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Tuesday, August 25, 2020
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While looking through my stamp collection recently, I thought to myself “this arrangement looks pretty nice”. So I got out my camera and snapped a few shots, and have attached more of them below. I started collecting stamps when I was in grammar school, maybe around 1963. My mother had occasionally saved “plate blocks” of commemorative stamps since the late 50s; being a young space geek, I got interested myself when the 4 cent commemorative for Project Mercury came out. My mother thus let me walk down the street to the local post office with a quarter or two in my pocket.

Once I got thru the door and up to the counter (ah, I still remember the cool and slightly musty air and the grim seriousness of the décor), I would ask Mr. Stanton, the regularly assigned postal clerk, if he had any new commemoratives. Sometimes he did, and I would then go home with one or two squares of 4 stamps, each having attached a part of the printing slevege showing the “plate number” identifying the printing press used to make the stamp. Then I would put these “blocks” in the special notebook page for displaying stamps that my mother bought for me. After that, I’d get on with doing the 1001 other kid-in-grammar-school things that I did back then. In another month or so, it was time for another trip to the corner post office.

I stayed interested in postage stamps and I continued to supplement my collection into my early high school years. However, I developed other interests and stopped collecting during my college years. But my first big job after college was with the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington DC (on 14th Street SW near the Potomac). And back in those days (late 70s), the “BEP” still printed all US postage stamps (the Postal Service later shifted stamp production to private printers, BEP printed its last stamps around 2005). From then on, I’ve been collecting stamps fairly regularly. I don’t buy every new stamp, I’m not that avid a collector. But I get the USPS Philatelic catalog in the mail and so I spend a few hundred per year helping the Post Office survive by buying stamps that I will never use.

The theme and purpose of commemorative stamps is that they celebrate the heritage, history and daily life of the US of A. They feature historical events, political leaders, music, art, artists, inventions, insects, plants, animals, and a whole lot of other American stuff. They create the impression that our nation is alive and well and that its people share a strong and vibrant sense of national identity despite our celebrated diversity.

Unfortunately, today that impression is mostly an illusion. Our nation seems more divided than ever and fewer and fewer people seem proud to call themselves “Americans”. And those who claim to be proud of their Americanism often have a very limited conception of just what America is. They sometimes possess a vision of America that clearly contradicts the written laws and history of this nation, along with its unwritten “meta-themes” such as equality, democracy, freedom and opportunity.

I just read this article in The Week where Damon Linker, a thoughtful commentator, asks “Could America Split Up?” Mr. Linker does not offer reassurance that America is going to get thru our current political storms just fine. He uses the word “hate”, as it appears to be more and more appropriate and more and more frequent between people of opposing political views.

The USA has always been a country having plenty of political disagreement, but our system was always able to find a compromise of some sort to keep it rolling. OK, the Civil War back in the 1860s was a big bump in the road, but even the matter of slavery was finally resolved. Unfortunately, the question of racial inequality still hasn’t, and in recent times seems to have been getting worse. And racial issues are only one ingredient in the volatile mix of contentious public issues today. Even the Post Office itself, dull and quotidian as it is, has recently become a matter of political battle! (I.e. the matter of mail-in ballots for the 2020 Presidential election, and whether the Postal Service is being intentionally crippled by the Trump Administration as to allow Mr. Trump to challenge the election results should he lose).

Unfortunately, hate and disrespect between those of opposing views seems more and more common, and our political system working in conjunction with our modern communications networks (internet, social media, smart phones, etc) seems ready and willing to exploit the growing hate and encourage its further growth. And ironically, these same communications tools and networks have brought obsolesce to the postage stamps that I admire and collect.

So for now I keep on ordering commemorative stamps and wrapping them and posting them in a display notebook for — well, for me to look at now and then, like an historical exhibit. But I wonder if these stamps have become obsolete in more ways than one. Aside from no longer being a relevant communications tool, have they also become irrelevant in terms of the ways and wonders of America, the beauty and power of a diverse land unified with a powerful common heritage? Have they become simply a museum exhibit displaying a dying aspect of a disappearing nation?

PS, here’s an interesting article: How America came apart – A people with no shared narrative or history will find it very hard to keep a lid on disorder and violence. Stamps once tried to tell an American narrative. But now both are obsolete.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:09 am      

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