BP, Icarus and Me: Time For A Cleansing?
I have an apocalyptic frame of mind. I can't help myself. Stories must have beginnings, middles and ends, correct? At least the narrative impulse that serves as the thread I use to navigate through my days suggests so. Here I stand. From whence did I come? What does the future hold? I was born; I will die. Are civilizations and ways of life also bounded by this fateful rhythm?
Events in Arizona chill me. I wonder whether our own home grown ethnic cleansing is gathering shape in the Southwest. I just read a federal complaint seeking injunctive relief against a law seeking to ban aliens from Arizona. The plaintiffs are Mexican-Americans, Americans of Japanese and Chinese descent; there are even folks from Africa as plaintiffs. All have the same fear: being other may be a crime now. A land that boasted of freedom seems suddenly stained by darkness. We cultivate hatred and fear.
One lawmaker recently held forth that not just illegal immigrants, but the children of illegal immigrants should also be barred from the country. That would be me. My father snuck into the United States during the depression. He and his father were from Sfakia, Crete. My father learned English and supported himself for many years with a gun and wits: he was a professional armed robber when payrolls were paid in cash. But for his having shot a man in Detroit, he never would have fled Chicago with his sweetheart, the woman who became my mother. He tried his hand at life within the law's bright lines with us, and then gave up in despair. I did not know whether he was dead or alive for more than 30 years.
When he died, he was still an illegal immigrant. He lived under assumed papers for the vanilla portion of his adult life. My father was an illegal when he died at 84. I am the son of an illegal immigrant. Does that make me illegal, too?
Perhaps it does. Having roots in Crete thrills me. The Cretan civilization was one of the first and grandest in the West. But it died an inglorious death. Only remains speak of the glory that was once Minos: We speak of Daedalus, Icarus and Theseus, but of the civilization that spawned them we know only that it is gone.
I think often of Icarus, flying too close to the Sun until the wax that held his wings together melted and he fell into the the sea. The sea, mind you, a giver of life. From its bounty we are sustained.
Sustained until we kill the it. I watch the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and am moved at once to sorrow and murderous rage. If there were a justification ever for the death penalty it would be for those who desecrate the Earth that sustains us: BP ought to be consigned to some special circle of Hell, its executives bound by a chain of gold to the bottom of Hell's septic system, forced forever to wade against a rising tide of its own feces. BP has fouled the seas.
But I am not innocent. I guzzle gas and oil in my own heedless pursuit of the good. I am Icarus unbound, racing across the new world as though there were no tomorrow, seeking to put distance between me and yesterday's sorrows. I am BP. Yet I do not want the penalty to come. I fear the silence of an indifferent Earth.
I am reminded of classics in apocalyptic literature: The Death of Grass
, Earth Abides
, A Canticle for Leibowitz
, and, most recently, The Road
. In each, lonely survivors confront an angry world; nature unbound, its harmony undone by consequences perhaps foreseen but not avoided. What have we wrought in the Gulf of Mexico?
Oil hemorrhages from an open wound. It oozes into the water from which life is bread. Goo covers living things, and coats adjoining Earth. A hurricane season lingers, with fear that this cancerous new ecosystem will metastasize and spread inland. Will farmers' fields be contaminated? Will a ferocious wind carry slick poison northward? Will the bleeding at the sea's bottom ever stop? How will this summer's rains taste in New England?
The Earth warms, its surface cracks, a black fool's gold becomes poison. There is death in the sea, and with death fear. We somehow seek to cleanse the nation from all but the pure. But who among us really belongs here? Who has not migrated from elsewhere? Aren't we all displaced Cretans, hanging, however precariously, to a way of life that we are too reluctant to recognize as fragile and capable of irrevocable destruction?
We are all Cretans today, far from home, and scared.