Saturday, November 27, 2004

Omelas and us

The photographs of the Iraqi children keep sending me to the story by Ursula Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." I was introduced to the story by a close friend, Karen Novak,
an author whose books explore difficult themes with heart-rending grace and grit.

The story of Omelas is the story of knowing that your happiness rests on the misery of a single other. But if that were simply the case, the choice would be too easy. Many of us (our current president excepted) would willingly sacrifice ourselves for the sake of another. The moral choice in Omelas, however, is much more complex, as true moral choice is.

The "moral values" crowd is dead wrong on that. Moral values are not predicated on simple binary opposition. Moral choice is not yes/no, either/or. Moral choice is "yes...but" or "no, except." Moral choice is the willingness to accept that decisions have consequences, actions produce effects, and not taking those into account is immoral.

For the ad fontes crowd, moral choice is as clear as the contrast between black ink on a white page; they cite ancient texts to control the living. I'm not singling out Christians here. Islamic, Jewish, Christian and Hindu Fundamentalists all present a threat to a world that is trying to escape binary opposition in favor of ecumenical cross-boundary morality that recognizes the full ramifications of making moral choices.

Many want to argue that removing Saddam Hussein was a moral choice. And yes, it's true, he needed to be removed from power. But if someone had bothered to think about the difference between Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islam, to understand the history of the region, the opportunity that removing Saddam was going to create for Islamic Fundamentalists, the moral choices might have looked a little different. And now we are faced with real moral choices in Iraq, as we are forced to ask whether it would be moral to walk away from a mess of our creation in order to save American lives.

Nicholas Kristof has raised these issues this morning in the NYT. What are our obligations to Iraq now that we have been dragged into an ill-conceived war? And can our happiness be built upon the suffering of Iraqi children? I don't know what the answer is; all I do know is that I find myself wishing that I could be one of the ones who walk away from Omelas.


Sheryl said...

I agree with you, Lorraine. That's one of the reasons I tell people I don't believe in moral absolutes, but I don't think they always understand what I mean. But it is about context.

My dad was recently saying that he figured that the way Karl Rove played the right was by catering the message to single dimensions. That some people only have the skills to think in one dimension at a time. The black and white morality caters to that.

Ursula Le Guin is one of my mom's favorite authors. I just asked her which she liked, and she mentioned "The Left Hand of Darkness" and "The Tombs of Atuan." Says she likes a lot of them, but those came to mind.

Hope you are having a nice TG weekend.

lorraine said...

You and I are on the same wavelength. Get people obsessed about a single thing, they'll totally blank out all the other stuff that they should be paying attention to.

Sheryl said...

Yeah, I like having discussions on art somtimes, and I always like to bring up that TV show Connections, where they show how ideas spawned other ideas throughout history.

I have a link on my blog for James Burke's K-Web Project. The idea of the project is to show how ideas throughout history are connected, so that if you are an artist, you can see how artists were influenced by astronomers or whatever. To make information beautiful and relevant and connected: video about the project is at this rtsp link in Real Video:


You can't make links to rtsp files in comments, so I'll have to just leave it as text, but it's worth pasting into your Real Video player (if you have that installed.)