Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Why dogs go after mail carriers

by Garret Keizer

Harper's Magazine Notebook (September 2010)

'Tis a villain, sir,
I do not love to look on

-- Miranda on Caliban, The Tempest

More than once in my youth I heard it said that anyone who thinks socialism is a good idea needs to visit a post office. The advice seems to have backfired rather badly in my case, possibly because I have lived most of my adult life in small towns with indispensable and eminently reliable post offices. Though I doubt she'd appreciate the compliment, our town's former postmistress, Shirley B - who for many years sorted mail and weighed parcels (along with a few babies, I'm told) in the federally deputized basement of her house - occupies a place among my influences not far from that of Eugene Debs. Her ill-advised attempt to sell me a sheet of Ronald Reagan stamps notwithstanding, a daily visit to old Shirley went a long way toward keeping me, shall we say, in the pink.

Of course, these sentiments of mine are largely that - sentiments, with as much grounding in actuality as many of the other notions we hold about one of our oldest public institutions. Though it remains under the control of the federal government, what many of us still call "the Post Office" has been required to operate as a solvent business since 1970, the same year Congress changed the name to the Postal Service. And though solvency has long been an issue (a columnist in the New York Times, in 1854, noting that his British contemporaries write three times as many personal letters as Americans, recommends bolstering Post Office revenues with a nationwide injection of epistolary vigor), the Postal Service did in fact meet its mandate through 2006, when US mail reached a record volume of 213 billion pieces. The losses of subsequent years - $5.1 billion in 2007 alone - are no more mysterious than the recession that contributed to them or, for that matter, than the causes of that recession. Granted, with its heavier-than-average burden of federal regulation, the Postal Service has been far less effective than Goldman Sachs or AIG in showing us, and our grandchildren too, what wonders the Market can perform if only government will get off its divinely anointed back.

As for the notion that email is killing the Postal Service, it too inclines toward the sentimental - romanticism in the case of paper-mongers like me, wishful thinking on the part of those eager to invoke technology in the cause of privatization. No doubt email is an aggravating factor, one to which the Postal Service itself contributes: announcing its recent plans (still under review) to suspend Saturday deliveries, the Postal Service sent the Postal Regulatory Commission an email. (It would appear that the PRC is not one of the Postmaster General's Face-book friends.) But of those 213 billion pieces of mail delivered in the Postal Service's best year, only nine percent came from private citizens; in other words, personal correspondence counts little either way.

That email can and should justify the gutting of the Postal Service is a different question or, if you will, another sentiment - one expressed repeatedly and with great downsizing gusto by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera ("Except for condolences and formal thank-you notes, who sends letters in the mail anymore?") but hardly with more succinctness than that of one Josh C ("General Manager at Web Industries; Itinerant Writer; and Decent Little League Coach"), who writes in a recent blog post, "As for snail-mail, good riddance". In the end, sentiments such as Joe's and Josh's may be more telling than any stats. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall", Robert Frost told us, and something there is that doesn't love a post office. We would do well to reflect on what that something is.

First and most obviously, resentment of the "Post Office" comes from its association with the federal government, which in turn and by design has come to be associated with socialism. (I mean the bad kind that takes care of old folks and young children, not the good kind that bails out investment firms.) In the same way that Eisenhower once cited Swedish suicide statistics to illustrate the spiritual disasters brought on by the welfare state, we cite instances of federal workers "going postal" to affirm the dogma that wherever government places its hand, mayhem follows; that whatever Ben Franklin could do, Bill Gates can do better.

Remember that scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which the harried Joad family comes upon a migrant camp run "by the United States government" and feels as if they have gone to heaven? The extent to which their reaction feels dated, as antique as their jalopy, marks the distance we have traveled from the New Deal to the neoliberal, from the Bull Moose Party to the party of Palin Who Slew the Moose.

