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  • Alastair Cavendish

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

I am writing these words on a slow and very comfortable train from Luxor to Alexandria. The journey is supposed to take a little over twelve hours, meaning that I shall arrive after midnight if the train runs to time, which it will not. Still, the countryside is bathed in bright sunlight now, and I am glad I did not follow the advice of every booking clerk in Egypt and take the night train.


“I want to be able to look out of the window,” I explained.


“What do you want to see?”


“Egypt.”


“It’s nothing special.”


I might just as well have said “life” or “humanity”, though perhaps his response would have been the same. Outside the window, chickens and children run about in the dust, while women sit on their verandahs, bundled up in abayas despite the heat, drinking glasses of hibiscus tea. Old men in grimy djellabas are whipping mules, who very properly respond according to type, which is to say, mulishly. Date palms and banana-yellow minarets cut the bright blue sky into fantastic shapes. On the Nile, which runs parallel to the track for much of the journey, rowing skiffs are chasing after the tourist boats to sell them rose-candy and spikenard, mastic and terebinth and oil and spice, and such sweet jams, meticulously jarred, as God’s own Prophet eats in Paradise. Also, cotton sarongs with pictures of Nefertiti on them. No one looks terribly worried by all the deadly coronas whizzing around in the desert air (for this is a red-list country, I’ll have you know, and jolly exciting it is too), and there is not a mask in sight. Just try drinking hibiscus tea with a mask on, or abusing a mule, for that matter.


Having left England in disgust and dudgeon almost two months ago, I came to the Middle East in search of sanity, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is a phrase you don’t hear every day. The Jordanians and Egyptians I met, however, were pragmatic and sensible. They expected their governments to be corrupt, and to use any crisis as an excuse for profiteering. The response of their religious leaders was disappointing and suggests that Islam, at any rate in the more moderate countries, is not the political force one imagines it to be. Most imams, like Church of England bishops, permitted the government to close places of worship without a murmur. I found myself longing to meet a fiery imam who would tell the politicians that if they tried to close his mosque, they would be meeting God a lot sooner than they planned, but you can never find an Islamic fundamentalist when you need one.


In anti-clerical France, now groaning beneath the weight of one of the world’s most oppressive and fanatical regimes, everyone studies philosophy as part of the formal curriculum up to the point of university entrance. Anyone who has ever had an argument with a Frenchman or, even more devastatingly, a French woman, can testify to the results of this. In England, as in the Islamic world, moral philosophy has generally been mixed up with religion, and many young Anglicans first encounter it in their confirmation class. One of the liveliest of these classes, in my own case, revolved around Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” This is a story that is primarily concerned with ideas, not surprises, and is not significantly spoiled if you happen to know the plot in advance. However, if you have not read it and would rather not know, skip the next paragraph, and, for that matter, the dialogue after it.


The story imagines a city of great splendour and beauty, in which everyone is happy. At some time during their childhood, however, the citizens are told that the prosperity and happiness of the city depends on keeping one child locked up in a dungeon beneath one of its finest buildings. The child is miserable, half-starved, and filthy. No one shows him (or her, if it is a girl) any affection, or give him any explanation or reassurance. Most people in Omelas quickly put this story out of their minds, never seeing and seldom thinking of the child in the dungeon. A few, however, find their consciences cannot bear the idea that their happiness is built on this misery, and silently walk away from the joyful city. The padre’s question, predictably enough, was this: would you be among the ones who walk away from Omelas?


“Certainly not,” I told him. “I would set the child free.”


“That would make you very unpopular,” said the clergyman. “What about all the people whose prosperity and happiness depends on the child’s misery?”


“But of course it doesn’t. Why would it?”


“It says in the story that it does.”


“It says in the story that people are told that it does. People are told all kinds of preposterous nonsense. There’s no earthly reason why keeping a child in a dungeon would make a city flourish.”


“Perhaps it’s a magic city.”


I didn’t really think this deserved a response.”


“Anyway, within the context of the story, just assume that it’s necessary to keep the child in the dungeon.”


“No,” I said. “I don’t assume that. It’s a stupid assumption. Just let the child go. People used to believe in scapegoating: infant sacrifice and nailing Jewish hippies on crosses, and all kinds of awful nonsense. It’s all superstition. If you want to even make a case for keeping the child in the dungeon, you have to explain why it would make any difference to anyone else.”


“But, for the sake of argument, assume that it does make a difference.”


“No.”


It was this style of debate that got me so widely and thoroughly disliked in philosophy classes at university. The variation of what is substantially the same issue that came up in tutorials for Honour Moderations was this “If you had to sexually abuse a six-year-old child in order to save the world, would you do it?” Oxford Mods tutors always choose child sex abuse for their moral dilemmas because they are colossal perverts.


“Explain to me,” I asked, “how abusing a child could save the world.”


“An omnipotent alien tells you that you have to abuse the child, or he will destroy the world.”


“I don’t believe him.”


“Assume for the sake of argument that he is telling the truth.”


“Why would I do that? He’s just asked me to abuse a child. He’s obviously a rotter. I assume that he’s lying.”


“But if he is telling the truth…”


“He’s not.”


Eventually, I was told that this is not how arguments are conducted in philosophy tutorials, at which point I replied that I was sorry the philosophers had been getting it wrong for so many years.


This piece has, I admit, been heavy on the autobiography, about which few people apart from my mother can possibly care. I do, however, have a point beyond mere egotism, though this point is somewhat tenuous and speculative. Here it is: I would be willing to bet folding money that you, dear reader, have similar stories to tell. Obviously, I hope yours are a bit more exciting than mine, involving strong women, beautiful men, exotic animals, escapes from Tashkent by camel at the dead of night, or brawls with desperados in seedy waterfront bars in Montevideo. Nonetheless, I maintain the assertion that you are undoubtedly independent to the point of bloody-mindedness. I wish you had been in my confirmation class. At any rate, there is now a community of us: a herd of cats, an awkward squad. The insanity of the past eighteen months has introduced us to one another.


Just one more digression, I promise. A few years ago, I had to judge a public-speaking competition in South China. The poor saps who were dragooned into taking part had been given a particularly inane topic, even by the standards of such bun-fights. “If you could make everything in the world the same colour, which colour would you choose?” I would like to meet the man who came up with this query and give him a good slapping. Unless you want to provide an opportunity for a bravura display of racism, it is a question which seems to me to have no merits at all. At least, I thought, it has a right answer, which is clear and concise. I was prepared instantly to award full marks and a bonus to any student who came up with the correct solution, which is:


“If I could make everything in the world the same colour, I wouldn’t, because that’s idiotic.”


Not one of them did, of course. I sat through an hour of “I would make everything yellow because I am yellow. It is a cheerful colour” and “Our Party has a red flag, so I would make everything red”, envying Caligula and wishing there was a way to introduce ravenous lions into the proceedings. Finally, now, there is a coalition of the colourful, a fairly large, and perhaps growing group of those who would not make everything black or white, or yellow for that matter. I am grateful for this.


Of course, if you disagree, this only goes to show what a thoroughgoing contrarian you are.

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