Paranoid Postal Service Fantasies

Elizabeth Crabtree, “The Mailman”

On the list of things to worry about that you didn’t know you had to, we must add the U.S. Postal Service. Apparently, the USPS is facing a $5.5 billion default, due in part to the decline of postal mail but much more to Congressional meddling. Certain rightwing elements of the GOP who wouldn’t mind seeing the USPS fail are refusing to allow it to adapt and modernize and are demanding (this from the Bush-Cheney years) that it prefund retireee health benefits 75 years into the future–something no other organization is required to do. This brings to mind the greatest literary work I know about postal systems.

Actually, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is the only literary work I know about the postal service. The book features a governmentally licensed postal monopoly (the German mail service Thurm und Taxis) and its ruthless attempts, in the 17th century, to suppress a private mail service (the Tristero). If you know anything about Pynchon, you probably are aware that he specializes in paranoia. Rightwing paranoia about government makes the book particularly relevant.

Here’s how American paranoia enters into the situation. According to Felix Salmon of Reuters, the Postal Service could solve its problems if Congress allowed it to evolve. For instance, post offices could provide banking services, sell fishing, hunting, and other kinds of  licenses, and undertake a host of other transactions that the public would find very useful. Unfortunately, there are those on the right that accept as gospel Ronald Reagan’s libertarian article of faith that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” These people are against the USPS becoming more helpful.

One could imagine them fantasizing about the Tristero. In Pynchon’s novel, the Tristero was forced to operate underground because of Thurn und Taxis’s attacks. The question is whether they are still at work, secretly undermining today’s USPS monopoly with private mail delivery. A libertarian fantasy would have it that such a private sector organization would be more profitable.

Protagonist Oedipa Maas stumbles across the Tristero when, as executrix of the estate of a former lover, she comes across stamps which may have been used—and maybe are still being used—by the Tristero. As she researches the organization, she starts seeing—or thinks she sees—signs of the Tristero everywhere, especially the muted postal coach horn. (The unmuted horn was the sign of Thurn and Taxis.) Tristero’s mailboxes, she comes to believe, are metal containers labeled W.A.S.T.E., which stands for We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire. Wherever there is governmental oppression, there is Tristero secretly fighting back.

In our own society, many on the right claim allegiance to a version of the Tristero. They are heroically resisting government attempts to administer vaccines and teach their children critical thinking and brainwash them into believing that climate change is real and take God out of Christmas and seize their guns and impose foreign presidents upon them and on and on. Likewise, in Pynchon’s fevered imagination, Oedipa and America in general are being overwhelmed by huge bureaucracies and urban sprawl that seek to crush individuality. Tristero represents an elusive hope that there is an organization out there that will fight back.

Paranoia makes for great fantasy. The more prosaic reality, however, is that we are a very large and complex country that needs large bureaucracies to make everything function. These bureaucracies are staffed, for the most part, by competent, well meaning people who are doing their best. One of their jobs is delivering the mail.

They aren’t doing a bad job of it. They could be doing an even better job if they were not battling fantasists out to prove some ideological point.


A note on the artist: Elizabeth Crabree’s work can be found at

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