On Commemorative Stamps

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    Stamps 2000, a poster at the General Post Office on 34th St., illustrates the commemorative stamps the Postal Service intends to issue during the coming year. There will be at least 113 of them. Indeed, the United States now issues so many varieties of postage stamps with such enthusiasm that one might forget they are merely adhesive receipts for prepaid postage on items of mail.

    The English "commemorative" is derived from the Latin commemorare: to recall or put on record. Its postal use is now sufficiently common that the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (second edition, unabridged) includes it among its definitions: postage stamps "issued to commemorate a historical event, to honor the memory of a personage, etc." They are themselves memorials or reminders, making honorable mention of something worth remembering.

    Consider that: they remind us of the things that should be remembered, that deserve to be remembered.

    Why does the United States issue so many commemorative stamps? It is not that we have so many great men and women, or so many more notable events. It is for money. There are millions of stamp collectors willing to pay for nearly every bit of postal paper that drops from a government press.

    A century ago, the United States rarely issued commemoratives. A noncollector may probably find a good collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century U.S. stamps quite boring. Throughout the Gilded Age, the post office used a series of classical designs, all nearly as forgettable and monotonous as the interchangeable presidents of the time (each looking like one of the Smith Brothers, Trade and Mark), picturing the nation's great dead men. In 1869, the post office released its first pictorial issues: stamps that bore images other than those of dead politicians. Each denomination illustrated something different?a ship, an eagle or a steam locomotive, for example. Some were even printed in two colors. They were quite controversial: James Gordon Bennett the elder wrote in the New York Herald that he feared the government might be "changing stamps as often as every six months, not giving the people a chance to get used to one variety before it was withdrawn and the people's eyes startled by another."

    But as a rule, from 1840, when Britain issued the first postage stamp, until, say, 1894, most countries viewed stamps as utilitarian: more or less elegant as the nations' tastes required (if memory serves, Luigi Barzini argued in "Italy and Its Aristocracy" that an evidence of the decline of the nobility in Italian public life was reflected in the architecture of its buildings, the courtesies, even in the typography of official documents and the design of its postage stamps).

    In 1894, Their Excellencies Tonnini and Marcucci, co-Regents of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino (a tiny independent country on the Northern Italian peninsula), professional politicians pressured by a rising national debt, yet averse to increasing taxes, envisioned that the pocketbooks of the world's millions of stamp collectors, rather than of the few thousand Sammarinese, might be opened to swell the coffers of San Marino. They released a special issue of finely engraved stamps bearing portraits of the co-Regents with views of the interior and exterior of the National Palace.

    Several months later, stamp sales alone had retired the national debt and financed a sewage system. San Marino has since issued many, many, many different kinds of stamps: internal postage, external postage, airmail, semipostal, postal tax, postage due, airmail postage due, postal tax due and thousands of commemoratives: all beautifully produced stamps showing national and international heroes, ships, locomotives, military uniforms, dinosaurs, aircraft, castles, temples and so forth. All are valid for postage, of course, and all are intended not to carry mail but to land in stamp albums around the world. The sale of postage stamps is perhaps the country's leading industry, having edged out wine and marble some time ago, and one understands heroic equestrian statues of Tonnini and Marcucci have been raised in the city of San Marino itself. Forty years ago, the little country was issuing 56 different stamps a year. Now, it releases new issues several times a week, and apparently there is no end to the demand. San Marino, all 38 square miles of it, has issued more stamps than nations a thousand times its size, and without shame.

    The United States Post Office first established a philatelic agency in 1921 ("philately" is the English term for stamp collecting, from the Greek philos, "fond of," and ateleia, "exemption from tax"; together, the words mean nothing, though they may suggest that a sender's prepayment of postage exempts a receiver from paying it). In 1932, the United States elected a philatelist to the presidency. One of FDR's enduring achievements was increasing the number of commemorative postage stamps issued by the United States and his successors have followed his example.

    As I get older, the stamps commemorate people and events I remember myself. Sometimes, the result is surprisingly good. The ongoing "Black Heritage" series hit its high note last year by honoring Malcolm X: a splendidly designed stamp showing him alert, active and thoughtful. Greatness is a remarkable thing; thus we can honor without irony a man once known as "Detroit Red" and "the Harlem Asp," "a hustler, a pimp, a dope addict, a gambler, a numbers pusher and a thief"?as George Thayer noted?because he transformed himself into a dynamic, vitriolic preacher and teacher, and then a practical, heroic visionary. I think of Ignatius Loyola, who aspired to a life of unending sensation: wenching, drinking and fighting, until he turned to God from sheer boredom; and Malcolm X somehow comes to mind.

    As I believe this would be a better country if he had lived, so I used dozens of these stamps on my mail. They are handsome, and I wanted to honor not only what was, but also what might have been. Apparently, I am not the only one who felt this way. The stamp honoring Malcolm X is one of the few recent commemorative stamps to sell out long before its planned withdrawal from sale.