A second irritant can be found in the fact that postal workers are unionized. They have contracts and what Nocera sneeringly calls "gold-plated benefits". "It would not bother me if they all lost their jobs", comments one of the Times's more compassionate readers, "but I am afraid that they would be rehired ... to fill a position in public health care". One need only consider that the Postal Service, with a workforce of around 600,000, is the nation's third-largest employer, after Walmart and the military, to envision what a post-Postal America might look like - and what too many of us want it to look like. The thing is, these blue-clad slackers with their gold-plated benefits "work for us"; there's the rub, and the tragedy, too, in that so few of those who make that complaint ever think to ask what might be gained if all of us "worked for us". But as Dr Johnson famously noted, our "levellers wish to level down as far as themselves ... they cannot bear leveling up".

Ironically, the union bashing of our most down and dirty levelers - the type that rejoiced in the firing of air-traffic controllers under Reagan and begrudgingly gives Barack Obama his due for bestowing the presidential seal of approval on the firing of an entire Rhode Island public-school faculty - resembles nothing so much as Bolshevism at its loutish worst. Pol Pot got the professors into the rice paddies; now here comes the Tea Party to get these pensioned bastards onto their knees.

A third and more subtle factor in resentment of the Postal Service may have to do with the long-standing association between the concept of privacy and the sanctity of the sealed letter. The US Constitution makes no explicit mention of a right to privacy, yet the roots of that right precede the Constitution and are most recognizable in the protections surrounding the mail The 1710 Post Office Act, enacted by the British Parliament during the reign of Queen Anne, required every postal employee, at home and in the colonies, to take an oath swearing, "I will not wittingly, willingly, or knowingly open ... or cause, procure, permit, or suffer to be opened ... any Letter or Letters ... which shall come into my Hands".

I suspect that for some people the idea of a private communication protected by federal law and costing all of 44 cents is as infuriating as a prude in a nudist camp or, to use Leonard Cohen's line, as "the shy one at some orgy", the orgy in this case being the bacchanal of oversharing and voyeurism that has attained the fervor of a national cult. The emperor steps into the million-eyed scrutiny of cyberspace, or into the virtual strip search of an airport security booth, telling himself that he's wearing new clothes. Then comes a certified letter telling him that he's naked.

More than the unionization of its carriers or the federal oversight of its operations, the most bemoaned evil of the US mail is its slowness {1}. No surprise there, given our culture's worship of speed. I would guess that when the average American hears the word socialism the first image to appear in his or her mind is that of a slow-moving queue, like they have down in Cuba, where people have been known to take a whole morning just to buy a chicken and a whole night just to make love. Unfortunately, the costs of our haste do not admit to hasty calculation. As Eva Hoffman notes in her 2009 book Time, "New levels of speed ... are altering both our inner and outer worlds in ways we have yet to grasp, or fully understand".

The influence of speed upon what Hoffman aptly calls "the very character and materiality of lived time" [my emphasis] has been a topic of discussion for decades now, though its bourgeois construction typically leans toward issues of personal health and lifestyle aesthetics. Speed alters our brain chemistry; it leaves us too little time to smell the roses - a favorite trope among those who would do better to smell their own exhaust. In essence, the speed of a capitalistic society is about leaving others behind, the losers in the race, the "pedestrians" at the side of the road, the people with obsolete computers and junker cars and slow-yield investments. An obsession with speed is also the fear of being left behind oneself - which drives the compulsion to buy the new car, the faster laptop, the inflated stock. For fear of becoming dinosaurs we are turned into sheep.

What disturbs me most about the zeal to declare the Postal Service obsolete is the extent to which leaving others behind is an acceptable option. "Let them use email", we're told, but only 76 percent of adults in the United States own a computer; only 74 percent have Internet access in their homes. Minorities, including people with disabilities and residents of America's ever-more-devastated hinterlands, are disproportionately among the unplugged fourth, the callers perpetually on hold.

Leaving others' behind, like running them over, is hardly new. What feels new is the extent to which "left behind" is defined by a lack of equipment {2}. In the past, barriers to full inclusion were based on color, class, gender, literacy, solvency - barriers still very much in place. Increasingly, however, those barriers are being reduced to "system requirements". This can be construed as more democratic, since in theory everybody can buy the required equipment, except that everybody can't, at least not at a pace matching the speed of frivolous innovation and contrived obsolescence. People with obsolete equipment become obsolete people. In contrast, the idea behind the Post Office was that in at least one critical area of the national life there should be no such thing. Regardless of where you lived, the mail would be delivered to your door. For the price of a stamp, you could write to the president of the United States.

