Saturday, January 22, 2011

Trey's Days No. 2.


His nose sweated beads of liquid in a steady slow ooze for which he carried a little white towel and dabbed every few minutes, especially during parts of his lecture which he found exciting. His belly shook and the buckle of the giant belt which went around the widest part of him bounced up and down. His favorite personal anecdotes, of which there were hundreds, involved his days at a prestigious Protestant seminary in a big city, where he was encouraged to play scholar. It is clear after a few minutes of his pedagogy that he is first and foremost a Protestant preacher whose forte might not be scholarship.

Now, there were days when a lesson in ethics got taught by one of the authors on the reading list in his “Ethics and Society” class, and the lecture was thin enough or short enough so as not to completely obscure the message. Most days one question from a smart mouth could hijack the agenda and send him off to that time in seminary when “...we were in 'Kant' class and everybody's eyes just GLAAAAZED over and I said....” (punch line, followed by forced laughter from the 'audience.')

One of those days when a philosopher of ethics was able to break through the noise came when we read “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin. If you haven't read it and want to, stop here (spoiler alert). It's a haunting tale of a little Utopia whose blissful existence depends on the perpetual suffering of a scapegoat. When citizens reach the age of majority, they are shown the suffering boy on whose torment they depend and they have to make a decision whether to go on enjoying the good life in Omelas at the expense of the suffering scapegoat, or to walk away.

William James talked about the “hideousness” of enjoying a utopian existence at the expense of one wretched scapegoat on the edge of things, whose perpetual torment is the price for that utopian bliss. But honestly I think I would have been one of the ones who stayed in Omelas. There are several reasons we can give for staying. One, because walking away presumes that we have an ethic that is superior to the whole community, which is suspicious. Two, walking away does not free the wretched scapegoat. And three, staying allows for the possibility of a dialogue in the community that might find a solution to the scapegoat dependent nature of things. It may in fact turn out that utopian bliss is not scapegoat dependent after all. That was a myth. One sure way to find out is to free the scapegoat and see.

Similar to the Omelas conundrum is the village Shirley Jackson creates in “The Lottery”, (spoiler alert 2). Communities in both stories have to decide whether to continue hideous systems in order to maintain the relative happiness of the community. In “The Lottery” when some of the villagers say they are thinking about quitting the practice of regularly choosing by lottery one among their number to be stoned to death, they are told that quitting might lead to going back to living in caves. It seems a story told generations ago by the elders still holds sway, and no one dares stop the old practice for fear that ancient warnings might come true.

After watching a couple of documentaries,“Food Inc.” by Mark Kenner and “The Corporation”, by Achbar, Abbott, & Bakan, it appears that all of us as consumers either feed the machine, or feed the machine while making efforts not to. In a sense when we walk into a grocery store where there are thousands of selections which are available all year 'round, we are choosing to feed the corporate system that makes it possible. All the cruelty to animals, use of hormones and antibiotics in food, exploitation of migrant workers, de-forestation of the planet, pollution from chemicals used in agriculture, etc. becomes ours. By continuing to participate we are the ones who stay in Omelas, the ones who continue the lottery, who continue to punish the scapegoat in order to maintain the wonderful life we have all come to expect. In our case the scapegoats are animals who live lives of unimaginable suffering, workers who are treated like animals, a planet that groans under the weight of unsustainable practices, and our own bodies which are over fed on the wrong foods.

And yet, even knowing and accepting this, I wonder: who were the ones who walked away from Omelas? Where were they going? Did they know? What if the villagers in “The Lottery” stopped the macabre practice to see what would happen? Would they really go back to caves?

We have a choice in our world to not participate in the corporate raping and pillaging of our planet and the systematic abuse of working humanity. But how? How can we free ourselves when we live in a world in which we are so inextricably embedded in a corporate system, where the 24 hour market is a way of life, where mass production and year 'round consistency seem like necessities, where the corporate label seems to offer some security? We are warned by corporate opinion makers that we'll starve and be cold if we try to unplug. The back-to-the-landers didn't age so well they say, and ultimately had to come in for dental work. But some persist in testing the old myth that freeing the scapegoat will bring down Utopia, stopping the lottery will have us back in caves, that without the Monsanto corporate farm we'll starve.

Today on National Public Radio there was a story about a swap meet of sorts where folk swap canned goods. Not the kind you find at Kroger or Walmart but jars of beets, honey, okra, peas and pickles, they had grown and put up themselves. “Put up” for our youthful citizens means taking vegetables from a backyard garden, at the peak of ripeness, and putting them “up” in jars for eating later like my grandmother used to do with fig preserves. These swap meet participants were young and old, men and women, every color and stripe. They increased the variety of their own gardens by swapping with their neighbors. And there are many communities joining this growing trend, growing, canning and swapping.

It is with mixed emotions that we are forced to notice that Walmart started carrying organic vegetables because their customers asked for them. We would be right to have trepidation when a manager whose sole motivation must of necessity be profit, appears to embrace the earth friendly alternative. BP after all invests in solar power, or at least advertising that mentions solar power. Our choices here are not as clear as walking away or not, stopping the lottery or not. It's complicated! But we can rest assured that once we know we cannot unknow. Once the unintended consequences of our habits are revealed, we really do have a simple choice. We can choose right this very minute to live into the adult awareness that our glittering city depends on a whole underclass of scapegoats. We can choose right this very minute to change one small habit and then another to move Omelas closer to freeing the scapegoat. By making one small change and then another, we can test the myth that if we stop the lottery we'll wake up in a cave. We can dismantle the earth raping, labor abusing, corporate profit machine, one little change at a time. And when we reach the end of our journey and it appears that we have failed, we can dare to trust that we are going to join the ones who walked away and we will know at last where they were going.

I have to admit I was tempted to walk away from Professor Preacher's Ethics class. Overcoming the impulse to walk away had its reward though. Enduring the parts that were objectionable, sacrificing my selfish desire to have it just as I would have it, yielded the lesson of the ones who walked away. It seems inescapable that all the personal anecdotes about big city seminary were just part of a community experience that had at the heart of it something wholly good. It makes me grateful that at least in that one instance I didn't walk away.

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