NEW YORK--It may seem like a minor thing. Objectively it is a minor thing. But the Great Statue of Liberty Stamp Screw-up of 2011 presents a picture-perfect portrait of a society in the midst of collapse.
You can tell a lot about the state of a country from its stamps and its currency. At a nation's peak its graphic iconography tends to be striking, elegant and original. As it begins to wane abstraction gives way to self-caricature, innovative design to self-parody, high art to kitsch.
Look at U.S. stamps and paper money from 100 or 50 or even 30 years ago and you'll see my point. Quarters were nearly sterling silver; now they're mystery metal (nickel-copper-zinc alloy).
America: we're not what we used to be.
A century ago President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the famous Beaux Art sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the nation's coinage. Among the results were Saint-Gaudens' breathtaking $20 gold "double eagle"; numismatists consider it one of the most elegant coins of the 20th century.
How the mighty have fallen! According to U.S. Mint officials recent revamps of the $100, $50, $20, $10 and $5 bills were undertaken without the slightest consideration for aesthetics. They didn't even consult an art director. Stymieing counterfeiters was the sole concern.
Now the U.S. Postal Service has issued its newest first-class "forever" stamp. As the most widely used denomination, a new forever is a big deal.
The new stamp features a photo of the head of the Statue of Liberty. Well…not exactly. Instead of the Statue of Liberty paid for by coins donated by French schoolchildren, the proud iconic figure which has greeted millions of immigrants to New York, the stamp bears the visage of the small replica which stands in front of the New York-New York casino in Las Vegas.
Mistakes happen. As every philatelist knows, another error--the 1918 "Jenny Invert," which features an image of an upside-down airplane--is one of the most prized collectibles in philately because Post Office officials destroyed all but one sheet of the 100 stamps.
That's the usual response to a catastrophe in stampdom. Ten years ago Postal Service recalled and destroyed the entire run of a stamp that wrongly placed the Grand Canyon in Colorado.
But that was before the economic collapse that began in 2008. The Postal Service is broke. Quality standards? Can't afford them. Incredibly, postal officials are allowing this monstrosity, this bastard creation, this artistic obscenity--the face is clearly the wrong one--to be sold at your local post office.
"We still love the stamp design and would have selected this photograph anyway," USPS spokesman Roy Betts told The New York Times.
"The [postal] service selected the image from a photography service, and issued rolls of the stamp bearing the image in December," reported the newspaper. "This month, it issued a sheet of 18 Lady Liberty and flag stamps. Information accompanying the original release of the stamp included a bit of history on the real Statue of Liberty. Las Vegas was never mentioned."
It's bad enough that they use photographs. Stamps should be engraved. Engraved stamps look classier and more substantial.
But whether they are using an engraver, illustrator or photographer, a U.S. stamp ought to be a big gig. For an assignment such as this I would expect the USPS to hire a professional and pay huge money--six-figures huge. It's a stamp, for Chrissake.
Nope. The U.S. Postal Service buys stock photos. For stamp design. That's right--the same cheesy clipart you can download for your kid's birthday party invitation.
In and of itself, this is no big deal. These are lean times. Austerity abounds. Why not save a few bucks?
It matters because symbolism matters. The kind of country that puts stock photos on its stamps is the kind of country that puts a single air traffic controller in charge of one of its biggest airports. The kind of country that doesn't fix its mistakes is the kind that tells people under the age of 55 that they can go to hell and die when they get old and sick because it's more important to cut taxes for rich scum than to fund Medicare.
As for the symbolism of a phony Statue of Liberty that stands in front of a casino in the nation's gambling capital--well, that's obvious.
It would be fine if the money being saved by printing crappy stamps went to new textbooks in inner-city schools. But it doesn't. It goes to Halliburton and Bill Gates. Now that American workers have been hung out to dry, robbed and fleeced, wrung out and burned out, the government and its associated agencies (the USPS is quasi-governmental) have turned on themselves in service to the 21st century robber barons.
Don't get mad about the stamps. Get mad at what they mean.