This is really a letter to myself, but it’s here because it seemed the best place for it. But it’s to you, too, you people of 2010 and beyond, so you’ll know how I felt back here in the past. I guess I want you to realize that we had our passions just as you do, and they sometimes drove us to … extremities.
I just quit my job. Walked out.
Was it a good choice? Well, it’ll be a while before I know, I guess, but right now … it’s good and bad.
Really bad, in a way. I mean, seriously, deep-shit bad.
I’m deep in debt, behind on a boatload of bills, and not doing all that great in my freelance career. I’m likely to lose my house, my credit rating, and even get pretty hungry before I manage to work things out. IF I do. I’m also 56 years old, and I have no health insurance.
Whew! Just imagining it in this moment, it scares me.
But it’s also good, maybe really good, in a couple of ways.
One way was the trigger that caused me to quit. It was good that I left.
I’m an atheist, I think you know. An unbeliever, even an anti-theist. My old joke is “I don’t believe in gods, and I don’t think you should either.”
Here’s what I do at the newspaper I work at (um, what I “did,” at the newspaper I “worked” at): I’m a special type of editor called a copy editor.
A little background: Stories come into a newspaper by two separate streams. The major stream, for most newspapers, is the Associated Press. “Wire” stories from all over the country — all over the world, really — show up on the AP Wire, and are picked up, or not, as the local editors choose. The second stream is stories written by staff writers employed by the local newspaper itself.
Larger newspapers have a number of them. In the old days (say, 10 years ago), it might have been scores of them, maybe even a hundred or more for the giants, but today it’s down, most places, to a handful. Some very small newspapers might have only one or two.
Stories flow in and are evaluated by a team of senior editors. The senior editors lay out rough page designs on paper, and situate the stories in them based on length and importance. They imagine headline sizes and lengths, based on those layouts, and then send the corresponding stories into the newspaper’s local system.
Copy editors like me then pick up the stories and read them. We correct the spelling, grammar and punctuation, do some fact-checking if necessary, and add on the appropriate headline.
Tonight an interesting story rolled across my desk. It was about a World War II pilot and his experience in the B-17 military plane, also called the Flying Fortress. The final anecdote of the article was about his plane getting shot down, and one quote the reporter used was him saying something like “My co-pilot was an atheist before, but he’s been a good Christian ever since.” [Note after posting: The quote actually referred to the bombardier.]
I flagged the quote with a note to my immediate editor: “Ahem. If this quote said ‘My co-pilot was a Jew before, but he’s been a good Christian ever since,’ would we even think about including it?”
In my head was a very clear understanding that the quote was a serious insult to a certain demographic. I happen to be one, in this case, but I would certainly have flagged the line if it was that equivalent quote about a Jew being converted by the experience into being a Christian, even though I’m not a Jew. If it said “My co-pilot was a black man before, but this scared him white,” I would’ve brought it up, even though I don’t happen to be black. If the story made a similar statement about a gay or lesbian, or a handicapped person, I would have flagged it.
I realize we’re talking about a mix of demographics here, some by birth, others by choice. In this case, I suppose you could say I choose to be an atheist. Except it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like I HAVE to be an atheist, because anything less is a betrayal of my deepest principles and self-respect.
But the principle is the same in both types of examples. Lazy discrimination, callous ridicule, tossed out there simply because you don’t care enough about other people’s feelings. Because they’re not real to you, not human enough for you.
Hey, if it’s vital factual information, it goes into the newspaper no matter whose nose gets out of joint. But if it’s just casual insults or jokes that you know in advance will offend, you just don’t throw it in with the attitude of “what the hell, screw ‘em.”
I suppose I could have stayed and attempted to be more persuasive. But … I have this thing that I don’t LIKE persuading people. Growing up in an environment where all sorts of psychological pressures are brought to bear on us — advertising, politics, the daily suasions that our acquaintances lay on us to bend us to their way of thinking — living in an ocean of lies and arm-twisting, I seem to have just made an unconscious resolution some time back to not treat my fellow men and women that way. Knowing how much I hate it when it’s done to me, it seems wrong to push or trick other people into doing things just because there’s some advantage in it for you.
Often and always, it puts me at a serious disadvantage. For one thing, you pretty much always have to do things someone else’s way.
For years, I just gritted my teeth and lived with the discomfort, but somewhere along the way to growing up, I discovered that, even if you can’t change people’s minds, you don’t have to put up with the situation before you. You always have the freedom to absent yourself from it.
The rule in the back of my mind says: If you really don’t like something, don’t hang around arguing. Just leave.
Oh, I seldom hesitate to express my disapproval or disagreement. But I don’t argue. I just say that I disagree, briefly attempt to explain the nature of it, and then stop.
(Annoyingly, much of the time I fail to change people’s minds. And yet, on the other hand, I like to think I’m fairly flexible and sensitive – if the same thing happens in reverse, if I’m wrong about something and someone shows me how, I usually get the point in only a few words. Because I know I make mistakes all the time. I’m willing to BE wrong, to admit at a moment’s notice that I am, and to try to fix it.)
