Stephen M. Walt

Please, Mr. Postman: Why the new mediasphere isn’t waiting for anyone

Today’s NY Times reported the death of Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelettes, whose recording of "Please Mr. Postman" was Motown Records first No. 1 hit. I first heard the song in the Beatles’ cover version (which ain’t bad), but the original is even better: sharp, urgent, and it’s got that classic Motown groove ...

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Today’s NY Times reported the death of Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelettes, whose recording of "Please Mr. Postman" was Motown Records first No. 1 hit. I first heard the song in the Beatles’ cover version (which ain’t bad), but the original is even better: sharp, urgent, and it’s got that classic Motown groove (courtesy of the immortal Funk Bros.)

There’s something rather symbolic in the timing of Ms. Horton’s death, especially in light of what’s going on in the Arab world. You don’t see the connection? Consider the lyrics of the song:

 

Please Mister Postman, look and see? (Oh yeah)?
If there’s a letter in your bag for me?  (Please, Please Mister Postman)
Why’s it takin’ such a long time? (Oh yeah)?
For me to hear from that boy of mine?
There must be some word today?
From my boyfriend so far away?
Please Mister Postman, look and see?
If there’s a letter, a letter for me
I’ve been standin’ here waitin’ Mister Postman?
So patiently…?
For just a card, or just a letter?
Sayin’ he’s returnin’ home to me"

 

The song is an anthem to anticipation, uncertainty, and longing — why hasn’t she heard from that absent boyfriend? — and the entire premise of the song depends on that fact she’s waiting for an actual physical letter to be delivered. It’s back in the era of snail mail, folks, when long-distance telephony was prohibitively expensive and there was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no way for ordinary people to communicate instantly on a regular basis over long distances. That also meant you were really dependent on whatever newspapers, TV, and radio chose to tell you.

I remember my first trip overseas in 1976, to study at Stanford’s overseas campus in Berlin. Correspondence with my then-girlfriend took a minimum of three weeks (round-trip), and longer if one of us was slow in responding. Like the singer in the song: you waited for a letter, and wondered what no news meant. If a letter was delayed, you agonized over what it might imply. It was a world where events moved more slowly, precisely because it took time for news to spread. Today, my teenaged son and daughter are surprised and irritated if a friend doesn’t respond to a text in five minutes.

Now consider what we’re seeing in the Middle East. Whatever the ultimate outcome of events in the Arab world, the speed with which large numbers of people have responded to events far away is remarkable. Just as audiocassettes of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s sermons served as a medium of transmission in Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, here a combination of modern mass media (Al Jazeera, the Internet, email, Twitter, etc.) has clearly played a major role in driving the pace of events.

At the same time, we’re living with a nearly unprecedented outpouring of previously hidden information, via Wikileaks and the "Palestine Papers." This is the wave of the future, I suspect, because the Internet is making it impossible to contain a secret once it’s out. Even if governments convinced some news agencies to suppress a secret, somebody somewhere else would release it and then we would all find it on the Web. That gives leakers a bigger incentive to release classified information, precisely because they can be more confident that the leak will get noticed and have an impact. This situation is bound to have significant second-order effects, as governments have to choose between supporting greater transparency, taking harsher action against leakers, or being more reluctant to speak candidly or to record confidential exchanges in ways that could be leaked.

In "Please Mr. Postman," the Marvelettes began by exhorting him to "Wait!" In today’s world, the mediasphere isn’t waiting for anyone.  

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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