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Regarding "The Simpsons"

By John M. Hotchner

This column originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of U.S. Stamp News, before the stamps for the television series "The Simpsons" were confirmed. The article is re-published here with permission.

It is safe to say that a great many people — especially stamp collectors — are scratching their heads, wondering anew what has gotten into the minds of the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC), the body that recommends new stamp issues to the U.S. Postal Service. What have they done this time? Linn's Stamp News reported in their December 1, 2008, issue that multiple stamps will be issued in 2009, probably at the new first class rate, celebrating the animated television show, "The Simpsons."

Though Linn's said they had the story from multiple sources, the USPS declined to comment. As a member of CSAC [USPS' Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee], I can neither confirm nor deny such an issue, but the reaction from the stamp collecting community so far has been interesting — both what has been published in the philatelic press, and what I have received from correspondents by email — and I want to reflect upon it.

The TV show itself can be critiqued over the not particularly admirable behavior of the characters. It is a relatively new phenomenon, having been introduced in 1989, and it remains in production; thus raising the specter of commercialization of the U.S. stamp program. The USPS expects the issue to be a "blockbuster," meaning that it will sell well, and many will be retained by collectors (and probably many non-collectors) in the form of mint stamps, thus adding to the USPS' bottom line. This is presumed by many to be evidence of Postal Service greed.

On the other hand, the show is nothing if not quintessentially American in content and as art. You may not like it (and full disclosure, I am not a fan), but in an era when four or five years is a great run on the small screen, it has stood the test of time with the public; remaining popular into a second generation of young television watchers. Further, it is culturally relevant, so that unlike many worthy 'severed heads' that the USPS issues, "The Simpsons" would resonate with many, and draw youngsters into the hobby. These are not insignificant considerations.

Let's look a little closer at the negatives. The USPS and CSAC have been including popular culture in the U.S. stamp program since well before I joined the Committee in 1998. Why? These are subjects — be they Elvis Presley or Bugs Bunny, Seinfeld or Sporty cars, Calder sculpture or Star Wars — that stamp buyers can relate to their personal experience. They represent a time of life they loved, and never quite lost. Perhaps it is eBay that has promoted it, but the American public is big into nostalgia; and there is nothing wrong with the USPS getting on the bandwagon.

It is arguable whether stamp collecting would enjoy even the diminished popularity it has today without such subjects to tickle the fancy of both adults and youth. What is abundantly clear is that despite the critics, popular culture is now a regular part of the stamp issuance program, and it is unlikely that future iterations of CSAC or the USPS are going to want to undo the trend.

Indeed, I think the danger is that popular culture can, if we are not careful, crowd out the historical, patriotic, classical art and other subjects that, pre-1980, constituted the bulk of U.S. stamp issues. I agree that there is a place for pop culture, and that it is effective in attracting new collectors. However, there are millions of people who are interested in other elements of the American experience, and they need to be attracted and served also.

The behavior of "The Simpsons" characters is a particular concern for me. I don't watch the program regularly, and when I do, I find the backtalk of the children and the often wrong-headed behavior of the adults to be unattractive at best. These are not "people" I want to hold up as positive models to my children and grandkids. That said, it is true that each episode of "The Simpsons" has a worthwhile lesson to teach.

Finally, there is the matter of the USPS trying to separate us from our hard-earned dollars, as some have characterized it. Answer a question: What company do you know of that wants to minimize the profit from its products? Precisely, none.

The fact is that the USPS puts its products "out there" and the public — even stamp collectors — can and do buy what they like and shun what they don't. We stamp collectors like to think that we should be the final arbiter of what is offered to us to collect. In fact, we are important, and whether or not we open our wallets is important, but we are not the only audiences the USPS must play to. The very fact that colorful, and interesting stamps are available encourages people to use the mails. At a time when computer transactions, both personal and commercial, are cutting deeply into mail volumes, the USPS has to do what it can to promote letter writing.

My purpose in this little essay is to suggest that what seems to some like a simple "yes" or "no" decision to issue any given stamp subject is anything but simple. It is easy to characterize CSAC as being "out of touch with reality" as one letter writer commenting on "The Simpsons" charged. But as someone else once said, "Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn't have to do it."

Coming up with a balanced yearly program that reflects the nation as a whole, meets the multiple needs of the USPS, those of the collector community, and the stamp-buying public, is a challenge. The annual result is a fine proof of an old adage: "You can please all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time."

Many stamp collectors will love this issue. Some will consider it a significant marker on our descent toward the fate of Rome. Most of us will just take it for what it is: an accurate (and maybe slightly unsettling) reflection of the United States at this time in our history.

Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at jmhstamp@verizon.net

What do you think? Is "The Simpsons" a legitimate subject for stamps? Join us in the message board and tell us about it.

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