By: Richard Stone
I saw Avatar (at the $3 theater) a couple of weeks ago and was surprised to find below its visual extravaganza a ferociously anti-imperialist and anti-materialist story. It was simplistic in depicting the unalloyed beauty of a tribal culture but brutally effective in exposing the worst excesses of scientific rationalism yoked to the egoistic profit motive of capitalism.
Catherine Campbell is not simplistic or a back-to-nature prophetess. But in our recent conversation, I was reminded of Avatar as I listened to her recitations of the legalistic brutality she has seen in her 30-plus years as a lawyer defending the rights of those considered “less than worthy.”
Catherine has been involved with a range of issues and cases, from parental custody rights to reform of prisoners’ healthcare, from governmental malfeasance to protections for the accused. In common, these all involve the vulnerability of–and sanctioned disrespect for–the poor and the unassimilated.
Yet as we talked, I began to sense that below Catherine’s intense responses to injustice and abuses of power lay a deeper understanding: that much of our modern culture is directed by a superficial rationality that has produced technological wonders but fails to appreciate the enduring wisdom of evolved nature. We can split the atom and release its energy (for good or evil), but we cannot make a coherent universe that has created and sustained atoms.
Although such a belief also lies at the heart of classical conservatism (a la Edmund Burke), even a cursory look at Catherine’s career reveals no neo-conservative justification of a status quo that supports inequality and discrimination. Instead, her work has rejected easy judgments and ideological panaceas, opposing interventions based on anything but the hard work of deep, caring involvement with those who are different or don’t share our good fortune.
As we talked, in fact, Catherine sidesteps my inquiries about her beliefs (despite the title of this column being “Credo”) as the word implies to her unwarrantable fixity and sureness. She specifically references a lot of social engineering and quasi-scientific interpretations of “proper behavior”-often rooted in the precepts of organized religions (or political doctrines for that matter)-that give “belief” a bad name.
Catherine says she has studied deeply many spiritual texts and practices, including Buddhism, Jungian psychology and meditation, in search of self-understanding and “an exit from repetitious unproductive habits.” But she has concluded that all orthodoxies lead to “betrayal of the earth and the human spirit, enabling their followers to believe it is permissible to destroy the planet as long as one believes.If I were to single out a text that guides me, it would have to be the I Ching, the Book of Changes.”
Catherine’s life and work, though, are products of far more than intellect and abstract thought. In dealing with intense familial problems at an early age, she learned the critical difference made by a support system with abiding love, in that case, her two brothers. This lesson has been reinforced in later life with the inclusion of friends, children and husband Tom, who she cites as the greatest bringer of goodness into her life. These are people, she says, who “have buttressed my mental health by loving me in spite of my human failings.”
She has seen, too, that many of her erring decisions have been overlooked because of her “White privilege” and middle-class status. And, tellingly, she has discovered that so many mistakes of judgment, or human limitation, that bring on crises are healed primarily by time, the wisdom of experience, forgiveness and the power of love.
“I’ve seen repeatedly in my professional life how people without the advantages of someone like me–advantages of class and relative wealth and connection–are judged summarily as inadequate or depraved, and denied the opportunity for healing. I see children and parents torn apart forever, criminals branded for life, addicts deemed beyond hope–with no credence given to their powers to love, to rediscover roots, to make amends for past mistakes. It is positively Dickensian, all done in the name of family values.”
To meet Catherine socially, you might be struck first by her wit and humor or, if she’s traveling with grandchildren in tow, by her playful affection. Entering Tom and Catherine’s home, what meets the eye first is the profusion of artwork and artifacts clearly there because they are appreciated, not for design effect. These charming qualities, though, are clues to (rather than disguises for) the passions that move her. Who else but Catherine would say, with a smile, “I give thanks daily to the Fresno Bee for giving my work renewed inspiration.”
Many years ago, after a self-imposed exile from Fresno to San Francisco to experience an unlived youth, and after a failed marriage, she found herself lost and depressed. “I was in a bar on Union Street, idly reading, when lines by the poet Adrienne Rich jolted me awake. I called my children who I’d left behind in Fresno and asked, ‘Do you want me to come home?’ They said, ‘If you’ll stay.’ The lessons learned during that time have never left: do what’s right, honor your roots, take care of your kids, work on what matters to you.” Pretty close to a credo if you ask me.
From an Atlas of the Difficult World, poems by Adrienne Rich
A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who wrestles for the soul of her country
as she wrestles for her own being, for the soul of his country
(gazing through the great circle at Window Rock into the sheen of the Viet Nam Wall)
as he wrestles for his own being. A patriot is a citizen trying to wake
from the burnt-out dream of innocence, the nightmare
of the white general and the Black general posed in their camouflage,
to remember her true country, remember his suffering land:
remember that blessing and cursing are born as twins and separated at birth to meet again in mourning that the internal emigrant is the most homesick of all women and of all men
that every flag that flies today is a cry of pain.
Where are we moored?
What are the bindings?
What behooves us?
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and is a member of Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media (CCAM). Contact him at email@example.com.