The Ones Who Walk Away

At some point in my schooling–high school or college, I can’t recall anymore–I received an assignment to read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If you like thought-provoking short stories and don’t like spoilers, I suggest taking a moment aside to read it before proceeding further! (CW: child abuse.)

The story describes a utopian city. People there live in joyful leisure, their every need provided for, never suffering more than the slightest knocks of ill fortune. There is but one catch: to sustain this perfection, Omelas keeps an innocent child imprisoned in abject squalor, fed greasy gruel and sometimes kicked for good measure. Every citizen of Omelas knows that the prisoner is there, and that if they are ever released, Omelas’s prosperity will end. Some few members of the city decide that they can not live under such a cruel bargain, and depart for the unknown lands beyond the mountains: the titular ones who walk away.

In the class, we examined Le Guin’s story as a thought exercise about utilitarianism. Do you find Omelas’s arrangement acceptable, as a utilitarian calculation might suggest? Or would you leave the city, believing that no amount of bliss could justify brutalizing a child? Self-righteous as I was (am?), I wrote my little essay response saying of course I would walk away. I couldn’t bear participating in an injustice like that.

It was a thought experiment, a hypothetical, an abstract what-if. I didn’t apply it to my own life. I didn’t stop to think: this is Omelas. I’m living there right now.

Whatever my struggles with money or productivity or mental health, I have it pretty good. I have a house, and food, and the endless entertainments of the Internet. I live (for now?) in a representative democracy where I can freely choose my religion, my friends, my self-expression.

And every one of those privileges is built upon exploitation and injustice.

The land my house rests upon belonged to the First Nations before white settlers seized it. I own the house thanks to a system of city and suburb, mortgage and credit score, that segregates white from black and rich from poor. Beneath even that is the dollar itself, token in the grand lottery of circumstance that randomly decides some people should have more of the good things in life than others, while lying that they “earned” it. The Internet, for all that it was supposed to save us by making information available to all, thrives by turning people’s attention, dreams, and relationships into data to be mined for profit. Its algorithms will happily tell you the Holocaust never happened, and the creators of those algorithms are okay with this. Our ever-worshiped democracy deploys military force against unarmed people and has selected a xenophobic rapist for its highest office.

I’ve seen the prisoner in the cellar. And yet here I still am, enjoying the Festival of Summer.

From a very early age, when I was sharply punished for saying “bad words” I parroted from my parents, I have been a fastidious follower of rules. It was many years before I would so much as jaywalk. And yet I have also always had a churning transgressive streak. I grew up near the St. Louis Arena. For the years when it lay empty, I daydreamed of trespassing there, wandering its deserted corridors and locker rooms. In college I got to toy with this dream of urban exploration by hiking through a ruined brick factory and learning the basics of parkour. Later I became a proponent of free culture in defiance of copyright. Most recently, I have taken an interest in antifas and cop watchers who stand up to hatred and unjust power in ways that are not always polite, tidy, or legal.

It seems I’m more primed for this than I’d have realized. How, then, can I walk away?

Hardcore anarchism would counsel me to literally walk away–abandon my house, my job, my marriage, and live in free and open defiance of all systems of control. I don’t think that’s me either, though. I can’t embrace the kind of nihilistic relativism that would condone so viciously hurting the people I care most about, as a middle finger to systems they didn’t ask to be a part of any more than I did.

But there are other things I can walk away from. I think I’m done with voting as a means of social change; it’s useless when your vote will just be gerrymandered, machine-errored, and Electoral-Colleged into irrelevance. And even the best possible politicians, like beloved St. Bernard, are more than willing to bow to the incoming kleptocrat-in-chief if it might help get their pet projects accomplished. Better to clog the phone lines and block the streets to make one’s desires heard.

I’ve already observed that video games etc. conspire to dull the mind and keep us from reaching our full potential. What then if I walked away from that? I’m forming a plan to live 2017 free from social media (other than blogs like this) and video gaming. I spend hundreds of hours on those things; if I dedicated all that time to writing, design, and social action, what might I achieve? If my leisure were occupied with reading instead of matching sets of three colored gems, what might I learn?

