Indelibly Stamping Forgettable Decades

Like many a novelist, soothsayer, computer geek and purveyor of candies that melt in your mouth and not in your hand, the United States Postal Service is getting into the End-of-Century, Millennial Fever game. This particular playing field is crowded indeed. Just the other day, First Conspiracymonger Hillary Rodham Clinton took time from connecting various dots to announce that the White House will sponsor at least a dozen “Millennium Evenings” over the next year and a half. Apparently, Mrs. Clinton has no plans to be elsewhere come the turn of the century.

Just as we comfort ourselves in knowing that this tawdry business known as the Clinton Presidency can’t last forever, we can take some relief in the knowledge that with fewer than two years remaining in both the century and the millennium, the hand-wringing and prophesying and commercializing must soon come to an end. Just as surely, we have but 22 or so months left before all those oh-so-clever people will be forced to stop writing letters to newspapers insisting that the new century-millennium will begin on Jan. 1, 2001, and not Jan. 1, 2000. With any luck, the new century-millennium, whenever it begins, will offer these smart people an opportunity to better exercise their vast stores of knowledge.

The Postal Service is doing its part for end-of-an-era awareness by inviting us, the customers, to choose commemorative stamps that will celebrate various people and mileposts of postwar America. The exercise clearly has “self-indulgent, self-impressed, history-began-with-us baby boomers” written all over it, and once the good people at the Postal Service begin to tabulate votes, we should know a great deal about how this famously absorbed generation would write its collective autobiography.

Currently, the Postal Service is soliciting our suggestions for stamps celebrating the 1950’s in five categories: people and events, arts and entertainment, life style, sports and science and technology. Subsequent eras will have their moment in later months, culminating in an April 1999 solicitation for the defining moments of the 1990’s, this brandless decade still searching for a theme in its waning years. Ballots now are available at a post office near you.

According to the Postal Service, this solicitation is “the first time ever [that] the American people-including kids-will help determine which significant people, events and trends of the 20th century will be honored on postage stamps.” Well, almost-the Postal Service’s keepers of American iconography reserved for themselves the selection of defining events, trends, people, etc., for the decades before 1950. This suggests that the iconography-keepers have a certain and entirely understandable wariness of the American sense of history. At a time when a fair portion of the population seems convinced that the Great Depression is an unfortunate mental disorder, and that free trade and free markets have never been tried before, a little discretion seems in order. It would be awfully embarrassing if the people just plain forgot about World War II, the invention of radio, Prohibition and women’s suffrage.

The Postal Service is nothing if not serious about this business, pointing out that its “Celebrate the Century” commemoration will be run in conjunction with all sorts of worthy educational projects. Promotional material notes that “during the two-year program, teachers will receive free materials that integrate history with subjects such as art, geography, language arts, math, science and computer technology.”

That’s all fine and admirable, but perhaps a bit too earnest. How, after all, will these resource-rich teachers explain some of the curious stamp selections that seem inevitable once boomers start stuffing the ballot box? Will they not have trouble explaining the selection of, say, the birth of Anna Quindlen as one of the defining moments of the 1950’s? How will all these free materials deal with the demand for a BMW stamp to commemorate the 1980’s? And just how will the Postal Service decide to illustrate the inevitable selection of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll as the defining life style of the 1960’s?

This is a very noble project that the Postal Service has taken on, but it is fraught with possibilities for embarrassing self-revelation, not to mention overt manipulation. Even as we contemplate the narrative of our lives and the mileposts by which we define them, the great and worthy plutocrats who gave us the splendid 1980’s no doubt are preparing to spend huge sums of pocket change in an effort to have themselves immortalized, courtesy of the Postal Service. Does anyone think it possible that Donald Trump will stand idly by when millions of postal patrons begin voting on the person who best represented the 1980’s? I would humbly suggest that, in the fashion of politics before the most-recent turn of the century, we withhold our ballots pending negotiations with the candidates.

Such a clever move clearly would help the disparity of wealth that is, come to think of it, one of the defining events of the 1990’s.

Indelibly Stamping Forgettable Decades