And they include the child whose entire young life has been spent in the shadows of poverty and hopelessness. Of course it’s not only millions of children who are shuttered in the dark underground. But focusing on our country’s youth hopefully enables us to bypass the litany of “blame the victim” talking points that present extreme inequality as good and “free markets” as just distributors of merit-based rewards.
Yet at a time when the top 1% of Americans control a staggering 40% of the country’s wealth, many of our most powerful politicians and their influential backers and lobbyists are now working -- in Washington, DC and in state capitols around the country -- to promote deficit reduction strategies targeting the social service and safety net programs that are lifelines for so many. If these efforts succeed, even more of us -- children, working families, the ill, the elderly -- will soon find ourselves relegated to this ever-expanding metaphorical cellar.
In the press and on talk shows these leaders repeatedly proclaim that the time for “hard choices” and “belt-tightening” has arrived. But their unyielding support for preserving (or even expanding) tax breaks for millionaires, billionaires, and mammoth corporations with record profits reflects a commitment to protect the powerful and financially secure at the further expense of those who are already struggling. This is not a courageous choice worthy of admiration; it is much more accurately viewed as an expedient, callous, and self-interested attempt to redefine heroism. But even children know that heroes save the entire town by slaying the fire-breathing dragon just beyond its walls -- they never chase the dragon into the crowded town square in order to protect the riches of the wealthy.
Today, true heroism is little different in form or purpose. We see it when parents work 16-hour days, stringing together grueling part-time jobs to make sure their children have food and clothing. We see it when neighbors offer a spare room to the family down the block to help them stay off the street after being evicted from their foreclosed home. We see it when community members raise desperately needed funds for an injured child’s medical care. And we see it when students, parents, teachers, and staff unite to protest planned cuts that will hurt their schools.
At the end of her story, Le Guin notes that after visiting the forlorn child in the cellar some residents of Omelas decide to walk away from the city:
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. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
In this provocative world, the creation of a writer’s imagination, rescuing the cellar-bound child will harm everyone else. Therefore, leaving Omelas -- relinquishing the comforts gained from another’s suffering and opting instead for an uncertain personal future -- becomes an individual’s greatest act of moral defiance.
The choice facing us today is just as significant in its moral consequences, but it’s not nearly as difficult to make. Fortunately, we are free to act in concert to collectively change our circumstances for the better -- without causing anyone to suffer. We’re limited only by our own willingness to hear and find direction from the many muffled yet resilient voices in our midst. Rather than walking away, we can join together and demand that our nation’s first priority be to protect and empower those in need. In the ongoing deficit reduction debate, this surprisingly simple guidepost marks a path forward that will ultimately benefit us all.