Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#65, December 14, 1999


by Marylaine Block

As we head into a new century, the Post Office has been producing a set of stamps celebrating major events and personalities of this century, fifteen for each decade (though they haven't gotten past the 1970's yet).

How could you possibly choose only 150 from so many contenders to represent so many years? The Post Office allowed the public to choose from 30 options recommended by a citizen's committee, drawn from five categories -- People/Events, Arts/Entertainment, Sports, Lifestyle, and Science/Technology. The two most popular from each category were chosen along with the top five remaining votegetters.

The century stamps celebrate the positive, and largely ignore any negatives -- Earth Day, yes, Love Canal, no. Oddly, Richard Nixon, who dominated our politics for 50 years, is not represented at all, not for opening relations with China, not for Watergate. Vietnam is commemorated, but not the fact that it tore us apart. Roger Maris is celebrated, but no stamp reminds us of the 1919 Black Sox who threw the World Series.

There is much to induce nostalgia here. Who isn't instantly transported back to childhood by images of Crayola crayons, electric trains, Monopoly, The Cat in the Hat, I Love Lucy, Barbie, and Big Bird (though they somehow left out Disneyland and Disney World)? When they get around to the 80's and 90's, surely they'll have to include music videos, Pokemon, and the new ever more death-defying rollercoasters.

Because stamps are a visual medium, the focus is on specific important concrete events or icons or personalities. What they can't really show is the slow steady pecking away at an old way of life until you suddenly look around and realize your entire world has changed.

How could a stamp explain that our massive movement to the suburbs, or to the south and west was made possible by a series of small, almost unnoticed things like air conditioning, government-backed mortgages, the building of dams, and the creation of the interstate highway system?

How could a stamp explain that the way we do business now resulted from many small system changes like the widespread use of 800 numbers and universal credit cards, and the development of UPS, Fed Ex and priority mail?

How could a stamp, so good at depicting individual and team athletic accomplishments, show the sea changes that have occurred in the structure and economics of sport? There are no telling thumbnail images for the end of baseball's reserve clause, or the building of new taxpayer-financed stadiums, or the way the rules and timing of the games have been rearranged for the convenience of TV viewers and advertisers.

Here's a parlor game for you: What moments and personalities and entertainments of our recent past might YOU choose to represent the '80's and '90's? Not the Challenger disaster, or the hostage crisis, or impeachment, though we'll never forget them, but the fun things, the uplifting things, the things that make us say with pleasure, "Yes, this is America!"

How about "E.T., phone home," VCRs, "Morning in America," Sally Ride, Johnny Carson's last show, the LA Olympics, the Cosby show, the breakup of AT&T, The Simpsons, "Born in the USA," Michael Jordan's 3-Peat? Perhaps Furby, or Myst?

How about the fact that for the first time ever a major party nominated a woman for vice-president, and the son of an immigrant for President? Surely we'd want to commemorate the internet, which has changed our lives forever, and maybe the Clean Water Act, because it worked. How about the Americans with Disabilities Act, which allowed the only minority everyone of us could suddenly join to participate fully in American work and play. Then there are those Thousand Points of Light: Habitat for Humanity, Live Aid, Read Across America and all the other hopeful signs of a new spirit of volunteerism.

A celebration may be an incomplete picture, but that doesn't mean it's not a truthful one. There has been much to honor and admire in this American century.

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