When Does Drowning Mean Drowning?

"I'm drowning my brother drowning." -- Eva Paterson

"I'm drowning my brother drowning." -- Eva Paterson

A few weeks ago I finished painting a portrait of Eva Paterson, the founder of the Equal Justice Society in San Francisco. Eva's organization works to identify and correct the ongoing, pernicious legacy of racism in our culture and legal system. While we were discussing, over a period of weeks, what quote of hers to scratch into the surface of her portrait, she sent me an email that began with the quote above. I thought this was her final decision. Sheer poetry, I thought but what does it mean? Does it invoke the common panic of the drowning person who flails so desperately that she takes her rescuer down with her? Or, does it suggest a more sinister, malevolent intent, the one that completes the process of victimization, as in cutting off aid to the homeless, or deciding that the Iraq War, and Climate Change, and Darfur are really intractable problems, so why do anything? As in, whatever you do, you'll end up sucked into a deep and slimy bog that's already bubbling with an unnamable, toxic ooze of corruption, violence and hypocrisy. So, walk away, walk away fast, even if it means by so doing you expedite your brother's drowning.

Or, is it a cry from her heart, that no matter how hard she works for social justice, the bodies keep piling up. And, because she can't work faster and more effectively, it seems her efforts are counterproductive. Promise hope, deliver death.

Well, Eva didn't mean anything like that. She had left out the punctuation. Exhausted from overwork, she meant to say, "I am drowning, my brother, drowning." Too tired, she meant, to role those giant, Sisyphean commas into place on either side of "my brother," and too tired to come up with another quote. Eva was amused at my confusion, but her original, unpunctuated line continues to unsettle me with its foreboding.

Imagine, I thought, running toward splashing and shouts for help. And then imagine, instead of following the instinct to rescue, you check out who's in trouble. Oh, it's only that immigrant whose country was ruined by your imperialism and appetite for drugs and who is always calling you hermano. And, you know, there are too many of them anyway, and, jeez, even if I help, what then? He'd probably need a place to stay, dry clothes, want to call his relatives in Cartegena, and they'd want to join him in the U.S. Better in the long run if I just hold him under for a bit, drown my brother drowning. Adios, hermano.

Or, imagine, I thought, how complicity has wriggled its way into every aspect of our lives. Try doing something --- anything! --- that doesn't require fossil fuels and exploitation of the earth, animals, and other people. Starting your car, pulling up your cotton underwear, turning on your kitchen light, boiling your potatoes, scribbling your thoughts on a scrap of paper, unscrewing the plastic, tamper proof lid of your Advil. Living in a culture that is 4 per cent of the world's population and uses 25 per cent of the world's resources and at the same time infects every organic molecule with DNA altering chemicals and poisonous waste is psychologically and morally untenable. It's a situation that engenders hallucinations -- like 300 million people all wielding one enormous saw to cut off the limb of the universal tree on which they live, or the steel, concrete and glass skyscrapers of every city as a mouthful of giant, jagged reptilian teeth ripping into the earth's living flesh. Megapolosaurus. Who will need to ask what caused the extinction of the Megapolosauri? No one. They ate themselves. Don't wait for the movie. You can see it right now reflected in any asphalt surface, on any Wal-Mart shelf, on any Big Mac wrapper, on the shiny mercury stored in the body of every fish, between the digital numbers on any gas pump as they flip by. And the ethereal sound track is easily heard because so few birds are singing or bees humming.

It has been the mantra of the powerful corporations to internalize the profit and externalize the cost. That means blow the tops off mountains in West Virginia, take the coal, dump the toxic waste into the valleys and into poor people's lives, and leave with the profit. It means refuse to install the expensive equipment that would remove the mercury from the smoke of the coal-fired electrical generators in Ohio, so that the cost will be assumed by the pregnant woman in Maine who eats a mercury-laced trout. The corporations have controlled the political process so that legally their only responsibility is to maximize shareholder profit while the shareholders have no responsibility for what they do. And the public pays. And the public is advised to invest, and does invest, in these same companies ( the ones that are decimating their environment and poisoning their bodies) for their retirement. Funny notion that. We all join in the profit of drowning our drowning brothers.

Another hallucination: a dark figure ( is it Dick Cheney? Rupert Murdoch? Osama? Me? All of us under one dark cloak?) is feeding human bodies and birds, trees and clouds, rivers and fields, elephants and spiders, history and ideals, hope and truth into a chipper as big as the world. The machine, roaring like only an insatiable black hole must roar, spits out the fragments in a marvelous arc, as marvelous, really, as the Milky Way. As we were once mesmerized by creation, we are mesmerized by destruction. Because, in the Cathedral of the Holy Corporation, we worship neither the God of Love, nor the God of Wrath, but the God of Appetite, whose ineffable touch reverses the spark of creation. Imagine Michelangelo's God, his hand reaching out to Adam, and Adam vacuumed back into His finger. Blip. Time's up.

I am not only drowning my brother drowning, but his children, too.

One of the first panels that Michelangelo completed on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is called the Deluge. It depicts people fleeing the flood that only Noah's family and the animals will ride out. Michelangelo painted the refugees from the rising water in all manner of behavior --- care for the frightened, support for the weak, grief for the dead, and violent self-centeredness. In the swirling gray water a man and a woman punch and club another man as he tries to climb into their boat. Further in the background, as a young man attempts to pull an old man to momentary safety on the porch of a building that is still above the water level, another man is about to strike the old man with an ax. There are two flavors of horror here. One is the event itself with all of its Katrina-like pathos: doomed men, women and children fleeing, but helping each other. The other horror compounds and subverts the first. A violent event of nature made appalling by grotesque human violence. Drowning people drowning each other.

We are now up to our necks in a culture of programmed complicity. Just as the Hutus in Rwanda made sure that all the men killed someone so all would be complicit, the corporate culture here teaches consumption rather than citizenship, isolation rather than community, teaches that predatory capitalism is democracy. If there is an answer, it must be climbing out together, giving a hand up to the weakest and most vulnerable, reinforcing our virtues, denying the culture that preaches making virtue of vice, heroism of spectacular, unsustainable greed.

Eva Paterson, when she did complete the quote for her portrait, included this sentence: "Drowning in silence, we are brothers and sisters drowning each other." We are drowning, my friends, suffocating in complicity and lies. As surely as trees give life-sustaining oxygen to our atmosphere, truth and accountability, fairness and compassion provide the social oxygen for our culture. I'm sure that the epidemic of asthma in our children is attributable in equal parts to environmental and cultural causes. A culture living on lies leaves everyone gasping. The oxygen has gone out of America. The waters are rolling down, but they are not the waters of justice.

Plant a tree of truth.

Eva Paterson's portrait can be seen: https://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/pgs/portraits/Eva_Paterson.html

The Equal Justice Society is at www.equaljusticesociety.org

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