Will you walk with me out of Omelas? How?

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In Trump’s America

I realize I’ve been resharing and retweeting, but I haven’t spoken up with a clear picture of what I’m thinking or feeling in my own words. Here’s an attempt to amend that: where I am and how I got there.

In the Democratic primary, I voted for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. My dreams for the future of the United States include such things as guaranteed basic income, total reliance on sustainable energy sources, and universal healthcare. Sanders talked openly of moving the country in that direction, and thereby earned my vote. It pleased and excited me when he won the state in which I voted.

As the primary continued, however, I grew disillusioned. Sanders exhibited a broken-record tendency to reiterate his domestic economic agenda when questioned on other topics. He seemed not to have a clear idea of how he would implement the changes he espoused. He displayed a startling indifference to the particular concerns of women and people of color, for whom economic inequality is bound up in deeper systems of oppression. He enacted sexist microaggressions on camera during his speeches and failed to disavow the misogyny among his supporters. When he suffered a setback or loss, he grew petty and turned to conspiracy-theorizing. I came to the conclusion that while he made an admirable Senator, he would be a poor President.

Reluctantly, then, I turned my attention to the candidate I’d at first wanted Sanders to defeat: Hillary Clinton. I started reading the blogs of a few of Hillary’s supporters, wondering how they could be enthusiastic about her in the face of her corporate ties, her warmongering, etc. I discovered there that many of the hateful things my liberal friends said about her originated in Republican smear campaigns long since debunked. I learned about the numerous liberal causes Clinton had fought for in her long career. I watched as Clinton made missteps on the topic of race, but accepted criticism and corrected her course. Above all I read and listened to the advice of women and people of color, who exhorted an approach of voting for Clinton, but holding her accountable and supporting or opposing her on an issue-by-issue basis. My mind was changed!

Between the primaries and the general election, we had a summer of terrible violence inflicted on people of color by the police. Angry and despairing, I asked my Facebook feed what I could do to help the situation. Friendly advice directed me to a local Unitarian Universalist congregation active in social justice issues. I began attending meetings and services there, learning more about our culture of white supremacy and what I, as a white person, could do to combat it. As Donald Trump continued to gain support in a campaign with an openly racist agenda, the need for concrete action felt more intense than ever. On November 6, the Sunday before the election, I officially joined Unitarian Universalism.

Then the disaster we’re still reeling from occurred: Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Pundits, pollsters, and ordinary people alike have since put forth a hundred explanations for how this could have happened, laid blame at the feet of a hundred different scapegoats. But in the context of my growing understanding of racist America, I am thus far convinced that the overwhelming cause was white supremacy. And I mean that only in part as the white-hood-wearing, swastika-tattooed image that no doubt jumps to mind at the phrase—that was involved here, no doubt, but white supremacy is not always so cartoonishly villainous. White supremacy acts in the indifference of voters to the suffering women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, etc. etc. will face (indeed, are already experiencing) as the result of this election outcome. It acts in the Electoral College, subtly devised to ensure that Black votes weigh less than others. It acts in the 2013 rulings that gutted the Voting Rights Act, and the voter suppression laws that followed. We have been a country of racial hatred since we first pillaged Native lands to found it; that fact only took a new form this election week.

To my friends and family who voted for Trump: I am furious with you. The victory of your chosen candidate has already hurt me and people I care about, and will continue to have horrific repercussions for those same people and the rest of the world. I dare say you probably won’t come out the better for it either. If you want my trust again, if you care at all for my well-being and that of this nation, I hope you change course and stand in resistance against the totalitarian state that Donald Trump promises to found.

To my friends and family who voted third-party or refrained from voting despite being able: I am disappointed in you. I understand your reasons; I have heard your disaffection with the current system and your hope for a better option. I do not blame you for this terrible event, but I am deeply saddened that you chose not to help prevent it. I beg you, make good on your hopes and ideals by fighting tooth and nail to protect the freedoms of marginalized people in this regime of hate.

To my friends and family who voted for Clinton, whether affirmatively or reluctantly: I thank you. It may not have been the best possible option among imaginable worlds, but it was the right one when the time came. Let’s commit to driving this nation toward equality by means beyond the vote, and show Donald Trump that while his malicious vision may be the America we have now, it need not and will not be the America we live in for ever!