In this case, the good thing is that I felt strongly about this insulting quote that was going to make its way into the newspaper, and I expressed it.
I did it twice, in fact. After I saw that my immediate editor was apparently going to keep the quote in the story, I went to the chief editor and mentioned it. And he said, “Oh, I saw that already. No, it’s perfectly fine as it is.”
But it wasn’t perfectly fine. It was insulting generally, and it was insulting to me.
To anybody not African-American in 1950, it would be difficult to understand what was offensive about the black-face comedians on TV, the shuffling and mugging and eye-popping actors who made black people out to be stupid and lazy.
Certainly any Jewish person aware of his people’s history could recount – even without mentioning Hitler – equally insulting jokes and stories and attitudes involving Jews.
But make an atheist joke or insult, and even though the exact same model of callous unconcern is the core of the thing, most people today can’t see that there’s anything wrong.
Most people are unable to generalize the lesson of insult, because they can’t see atheists as a people, a group, with a deeply held set of beliefs and a common concern of acceptance.
The difference is, Jews and blacks, and later gays, made noise. Made themselves and their concerns felt by the larger society. Made themselves HEARD.
But atheists have yet to do that, really. There are a number of books on the recent bestseller lists about atheism and the nature of religion, but there has still been almost nothing in the way of defensive actions or protests at the still-very-common vilification of atheists by religious people.
Something else occurs to me: If it’s black jokes or insults, it’s racism. If it’s Jewish jokes or insults, its religious or cultural persecution. If it’s mistreating women, it’s gender bias. If it’s gay discrimination, it’s homophobia.
But if it’s atheist jokes and insults … what?
Atheists today face discrimination so subtle, so pervasive, that it doesn’t even have a name.
So: I said my piece about the statement being offensive. It was ignored. And rather than argue, make a scene, try to persuade people against my own standards of the limits of allowable argument, I just … left.
If you really don’t like something, don’t hang around arguing. Just leave.
I actually really liked my job, and all of my co-workers.
And considering my economic situation, did I over-react? Possibly. Probably.
But for that moment, and every one since then, I just don’t think I can sit quietly and let myself be insulted just because somebody doesn’t know that it’s important to me, or to people like me. I can’t be the quiet “Yes, boss” atheist anymore and just put up with the constant flood of unthinking crap.
I do hope things are better in your time. I know how lucky I am not to have been a black man in the 1950s and before, or a Jew in Hitler’s time, and I know the people in those examples suffered infinitely worse treatment than anything likely ever to happen to me.
But then again, “my people” – unbelievers of every sort – HAVE suffered our share of torture, murder, shunning, and other mistreatments off the scale of anything I can adequately imagine. In every period of history, we’ve been terrorized by the religious – the nice Christians, the peace-loving Muslims, so many others. Is burning at the stake less horrifying than being gassed in Germany, or lynched in Alabama? I have to say I don’t think it is.
Here and now, none of that’s likely to happen, but it seems important for me to point out, if only to myself, that it has, and could. The discrimination is the same, no matter how far back it happened, and no matter how seemingly insignificant to the discriminator today.
The second good thing about this: As I was driving home, feeling angry about this incident, I said to myself “This is my fault for putting myself in this situation. I should have been working as a full-time freelancer all this time, making three times what I make at the newspaper. But I relaxed, I slid down into that comfort zone of being an employee. I let someone else set my schedule. I let someone else set my income ceiling — worse, I begged for more hours and days, like a puppy begging for crumbs from the table.”
I’ve been having good money-making ideas since I was a kid. And I have a dozen different skills. And yet I STILL work for other people.
Watching myself all these years with what Terry Pratchett calls “second thoughts,” I could never figure out why I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to create the fully-independent life I’ve always imagined. And at the age of 56, I was (am) aware that if it’s ever going to happen, it better be soon.
Worse: Also at the age of 56, I’ve started to ask myself “Is this it?” Is this all I’m ever going to be? A wage slave, one of those silent millions who go to their graves with their music still in them?
Tonight I decided: No. This is not it.
I think I’m finally fed up enough, tired enough, angry enough — with myself, mainly — that this will be the spark that sets me onto a whole other path in my life.
Friend up there in the future, in case you wondered, this is the night, this is the moment, when things changed. It took me this long, but I finally got a grip, and did something different with my life.
I cut the cord, I came into port and burned the boat behind me.
It starts now, the rest of my life, the better part, the part I’ve always wanted and never had the courage to create.
Welp, at 2 a.m., it’s time for bed. I have to get up early.
Lots to do.
[If you’re unsure what this “Letters to the Future” is about, it’s just a quirky (and copyrighted) idea I had. It’s a way for me to write about the present in a way that highlights things that would otherwise go unnoticed. Thinking of writing to someone in the future forces me to examine everyday things in new ways. If I think of explaining them to someone not familiar with them, I have to look more closely.]