[from the Commentary Section of The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 27, 1999]
“A Parable for Sudan”
By Eric Reeves
America is hardly unique among prosperous nations in finding few occasions on which to consider our national well-being in a truly global context, especially a context in which epidemic disease, starvation, obscene cruelty, and homelessness are defining features. In this we are powerfully encouraged by a government that has traditionally placed difficult and economically unpromising foreign policy concerns far behind “strategic” interests and domestic policy. Matters are hardly helped by our embarrassingly attenuated media coverage. In the end America tends to compartmentalize issues by means of crude geopolitical “weight”–or, even more disturbingly, simply to blur beyond useful recognition the atrocities of Sierra Leone, the child mortality rates in southern Iraq, or starvation in North Korea. Suffering is homogenized into mere abstraction.
How else to account for the virtual invisibility of the catastrophe that engulfs the southern Sudan? Two million Sudanese have already perished in an apparently interminable civil war; true genocide is ongoing in the Nuba Mountains; starvation and rampant disease stalk hundreds of thousands in Bahr el-Ghazal and other southern provinces, threatening to overwhelm one of the most ambitious humanitarian efforts of our lifetime; and an incomprehensibly great number of men, women, and children are internally displaced within their homeland, or refugees in the hinterlands of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. How can all this be the occasion for so little attention?
The scope of human suffering here is so great that a parable may be necessary to gain some moral purchase on the situation and the consequences of acquiescence; I offer one embedded in Ursula Le Guin’s haunting story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
The inhabitants of Le Guin’s fabulous “Omelas” dwell in a place of apparently supreme happiness–a deep, rich, and peaceful happiness detailed ecstatically by her ambiguous narrator. But these inhabitants have acquiesced in a morally troubling set of contingencies. For as all the inhabitants of “Omelas” fully know (so Le Guin’s narrator insists), their happiness depends utterly and singularly on the suffering of one child–sequestered in a small basement room somewhere in “Omelas,” terrified, in frequent pain, and deprived of proper food, clothing, companionship. And not only must the child suffer, but everyone must know that the child suffers; these are the terms, and all realize they can’t be changed or renegotiated. To save the child is to destroy as a consequence, immediately and completely, the extraordinary happiness of “Omelas.” Accepting this does not come easily to those in “Omelas”; but, after more or less initial anguish, they do. That is, all except “the ones who walk away.” Unaccountably (the narrator finds) some leave the city and its blissful, if contingent, happiness and go off on their own to an unknown destination, one more unimaginable than “Omelas” itself.
There are, the story implicitly argues, those who find that their own happiness can’t depend on the suffering of the innocent–or even a single innocent. And in the parable as Le Guin presents it, since they can only stay or leave, they leave. The conditions of happiness in “Omelas” can’t be altered.
Have we made of our enormous economic health, our political and military ascendancy, an “American Omelas”? Few would argue that our happiness depends upon the suffering of those in southern Sudan. But the questions we must confront are finally deeper, matters not of economic or political contingency, but of the moral spirit embodied in our national attitudes and foreign policy. Is our well-being diminished if we take full cognizance of the reality occasioning one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time? Do we avert our eyes from Sudan in order that we not suffer? Do we, for convenience’s sake, simply blur or conflate the nighmarishly difficult circumstances on the ground in Sudan with other “African” troubles? Will we respond fully, through individual efforts and national policy, only when the gristly photographs move in sufficient number to the media surface to occasion some brief spasm of compassion? Will we hear our self-assuaging clamors that the government, or somebody, must do something only when the body count makes it clear that action cannot be adequate?
America is not Le Guin’s ultimately cruel utopia: wide-ranging and energetic efforts to end the Sudanese civil war and alleviate the suffering of the innocent will not lead to some inevitable diminution of our well-being. We are blessed with the wherewithal to reach the suffering child, but we must seize the present opportunity. Not to do so is to create out of our ignorance, or our inattention, or our selfishness, an even more perverse “Omelas.” If in our pursuit of happiness we accept as somehow necessary the suffering in Sudan, we will diminish our world and ourselves.
[Eric Reeves is professor of English at Smith College in Northampton, MA]