NEW YORK--It may seem like 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 currency. At a nation's peak, its graphic iconography is striking, elegant and original. As it begins to wane, abstraction gives way to caricature, innovative design to self-parody, high art to kitsch.
Look at U.S. stamps and money from 100, 50 or even 30 years ago and you'll see. Quarters were nearly sterling silver; now they're mystery metal (nickel-copper-zinc alloy).
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. According to U.S. Mint officials, recent revamps of the $100, $50, $20, $10 and $5 bills were undertaken without consideration for aesthetics. They didn't even consult an art director. Stymieing counterfeiters was the sole concern.
Now, the Postal Service has issued its newest first-class forever stamp, featuring a photo of the head of the Statue of Liberty. But instead of the iconic figure that has greeted millions to New York, the stamp bears the visage of the small replica that 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 because Post Office officials destroyed all but one sheet of the 100 stamps. Ten years ago, the 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 artistic obscenity--the face is clearly the wrong one--to be sold at your local post office.
In and of itself, this is no big deal. These are lean times.
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 younger than 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 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.