Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

To Sell My Immortal Soul

(This isn't a radio show/podcast transcript.)

I went to a Catholic elementary school from 1957 to 1965—that’s where the foundation of my moral code and world view were formed. The only thing I learned about birds was that St. Francis believed they had souls. At the time, that was plenty enough ornithology for me.

Most of my teachers were nuns who had taken a vow of poverty. They were the ones who taught me that a synonym for money was filthy lucre. My lay teachers were paid so little that they might as well have taken a vow of poverty, too.

My beloved St. Francis renounced worldly ways—his Franciscan order was the first to require a vow of poverty. I wanted to be a nun, and welcomed living as Francis did, renouncing wealth and the moral compromises so many people make in order to amass riches. Indeed, for the past 32 years I’ve been producing For the Birds without any compensation except the satisfaction of thinking that St. Francis might have appreciated my life of service to birds.

But parents must provide for their children, and in 2005, when we had three kids in college, I took a paying job at a local optics retailer, writing a blog. From Day One, I defined the purpose of that blog as “For the love, understanding, and protection of birds.” I didn’t like reviewing binoculars and spotting scopes—I got freaked out one day when a customer, who had just two weeks before bought a premium pair of binoculars, called me to ask about a news release about another top brand that was about to offer a competing model. He wanted to know if the new binoculars would be better than his. When I asked him if he liked his, he said they seemed perfect, but he was still concerned that there could be something even better out there. I wanted to slap him and tell him to shut up and go birding, but managed to hold my tongue—I hope that was more due to my innate desire to be polite than to my selling out for a job.

But in 2007, my boss sold the company to a large corporation—one that boasted to us on a visit to its Omaha headquarters that their salespeople base recommendations for customers not on what binoculars would be best for someone’s unique circumstances, but which models are best for the company’s profit margins. They also sold a lot of cheap crap from China, including stuff that was demonstrably horrible for birds, like metal bird houses that would cook or freeze baby chickadees and wrens. I could not allow my name to be associated with them, period.

If I’d held on, I probably would have been laid off anyway, which would have given me a few more paychecks and then I’d qualify for unemployment, but instead I wrote a bridge-burning letter to the company on March 15, my version of Brutus sticking it to the man on the Ides of March.

In seventh or eighth grade religion class, one of our priests defined prostitution as taking money for any action that violated one’s conscience. He said it would be a sin for even a parent with hungry mouths to feed to take a job that required him or her to hurt human beings. He made the point that some violations of conscience are more egregious than others—that working in Hitler’s concentration camps would be a worse sin, and a more profound example of prostitution, than a desperate woman committing the more narrow legal definition of prostitution. Yep—accepting even a single paycheck with that corporation’s name on it would have made me a prostitute, clear and simple.

I’ve long worried and wondered what it was about Germans that allowed them to take jobs in those concentration camps, much less about the ones who turned a blind eye to them. But right here in America, people working for ICE and a bunch of for-profit prisons and detention centers are showing me how many people either don’t have any moral qualms about harming other human beings or are willing to violate their conscience for pay.

Ironically, the very man who has referred to human beings trying to immigrate to America as “infesting” our nation liked undocumented workers just fine when they were building Trump Tower for $4 an hour. Now that he would have trouble getting away with that, he’s basing his immigration policy not on stopping wealthy Americans from exploiting undocumented workers but on harming those poor, desperate people who arrived here, just as my great great grandparents and two of this president’s wives as well as his own mother and paternal grandparents did, as immigrants.

A few of the people working for ICE and the Border Patrol or for the detention centers where children have been sent are speaking out; some have quit their jobs. But prostitution—doing evil for pay—is the order of the day now. Selling one’s soul for filthy lucre is the Trumpian way.