    This year's honoree in the "Black Heritage" series, Patricia Roberts Harris, is something of a contrast. She is pictured with a nice smile, a nice hairdo and a nice, puffy yuppie woman's bowtie. The Honorable Harris was a Jimmy Carter Cabinet official and college professor?an upper-middle-class black hack, one of that elite whose finest flower was the late Ron Brown, high-class legal hustler and Cabinet officer immortalized by Al Sharpton as "Ron Beige." Harris was even ambassador to Luxembourg, the foreign service's most blatantly political appointment. Without white folks' patronage, she was nothing: her 1982 campaign for mayor of Washington, DC, against the egregious crack-smoking adulterer Marion Barry?he stomped her into the ground?illustrated the hoary truth that universal suffrage eliminated the elite and their tools from elective public office.

    Besides, the revolution meant justice for all, not the gravy train for some.

    Another set of stamps, "Stampin' the Future," used four designs submitted by children from eight to 12 years old. The set's title, with its dropped final consonant, is as condescending as its designs are crudely repellent.

    And even where the design is classic, the publicity is bland. Claude Pepper, the Florida statesman, is being honored this year in the "Great Americans" series. The poster describes him as a "champion of elderly rights." Thus, one might never know he was a tough, wily, radical politician and a magnificent orator, whether on ceremonial occasions or on the stump, tie askew, fists waving, and the crowd surging to its feet. V.O. Key wrote of him, "In Senator Pepper's races the division has been most concretely drawn. There is never much doubt about where Claude stands."

    Because he was a great whirlwind campaigner who brought New Deal projects and military bases to his state, he was elected twice to the U.S. Senate, only to lose in 1950 to a McCarthyite opponent who called him "Red Pepper." More than a decade later, Pepper went to the House of Representatives at an age when most men retire, and held his seat until his death.

    I chatted with him, briefly, when he held a hearing with the City Council President in City Hall's old Board of Estimate room in the mid-80s: he was nearly as old as the century himself. His eloquence and genuine, though elaborately Southern, courtesy nearly concealed an extraordinarily alert, subtle intelligence, a genius for cross-examination and a gentle admiration for the splendid charms of our vivacious staff intern. He was among the last men in Congress to have served there during the New Deal. Long after he must have realized that social justice would not be realized in his lifetime and perhaps never, he still remembered what it had been to be poor and have no hope. He stood for so much more than "elderly rights," yet another intrinsically meaningless phrase that, in context, means merely taking tax money from the working poor, skimming off salaries for public and not-for-profit sector administrators, and passing the rest to the impoverished elderly.

    Worst of all is "Celebrating the Century," a series of sets of 15 stamps, one set for each decade. Perhaps the concept itself is flawed. Certainly, the means of selecting the stamps for the last few decades have been. Postal customers have chosen the topics by voting: yet another weakness of universal suffrage. As Albert Jay Nock observed, as against a Jesus, the historic choice of the common man goes regularly to some Barabbas.

    Thus, for example, the stamps commemorating the 70s honor Big Bird, disco fever, the smiley face and Secretariat winning the Triple Crown. No one thought of Nixon in China. The set for the 80s, which was released on Jan. 13, 2000, is worse. Cabbage Patch Kids; cable television; video games; the Cosby Show and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Too, there is a stamp for Cats. The American musical theater of our time is represented thus: music composed by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber with verse by T.S. Eliot, a St. Louis-born Harvard man, an anti-Semitic elitist who renounced American citizenship to become a British subject.

    Are these the things that should be remembered, that deserve to be remembered? I think not. Such choices are the fruit of our people's really remarkable ignorance of their own history?even that of their own times. Cicero observed that those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must forever remain children, and the selections' immaturity disturbs me.

    As does the evasive quality of what we are honoring. Last year, the stamp "Honoring Those Who Served" purported to pay tribute to "the many millions of courageous men and women in public service and the military who have served or presently serve our country." This vague, ambiguous purpose is a politician's dream. What is courage in these diverse contexts? Thus we reach for a lower common denominator. Everyone goes into the pool: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, Douglas MacArthur and the creep behind the counter at the Parking Violations Bureau.

    For some reason, I think of my father's eldest brother, a paratrooper who vanished in the fighting for the Remagen Bridge more than 10 years before I was born. For my family, his remains are the War Dept. telegram and a few fading photographs. His body was never found. We don't even know if he was brave. My father has no memory of him. Perhaps the stamp honors my uncle, too. But the broader we cast the net, the more thoroughly we work out the logic of the language defining the stamp's subject?the person, institution or event we honor?the less meaning it has. The stamp might honor even me for two decades' public service, working for the City of New York.

    But when everyone is honored, no one is distinguished. That's not much of an honor at all.