You’ve Got Mail. But Not For Long.

Zornes Mural

Claremont, CA. Tomato, the main character in Erika Lopez’s terrifically kooky Flaming Iguanas, loves the post office. She says, to be precise, that she has a “profound love for the United States Postal Service.” She laments that too few people seem to share that love:

“I don’t think they truly understand the joy of writing a letter on cool paper, putting it in an envelope, and addressing it in a funky way that challenges postal workers. The stamp validates the whole thing somehow, and whew! – Putting it in the mailbox and hearing that blue metal flap swing shut is just about the prettiest sound in the natural world. / The universal sound of closure. And a canceled stamp is just about the prettiest sight. It’s almost love, and sometimes it really is love. (Unless it’s a val-u-pak of coupons.) It means someone thought of you for more than the fifteen seconds it took to dial your number and leave the message for you to call them back.

Plus mail is such a good deal.

The postal service is amazing and I love everyone who passed that social-service test.”

With post offices about to close across the country, it’s hard not to be swayed by a little postal romance. The post office has been one of the most intractable American institutions: the position of Postmaster General predates the Constitution (and was first held by Benjamin Franklin, in 1775). And the post office’s unofficial motto – “neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” – dates to the beginnings of Western civilization as we know it, to Herodotus’s description of the messenger service in the Persian Empire.

“Than this system of messengers there is nothing of mortal origin that is quicker,” Herodotus wrote. That was 2,500 years ago, give or take.

But that was then, and this is now, and today Herodotus would be wrong. Today e-mail is quicker. Faxing is quicker. Telephone calls are quicker. If the marvels of the postal service historically were once about speed and efficiency, they are so no longer. Written communication through the post is languid and unhurried, comparatively speaking.

If there is a ground which to defend post offices today, it cannot be on those ancient terms. If there is a ground on which to defend post offices today, it has to be apart from or against the value of efficiency.

It is also probably pointless to defend post offices in terms of material necessity. You could argue, I suppose, that post offices should continue to exist because certain material items need to get from one place to another, and neither e-mail nor fax nor speed of telephone can effect that transit. (So, for instance, today I went to the post office to mail a shirt to my best friend. That shirt, tangible as it is, could not be conveyed by e-mail.) Even so, if I were a libertarian – if it is not obvious, for the record, I am not – I would argue that free markets in the absence of a national post would respond to the need for material transit. You could always visit a FedEx store, in other words.

So why care about the post office? 

I care about the post office because it remains at least a semi-public common space. When my neighbors worried that the President’s health-care plan was the tip of some kind of socialistic, Nazi-style attempt to take over America, they set up shop outside the town post office. They did so, I assume, because they knew that the post office was a common-denominator place, where they were likely to encounter the broadest swath of local residents. Their strategy to some extent undermined their philosophy: even as they bemoaned public strategies, they relied on the centrality of a space supported by public mandate.

And I care about the fate of the post office as a canary-in-the-coal-mine thing. The closure of 1,000 post offices signals the transition into a world where common social spaces are collapsing as private corporations are expanding, a world in which it’s hard not to hear Edmund Burke whispering about “sophisters, economists, and calculators.”

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