ALEXANDRIA, VA (Sept. 17, 1999) -- I love e-mail. People can write to me and ask a question about the RP formula, and I can respond in 1/10 the time it would take me to send a letter via snail mail. That's wonderful. I can work efficiently and help far more people. But like many new things, magnifying the potential for good can also magnify the potential for evil.
A great example of this arrived in my mailbox this morning. The subject line was "Fw: Politicans!" (Not a good start, but I have mucho sympathy for the spelling handicapped.) Here's the complete text, sender's name removed for privacy.
"Have you heard about this? Worth a call to your Senator? Your Newspaper?
"Post Office's plan to charge us all for e-mail.
"Please read the following carefully if you intend to stay online and continue using e-mail:
"The last few months have revealed an alarming trend in the Government of the United States attempting to quietly push through legislation that will affect your use of the Internet.
"Under proposed legislation, the U.S. Postal Service will be attempting to bill e-mail users with 'alternate postage fees.'
"Bill 602P would permit the Federal Govt to charge a 5 cent surcharge on every e-mail delivered, by billing Internet Service Providers at the source. The consumer would then be billed in turn by the ISP.
"Washington, D.C. lawyer Richard Stepp is working without pay to prevent this legislation from becoming law.
"The U.S. Postal Service is claiming that lost revenue (due to the proliferation of e-mail) is costing them nearly $230,000,000 in revenue per year. You may have noticed their recent ad campaign 'There is nothing like a letter.'
"Since the average citizen received about 10 pieces of e-mail per day in 1998, the cost to the typical individual would be an additional 50 cents per day, or over $180 dollars per year, above and beyond their regular Internet costs.
"Note that this would be money paid directly to the U.S. Postal Service for a service they do not even provide. The whole point of the Internet is democracy and noninterference. If the federal government is permitted to tamper with our liberties by adding a surcharge to e-mail (which they do not even provide), who knows where it will end? You are already paying an exorbitant price for snail mail because of bureaucratic inefficiency. It currently takes up to 6 days for a letter to be delivered from New York [City] to Buffalo.
"If the U.S. Postal Service is allowed to tinker with e-mail, it will mark the end of the 'free' Internet in the United States. One congressman, Tony Schnell =AE [sic] has even suggested a 'twenty to forty dollar per month surcharge on all Internet service' above and beyond the government's proposed e-mail charges.
"Note that most of the major newspapers have ignored the story, the only exception being the Washingtonian which called the idea of e-mail surcharge 'a useful concept whose time has come' (March 6th, 1999 Editorial). Don't sit by and watch your freedoms erode away!
"Send this e-mail to EVERYONE on your list, and tell all your friends and relatives to write to their congressman and say 'No!' to Bill 602P. It will only take a few moments of your time, and could very well be instrumental in killing a bill we don't want.
"Kate Turner, Assistant to Richard Stepp, Berger, Stepp and Gorman Attorneys at Law, 216 Concorde Street, Vienna, VA"
Folks, they're all lies. Not a word of it is true. I checked, but how many people do?
Here's what sent my antennas up:
Most newspapers are ignoring this? Reporters LIVE for this kind of story!
"Bill 602P" didn't sound right. In eighth grade civics I learned that proposed laws were referred to as either Senate Bill 602 or House Bill 602, or something like that (it's been a long time).
I've never heard the slogan "There's nothing like a letter."
They plan to charge the recipients??? Uh, that's not the way the U.S. Post Office normally charges, and patently unfair.
The congressman is not identified by either state or party.
The Washingtonian isn't a newspaper, it's a monthly magazine.
Concorde Street? I know Vienna, Virginia pretty well and don't remember a Concorde Street.
I made a few phone calls. First, 411. There is no firm of Berger, Stepp and Gorman in Vienna, Virginia. In fact, I checked with the post office -- there is NO Concorde Street in Vienna.
There is no member of the U.S. Senate or House named Tony Schnell.
There is a Richard Stepp in Fairfax County, Virginia (near Vienna), but his wife wearily informed me that he isn't an attorney. The poor folks have been getting calls about this hoax for two months.
Senate Bill 602 and House Bill 602 are about other subjects and the only bills before congress dealing with e-mail are on privacy issues.
So the question is, why would someone just make up this batch of lies out of whole cloth?
I don't think that the idea was to annoy poor Richard Stepp and his wife. I don't even think it is just a prank, or if it is, it is part of a very disturbing anti-government trend. I hate to say it (because I dread the e-mail!), but this business of mistrusting government has gone too far. It seems like the American populace has become so cynical that some, at least, are willing to believe any preposterous thing that they read as long as the guv'ment is the villain.
What is really insidious about something like this is that most people probably won't check it out. In fact, most people will probably forget about it, but they will be left with a strengthening of their conviction that the government is out to get them. Perhaps this e-mail is part of a vast conspiracy to promote anti-government paranoia.
Goodness knows we have reason to mistrust government. Ask the residents of Paducah, Kentucky. But the government is not a single entity. It is us. I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., so I know a lot of government employees, and I can tell you that they are just guys like us. While lack of oversight and fear can compound to make some people do the wrong thing, and certainly the power of a large bureaucracy is scary, I really don't think that ordinary people turn into Nazis when they take that civil service job.
Like the "up to" six days for delivery of mail from New York to Buffalo, there's a kernel of truth in all of our myths, especially the government "horror stories." Every mistake, bad as it is for the individual involved, gets blown up and passed around and somehow the image is created that the mail is always slow or all IRS employees are jack-booted thugs. The reality, however, is that most mail arrives on time and most IRS agents are pretty nice guys who take a lot of guff about their jobs. Everyone who knows one of them probably thinks that the IRS guy they know is the exception and wonders how he or she can work with all those jack-booted thugs.
There's a logical disconnect here, folks.
I'm sure there's more than one bad apple in the government barrel. It's a big barrel. But they are individual apples -- not some kind of Blobish applesauce out to get you.
We've gone from blind faith to unreasoning cynicism. We don't live in Pleasantville, but this isn't an X-Files world either. Question everything -- including the things that reinforce your own opinions.
The truth is out there, but we're swinging right past it.
Next week: The return of the Foolish Four -- more on how to secure your future and less on politics and philosophy.