In 2017, a few days after white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, I suggested that Americans offended by the display of Confederate flags in their communities use the U.S. Postal Service to change hearts and minds.
I offered prose that someone might include in a brief letter to a neighbor or to the owner of a home along the route to work — anyone who flies the old battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. My sample letter explained why we consider the flag a lingering symbol of racism and division 160 years after more than 600,000 Americans died in a war over slavery and the preservation of the union. The letter argued in mild tones that a person who boasts love of country should not display the Stars and Bars.
I offered my prose to anyone who wanted to use it. I recommended that the letter be sent by mail because walking up to a stranger’s door to complain about his Confederate flag didn’t seem prudent.
Since the publication of that column, I’ve heard from five people who tried this with some success, including, just last month, a woman named Barb in southwestern Florida.
“I live in an older, lovely, shady neighborhood,” Barb wrote in an email. “Around the 4th of July I was shocked to see a Confederate flag in my neighbor’s yard. After a little [online] research, I found a copy of your proposed letter. I took you up on it, modified it for our area and the events of 2020. I signed it ‘Your neighbor’ as I didn’t want it to ruin any relationship we had and I wanted him to think anyone might have written it. I mailed it. Three days later, the flag was gone.”
There you have it — the might of the pen, the power of the U.S. Postal Service.
I mention this because it occurs to me that, in the midst of all the clamor over mail delivery and President Donald Trump’s harangues against the service, Americans need to write more letters. We could help the Postal Service by using it more, and not just to anonymously admonish a neighbor, but to reach people in a way that email and text messages can’t.
We’ve all been swept away by the amazing conveniences of the internet as a way to communicate. That’s here to stay. But personal letters expressing condolences or congratulations, encouragement or praise, displeasure or good cheer, arrive with far more power. That they are delivered by a letter carrier adds another human touch that’s badly needed, more so because of all the social distancing required in the time of the coronavirus.
Trump is on the wrong side of just about everything — let’s do away with the payroll tax that supports Social Security and Medicare! — but he’s picked a particularly bad target in the Postal Service.
There are good reasons why the vast majority of Americans love the USPS. Some are simply matters of necessity, efficiency and commerce. But I’m talking about an intangible — the experience of receiving a personal letter, and getting it from the uniformed men and women who walk and drive through our neighborhoods or stop by our businesses five and six days a week.
How many times have we seen postal carriers like the affable one I spoke to the other day, Reggie Herring, an Army veteran who has been with the USPS for 28 years, sweating through summer afternoons in the Baltimore humidity? How many have we seen, hooded up for a snowstorm, trudging to the front door with their satchels? It might seem that we take them for granted, but actually, as weather becomes more extreme, the more we appreciate letter carriers. What they do daily across this land approaches something like a miracle.
Enter Trump and the Republican donor he installed as Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy. Here we are, in the midst of a pandemic and headed for a presidential election in which a record 76% of registered voters are eligible to mail their ballots, and postal workers complain that they can’t do their jobs fully because of cost-cutting measures DeJoy instituted. They caused delays in deliveries, raised suspicions and sparked a healthy public uproar that forced DeJoy on Tuesday to announce he was suspending his actions until after the November election.
Trump, meanwhile, has been sowing doubts about the integrity of a mail-in election and the “loser” Postal Service’s ability to deliver. But it won’t work. Most Americans — and that includes Trump supporters ― have long-standing respect for the Postal Service that Trump can’t tarnish with his tweets.
Still, some voters will go to the polls, pandemic or not. And some people will worry that their mail-in ballots won’t arrive on time to be counted. But, despite all the noise, millions of us are fine with voting by mail. In fact, it’s a very personal exercise — filling out the ballot, putting it in the mailbox, entrusting it to the good ol’ Postal Service.
So, to Trump and DeJoy, I say: Hands off our mail.
To Congress, I say: Recognize the effort that’s underway to sabotage the USPS and make the case that it needs to be privatized. Instead, make the USPS a cabinet-level federal agency again, a fully funded public service.