Good social commentators seek to hold up a mirror to society so we can see what we look like to others. The best ones are able to do it while inviting us in, rather than pushing us away. The goal is to enlist our participation in seeking change, rather than highlighting our weaknesses and moving on. David Brooks of The New York Times is one of my favorite commentators because he does this with good writing and by drawing on a wide source of literary and academic sources. I don't always agree with his columns, but there are a critical mass of them that truly hit home, powerfully. I have written a number of Newsletters that were stimulated by his columns (see here) and my favorite of his columns that speaks directly to my research interests is here. The article in the url below is another good one. The foundation for the column is a short story by Ursula Le Guin ('The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas') and the center of the story is the child in the basement in the town of Omelas. You'll have to read the column to understand why the child is in the basement, but the central moral decision lies in those who choose to live in Omelas and those who choose not to accept the moral tradeoffs that living in Omelas entails:
"That is the social contract in Omelas. One child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If the child were let free or comforted, Omelas would be destroyed. Most people feel horrible for the child, and some parents hold their kids tighter, and then they return to their happiness. But some go to see the child in the room and then keep walking. They don't want to be part of that social contract. 'They leave Omelas; they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.'"
In reality, as Brooks notes, the vast majority of us, facing the same tradeoff, choose to live in Omelas:
"The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity. The rest of us live with the trade-offs. The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates. The people who stay in Omelas aren't bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon. I've found that this story rivets people because it confronts them with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements — and, at the same time, it elicits some desire to struggle against bland acceptance of it all."
Of course, we can rationalize living in Omelas because we are trying to make the town better. In reality, we all compromise our principles on some level, both collectively and individually, for the benefits that living in Omelas provides:
"In another reading, the whole city of Omelas is just different pieces of one person's psychology, a person living in the busy modern world, and that person's idealism and moral sensitivity is the shriveling child locked in the basement."
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The Child in the Basement
The Child in the Basement
By David Brooks
January 13, 2015
The New York Times
Late Edition – Final