The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

February 9, 2013

Postal service demise reflects on written word

The Back Porch column

 

The decision to eliminate Saturday mail delivery in August is as much a reflection of changing society as it is of the U.S. Postal Service’s management skills.

The harsh truth is the agency has nearly outlived its usefulness in many Americans’ lives. Americans no longer write letters or pay their bills via snail mail. Increasing amounts of communication and commerce are occurring online.

That’s a saddening reality for happy dinosaurs like me who still send paper cards and letters and prefer to mail their bill payments.

I read recently that the U.S. government has lost millions of dollars through fraudulent Internal Revenue Service refunds caused by identity theft. The criminals used electronic filing to grab their ill-gotten gains.

I told my brother that I still plan to file a paper return because I don’t want the IRS to have access to my checking account.

“They know what it is anyway,” he said.

“I know,” I responded, “but I’m not going to give it to them. It’s the principle of the thing.”

For the dinosaurs who still embrace the principle of the thing, no more Saturday mail probably marks the beginning of the end of a national postal system that had its beginnings when America was still the 13 colonies.

The British crown appointed Benjamin Franklin as postmaster general for Philadelphia, according to the U.S. Postal Service website. Franklin got a joint appointment as postmaster general for the colonies when the former postmaster general’s health declined.

Franklin took seriously his duties, measuring the distances between post offices, establishing nighttime mail transports and adopting the British idea of the penny post whereby residents paid a cent to have their unclaimed letters delivered.

The crown fired Franklin because it thought his changes were too sympathetic to the colonies, but after the U.S. was formed, Franklin became postmaster general of the new nation. He served fewer than 18 months but left his mark on the new federal agency.

A national mail service became a democratizing force in the country, especially after Rural Free Delivery was established in Charles Town in 1896. Rural folks had the same access to the outside world as small-town and city folks. They could actively participate in the affairs of their communities because they could get information about them. They could let their voices be heard through letters to their representatives.

While people are quick to share the horror stories of damaged packages and delayed letters, it’s still a bit of a miracle to put a stamp on a letter and have it delivered thousands of miles away.

But people don’t write letters anymore. In fact, schools aren’t teaching children how to write in cursive because people today live in a keyboard society.

The post office is not the only victim to the changing society. Perhaps the society is its own victim, too. So much of what this nation knows about itself comes from the letters and diaries of those who took time to write.

One is left to wonder what the nation would know of James Madison, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Marie Curie if they had not written letters.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com

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