But metaphysics, more than politics, determines the fast-lane life. In its purest form, what is our lust for speed if not the desire to abandon our own bodies, to shake off their mortal subservience to the laws of time and space? If you can travel faster than the speed of sound, if you can communicate at the speed of light, what need for flesh and blood? Ditto for that larger body, the body politic, with all its nasty secretions of orators' spittle and immigrants' sweat. Like blithe celestial voyagers, we aim to be beamed aboard just as the slow-mo aliens are closing in, hit warp speed, and vanish from common sight.

I find it altogether fitting that the "revolution" in communication was accompanied by a weird fad for angels {3}. For a while they seemed to be everywhere, from the lapels of nurses' smocks to the Broadway stage, from tattoo art to cinematic baseball fields. I don't think this was coincidence or piety. I think it was aspiration. If we could be kings only when dogs got wings, then we'd get the wings. At the low end of this new angelology, pop culture placed a postman. True to type, Seinfeld's Newman was greedy, lazy, and - with an uncanny use of mythological symbolism - fat. Like the mail he delivered, he was of the flesh, not a devil exactly, but definitely not an angel. He was our Caliban, good for a few laughs but bad for our evolution. Eventually we would have no choice but to vote him off the island and out of his cushy job.

One looks for the questions that define one's times. Perhaps the key question of our own, a question that applies both politically and environmentally and which, oddly enough, seems related to the fate of the post office, is this: Do we want to be angels, or do we want to be human beings? People who talk about our "materialistic society" and about getting back to "spiritual values" strike me as having a right sense of indignation and a poor sense of analysis. The delusion of our society is not so much its materialism as its faux spiritualism, its desire to make a heaven on earth, not as a place free of needless suffering and full of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls "collective joy", but as one in which the elect live everlastingly and communicate telepathically while flying in disembodied splendor above the heads of the Mexicans mowing the lawn. Already one hears futuristic blather about a "posthuman" age. I'd say that I hope I die before I see it, except that I have seen it. Your great-grandmother saw it. The posthuman is merely the subhuman that results whenever people aspire to the superhuman. Rameses the Second was posthuman too.

How about just-human? I don't want to be a seraph or a sunbeam but a citizen, that is, to live in a physical body and a geographical community, bounded by time and space and served in full equality by incarnate fellow citizens like Shirley B. I'll keep my email, thank you, but let my "primary communications carrier" be a unionized worker with his feet on the sidewalk and no wings on his feet. If I have to wait an extra day or two for a parcel, I can bear it. I've already waited half a century for national health care, and I am likely to be as dead as an undeliverable letter by the time all its provisions go into effect. If you want to talk about things that move at a snail's pace, might I suggest aiming your metaphor in that direction.


{1} The complaint and the hackneyed metaphor that attends it are over 150 years old. In 1846 The Friend, a Philadelphia journal, lauded the advent of the telegraph, noting that "markets will no longer be dependent upon snail paced mails". The telegraph also foreshadowed the privacy concerns raised by email. Copies of telegrams were routinely maintained by telegraph companies and might exist simultaneously in more than four separate locations. The US Congress resisted adopting the European model of a national telegraph system run by the Post Office.

{2} The "public" radio station in my state recently decided to restrict its classical music programming to a more exclusive signal, though remote listeners were invited to retrieve their lost Beethoven by the purchase of a "special" receiver. As for the "digital converter box" that was supposed to restore television reception after the switch from analog, it doesn't work in some rural areas. Add to these examples the widespread disrepair and gradual disappearance of public phones now that "everybody" has cell phones, though cell service also excludes certain locales.

{3} From Greek for "messenger", as in instant. Notice too how the word revolutionary has come to apply to everything except a revolution. "Subversion" is the name of a computer program.


Garret Keizer is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His latest book is The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (Public Affairs, 2010).

Bill Totten


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