Tactical Fatalism

(Content notes: This post will cover some bleak stuff. Donald Trump, political apathy, plausible apocalyptic scenarios, existential dread, religious belief or the lack thereof, etc. It’s also got an Undertale spoiler. If that’s likely to bum you out beyond your spare cope, might best pass this on by.)

This strange and dramatic election season, combined with my spending a bit more time on social media sites than usual, has prompted me to think hard about my voting decisions. In particular, conversations with a friend of mine, who’s a diehard Bernie Sanders fan of the “Never Hillary” persuasion, have made me ponder justifications for choices that had previously been reflexive.

Back in my days of unflinching Catholicism, I obediently followed the Church’s voting recommendations: vote for whoever would protect the rights of the unborn. A single-issue voter, you’d call it. At first, I took this to mean supporting the head-of-the-pack Republican of the moment. Later, grappling with the fact that Republicans had a love of unjust war, I went with a third-party protest vote like “Average Joe” Schriner. Even then, I knew that such a vote would not put the tiny underdog in the White House–but it felt good to cast a vote whose target compromised as few of my values as possible.

Today, not only have I discarded the narrow “pro-life” agenda, but I’ve come to accept the inevitability, and to some extent value, of tactical voting. I’ve made my peace with choosing the lesser of evils, in other words. I would have loved to see Bernie Sanders attain the Presidency, but given how clear it is that’s not going to happen, I am quite content to support Hillary Clinton instead.

You fool! cry the Sandernauts; By capitulating, you shore up a corrupt and unjust system! If we consent to support a candidate who is merely less horrible than the alternative, we will never see a truly great candidate succeed. And if we are to right the course of the United States and the world, we need a truly great President! Turn back, and cast your vote for the best choice, even if you know it will fail–it will pave the way for the future!

Well. Here’s where it gets bleak.

I’m convinced we don’t even have time to play the long game.

Humanity has always been on a clock. All things are finite. It was only ever a question of how long we had, and what our doom would look like once it materialized. Over the last few centuries, we have chosen our apocalypse, and like Robert Frost, we have held with those who favor fire. Or, at least, slow cooking. I mean, of course, global warming.

There is too much momentum to the problem of greenhouse-gas-driven worldwide temperature increase for us to stop it. For that we would have needed to change course, dramatically, long before I was born. We can perhaps hope to slow the process unto the second or third derivative*, but no more. I may not believe in the worst-case projections that posit the collapse of human civilization within fifteen years; but I would be not at all surprised if at least some members of my generation live to see it happen.

Even if we elected the grandest unicorn ever to grace the political stage; even if, evidence to the contrary aside, that unicorn is Bernie Sanders; the magic horn would not erase countless billions of tons of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. We are fucked no matter whom we put in charge of the United States executive branch.

I do admire the optimists. There is something beautiful about Papyrus, having refused to raise a hand against a genocidal player, saying with his dying words that he still believes in them. It’s one reason I still hold out hope that religious truth might exist, despite lacking the conviction to call myself a believer: I want to think we all have a second chance. For all that it’s hopeless, I support efforts to buy a little more time for Earth via green power, emissions reduction, etc. etc. Confronted with the dying of the light, I am pro-rage.

But for now, I cannot stomach choosing a path of short-term harm for long-term idealism, because I don’t think there’s much “long term” left for it to take fruition in. We may have only a few decades; I want my friends to be able to live with a little less hate, a little more freedom, a little more happiness in that period. I thus cannot cast my one vote, my infinitesimal scrap of democratic power, in such a way that would empower the likes of Donald Trump. Maybe Clinton won’t do as much as Sanders would to slow our inexorable descent into apocalypse, but that’s OK. She will, at least, not plunge us into an immediate maelstrom of xenophobic hatred, and that’s good enough for my conscience.


* That is to say, we can’t stop the world from getting hotter; but we may be able to help it get hotter slower or, failing that, reduce the acceleration of its getting hotter. I credit my older brother, a math professor, for my even having retained this concept from high school calculus.