Ursula le Guin’s powerful short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” first appeared in 1973, more than 40 years ago. Yet, it offers us an opportunity to reflect on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers. The story depicts a happy, prosperous city, marred by one barbaric practice: it always keeps one young child locked away alone in “a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings.” The people of Omelas all know the child is there. “Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, …. depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” Many are disgusted at what Omelas is doing to this child – Often, when they have seen the child, “the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, …” – yet most of them appear to accept it as an disagreeable necessity. Omelas has made a Faustian bargain in which happiness must be balanced by misery: the “terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” Others who don’t accept the bargain simply walk away. They appear to have despaired of their fellow citizens: “Each one walks alone [as they] leave Omelas … and they do not come back…. it is possible that [the place they go towards] does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” End of story!
Science fiction writers – le Guin prefers to be called a novelist – rarely aim at prediction. Sometimes they propose a possible future or, as in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a plausible alternative present, with an alternative history leading up to it, but in both cases the imagined world serves as metaphor. It raises questions about the present. Ursula le Guin’s regards her imagined futures as safe, sterile laboratories for trying out ideas: in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she invites readers to imagine a society without gender as we currently understand it while in The Word for World is Forest she reflects on the impacts of European colonialism and less directly on what America was doing in its destructive war on Vietnam and its SE Asian neighbours. The Omelas story depicts neither an imaginary future nor an alternative present but a fragment of another reality that could plausibly belong to either. Its partial portrayal of a different society performs a similar function to le Guin’s imagined futures.
There is no exact parallel between le Guin’s imaginary Omelas and today’s Australia. Omelas like le Guin’s America has no hereditary ruler and no slavery and while Australia also has no slavery or none that is legal, it does have an hereditary monarch, at least for the moment, but she is widely thought to play no active part in government. The Omelans, like today’s Americans and Australians appear to govern themselves but, unlike us, they have no stock market, advertising or secret police. Le Guin insists that the people of Omelas are different, but not less complex than us. We would not contemplate keeping just one solitary child locked away in a basement just to benefit the rest of us, although we do lock far too many non-Australians away in immigration detention, a practice that outrages many of us – not to mention the many indigenous people we incarcerate.
Australia’s disaffected citizens, unlike those of Omelas, do not have the option of walking away: whether we walk, drive or take public transport, we still find ourselves somewhere in Australia. Instead of walking away, all we can manage is to retreat into our heads: we can tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that our Government is not acting in our name.
Nor, it seems, does Omelas have any politics. Le Guin tells us there is no King. Otherwise she tells us nothing about how Omelas is governed. Perhaps it is ruled by a few powerful families or by what we now think of as democratic means. Those who despair and finally walk away are not described as engaging in protests, signing petitions, attending demonstrations or joining political parties in the hope of change. They despair, not only of their leaders but also of their fellow citizens.
Omelas’ leaders, like Australia’s, appear to believe that there is no alternative to their barbaric policies. They believe also that most of their citizens do not understand why these policies are necessary. Omelas sticks to its Faustian bargain and we hold fast to the view that penalising several hundred strangers will protect us from the world’s rising tide of refugees. No matter, most citizens are content to leave such issues to their leaders.
While le Guin’s Omelans can walk away, albeit to an uncertain destination and, with some effort, disaffected Americans could walk or drive to another country (Mexico or Canada) without being entirely sure of how they would be received, disaffected Australians can walk away only in their minds. If disaffected Omelans take the risk of not knowing where they will end up – it could be somewhere worse – something similar holds for disaffected Australians who mentally walk away but physically remain – our heads might end up in a worse political space.
The risk of a worse political space is particularly acute for anyone tempted to use the ‘dog-whistle’ metaphor to explainr why many Australians support our asylum-seeker policies. What is going on when we accuse John Howard or some younger Coalition politician of dog-whistling? Obviously, we accuse the dog-whistler of appealing deliberately and indirectly to racist sentiments. But the metaphor also points to those who respond, comparing them to trained sheep-dogs who hear the whistle and follow the command it contains. To use this metaphor is to compare many of our fellow Australians to trained animals – smart enough to follow commands but not to think for themselves. The risk here is the temptation to see those who follow the whistle as lesser beings – not a good headspace for anyone on the left to occupy.
Finally, if disaffected Omelans despair of their fellow citizens – why else would they walk away alone, not in groups large enough to make others notice? – there is no good reason for disaffected Australians to despair of our fellow citizens, although there are reasons to despair of our political leaders. Sure, there have been polls purporting to show majority support for our brutal treatment of asylum-seekers, with a significant minority appearing to follow the dog-whistle script, but we all know that poll results turn on the wording of the question and the context in which it is asked – and there have also been polls showing just the opposite.
If we cannot walk or drive away from Australia except into the sea and we should not retreat into the attractive seclusion of our heads, there is no alternative to the hard slog of engaging our fellow Australians politically.