On Social Change

On the surface, it seems like the (U.S.) postal service hasn’t changed much over the years: rates have gone up, the old scary jeeps have mostly been replaced by minivans, and there are all kinds of nifty services they didn’t used to offer, but otherwise, it’s been business as usual. Right? Well… yes and no. There have been changes – but some of those that affect the postal service are more widespread social effects.

I know I’m showing my age here, but back when I was a kid, mailmen – this was back before political correctness had been invented, mind – were not just respected, but something of the social centers of the neighborhoods they served. Want the latest gossip? Talk to the mailman. It wasn’t just gossipy housewives who recognized the informational potential of postal carriers, either – pumping mailmen for information used to be a routine activity for law enforcement; today it’s pretty rare. Of course, back when I was a kid – and dinosaurs roamed the earth – both postal carriers and police officers were still actually respected public servants. This was before police were simultaneously hated and feared by most of society; this was before “going postal” had entered the world’s vocabulary.

It’s hard to say what’s cause and what’s effect, but “letter carriers” today don’t seem to be quite so exclusively committed to their routes as they used to be. Oh, you still get “the usual mailman”, but for perhaps only three or four days of the week. As their social standing has fallen, their community importance has also dwindled. Perhaps it’s because there are fewer stay-at-home moms than there used to be; I don’t know.

I do know that social change and security-consciousness have something to do with it, though. Back when I was a kid, people – especially during the summer – would leave gifts for their postal carrier in their mailbox. It was a pretty bad day when our mailman had to stop for lunch somewhere; throughout the neighborhood, he was usually assured of getting at least a half-dozen fresh-baked cookies, one or more sandwiches, and a handful of apples or other pieces of fruit, every day. For years, my neighbor used to leave a bottle of beer in his mailbox every day, for the mailman.

I know, that sounds kind of nuts, but looking back on it, what’s even more nuts is that nobody ever swiped the stuff: all the kids in the neighborhood knew there was at least a fifty-fifty chance of a beer being in the mailbox, but nobody ever took it. Likewise, the nice old lady on the corner usually had a brownie, some cookies, or a slice of cake in her mailbox, but it was inviolate: you just didn’t mess with the mailman’s food.

At the same time, the postal carriers didn’t worry about people “messing” with their food, either. After all, they know where you live, right? Back then, it would have been easy – and just as inconceivable – to leave tainted or poisoned food in someone else’s mailbox, but nobody ever did. Why would they? Mailmen were good guys (and gals), and everybody liked them.

Nowadays, if you left a sandwich in a brown paper bag in your mailbox, the best thing that would happen would be that your postal carrier would ignore it. Worst-case scenario, the local bomb squad shows up to “defuse” the sandwich – or just blow up your mailbox, depending on how bored they are. Offer a mailman a beer? Right, pal, what did you do to it? What are you, some kind of wise guy?

It’s easy to blame this kind of stuff on a newfound sense of security consciousness, but I think the truth is more that the past few decades have produced more social change – social upheaval, even – than is readily recognized. There have been so many cosmetic changes, it’s easy to overlook the deeper, more fundamental alterations that have gone on – and continue to go on. In fact, I would argue that one of the most-overlooked pieces of social change in the past few decades is the evolution – or devolution, rather – of “community” and the meaning thereof. Neighborhoods are less insular – and much less unique – than they used to be, but even though recent years have seen a rise in (often near-militant) national patriotism, community and civic pride seem to have fallen by the wayside, and the decline in status of the lowly postal carrier is but a symptom of this.

It used to be, you lived in City A, worked there, and sent the kids to school there. Nowadays, it’s not at all uncommon to live in City A, commute to City B for work, and bus the kids to City C so they can attend a “better” school. Once upon a time, most cities and town required their public servants – like police officers – to live within their boundaries. Today, in metropolitan areas, it’s fairly rare for a police officer to work in the same city he or she lives in. What this means is that they – and everybody else – are less emotionally invested in the communities they deal with. Why attend school board or PTA meetings in City C when you don’t live there? Yeah, you ship the kids there, because the schools are “good”, but why get involved? And why get involved with the PTA in your city, when none of your kids attend school there? What’s in it for you? Why care that the area you work in is going steadily downhill? You just work there, you don’t live there? It’s somebody else’s problem.

When ecological and environmental issues first became “big news” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a popular phrase and acronym summed up most people’s attitude towards the subject: NIMBY. (“I don’t care if we have nuclear power plants, enormous landfills, or coal-fired refineries – just not in my back yard, thanks.”) It was this great and selfish damn-the-big-picture, all-I-care-about-is-me-and-mine attitude, and it crippled environmental reform in this country for decades. Yet, at the same time it was pretty much the last time people cared about their local communities. It’d be one thing if we were trying to tackle social problems on the local level, but ignoring the “big picture”. (Street-level drug enforcement is an example of such a tactic.) But, for the most part, we’re not even doing that – if anything, it seems to be a national case of “I can’t be bothered to do anything locally, but I’m sure somebody else will take care of things nationally.” We learned all the wrong lessons decades ago, and instead of saying “Not in my back yard”, now the rallying cry is ISEP: It’s Somebody Else’s Problem.

In another decade, perhaps, we’ll realize “that somebody” is us. I just hope it’s not too late…

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on October 20th, 2008| Comments Off on On Social Change

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