I walk the streets of Eureka every day. Sometimes I walk down to the million-dollar wharf and watch the seals, averting my eyes from the homeless who gather there. Then I might walk past the corner of 4th and E and wonder what happened to the homeless woman who used to sit on the bench there day after day.
Does anybody know? Does anybody care? I might pass the Betty Chinn center, then rows of brightly painted Victorians, the liquor store known as the Stop-and-Rob, the yard with hundreds of empty Friskies cans in the driveway. Sometimes I’ll pass someone talking to themselves, sometimes children playing. If I keep walking out to Cutten, the houses get bigger, the trees taller, the air cleaner.
I live next to what was a detox center in West Eureka. For years, when we heard sirens in the night, we knew someone had OD’d next door yet again. That was because there were no proper medical detox facilities north of Santa Rosa. At the time, multi-family zoning allowed such centers to be set up here, but not in Cutten. Most of the rehabs in the city are still clustered in my neighborhood. By corralling the troubled or the poor into certain areas, those who live elsewhere can pretend that they don’t exist. Meanwhile, millions are in prison or deportation camps or living on reservations, separated off.
In the Ursula Le Guin story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” she describes a happy, idyllic town. Everyone is happy except an undernourished child with stunted growth who lives in a room the size of a broom closet. People can go see him, but they can’t comfort him, for they know that the happiness of their community depends on the suffering of this one boy. Le Guin was pointing out that we have a boy cowering in the broom closet; the prosperity enjoyed by some of us has been created by exploiting millions of workers here and abroad. In the story, some people did not accept this social contract, they walked away.
Interestingly, prosperity has not led to greater happiness. In the 2016 article “Income Inequality Makes Whole Countries Less Happy” in the Harvard Business Review, De Neve and Powdthavee analyzed data from the Gallup World poll and the World Top Incomes Database. They found that negative emotional experiences increase as the income of the 1% rises. Most surprisingly, the wealthy did not get a positive bump in emotional well being from their economic gains.
Countries with greater social equality have greater indexes of well being, longer life expectancy, more social harmony and cooperation, greater levels of trust. In a 2004 study with the National Opinion Research Center, 40% of Americans said they could trust most people. In Scandinavia, that number is 70%. Decreased trust in a community leads to greater levels of anxiety, insecurity, isolation and therefore mental illness.
One way corporate elites divide us is by systematically breaking down our capacity for empathy, by using the media to create a narcissistic culture in which billionaires are venerated as special geniuses and the poor are blamed for their plight. Playing upon cultural and racial divisions to gain power is the oldest trick in the book. Hate crimes have risen dramatically in the past four years.
People talk about healing divisions in our country by reaching across the aisle. I propose we reach out to those who have previously been left out. This is what Bernie Sanders is in the process of accomplishing and in so doing he is changing the landscape of American politics. The poor, the disillusioned, the forgotten are turning out to vote, so who is in and who is out is about to change. Bernie doesn’t represent a small faction; instead he speaks for most of us, those in West Eureka and Cutten. He does not speak in the interests of members of the corporate oligarchy like Bloomberg and Trump.
It is time to walk away from Omelas.