»  The Straggler, No. 28

February 14th, 2005

  Count Me Out

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I took against the census form right away. It arrived with the lunchtime mail on a day when I was even more behind than usual with writing assignments. The American Community Survey, it declared itself at the head of Page 1 of 24, every page dense with text and boxes to be filled out or checked.

A covering letter signed by one Charles Louis Kincannon, Director, U.S. Census Bureau, explained that this survey "collects critical up-to-date information used to meet the needs of communities across the United States. For example, results from this survey are used to decide where new schools, hospitals and fire stations are needed." Isn't this the kind of thing that American communities have traditionally decided for themselves? What business is it of Uncle Sam where my suburban township locates its fire station? And doesn't American English prefer "firehouse" to "fire station," actually? After a moment or two of cogitation, I threw the thing in the trash.

It came back, of course, like the Monster from the Black Bog. Three weeks later there it was in the mailbox again. The covering letter this time affected an air of injured puzzlement. "I asked you to help us with this very important survey by completing it and mailing it back. But, we have not received it yet," chid Mr. Kincannon. Then, with a note of sternness: "You are required by U.S. law to respond to this survey."

On this particular day I was slightly ahead of the game on writing assignments, or at least not so far behind as to be in my customary condition of quivering panic, so I started in on filling out the thing. Names, dates of birth, marital status — then, right on Page 3, the races we Derbyshires consider ourselves to belong to. I scrutinized the options. "Guamanian"? "Hawaiian"? Are they really races? I consulted my 1965 copy of Carleton S. Coon's The Living Races of Man. Professor Coon does not list "Guamanian." Perhaps racial science has advanced into new fields of classification since 1965. "Hawaiian" is there all right, though the author notes that: "Persons who call themselves 'Hawaiians' are of 8.5 percent Caucasoid and 13.7 percent Chinese ancestry …" Fascinating stuff, this race business.

On to Page 5. In the past 12 months, what was the cost of water and sewer for this house, apartment, or mobile home? I have no clue. Should I hunt through my records and add up the numbers? I hazard a guess and press on. By the time I get to Page 11 (What time did this person usually leave home to go to work last week?) I have lost the will to live. I put the American Community Survey aside … where, so far, it has stayed for the past two weeks.

Am I falling down on my civic duty here? I consulted the ever helpful readers of National Review Online, and as usual got a full spectrum of opinions. Reader A advised me that he had similarly procrastinated with the Short Form in the last full census, until eventually the Bureau sent agents round to his home to sit down with him and work through … the Long Form! ("Do you have to do this a lot?" he asked them. "A lot," they replied.) Reader B, himself a field rep for the Census Bureau, told me the statutory penalties were impossible to enforce, so the veiled threat in Director Kincannon's covering letter was all bluff. He then scolded me thus: "Doing the census is one of those mundane acts of patriotism like jury duty … Frankly I'm disappointed in you." Ah, Sir, the ranks of people who have been disappointed in me, starting with my parents and schoolteachers, stretch so far back across the plain that I am afraid you will be inconspicuous in the host.

Reader C won my heart with this: "A Briton would fill out the survey, grumbling all the while to his grumbling contemporaries. An American would throw it in the trash, reserving his time for moneymaking, or invention, or honest leisure." This pierced me right to my hyper-patriotic immigrant heart. Of course! This is the U.S. of A., the nation where proud and free citizens ride the government agent out of town on a rail, the nation where the correct answer to "You, there — who's your master?" is: "He hasn't been born yet." Thus inspirited, I threw the thing in the trash. There was my true civic duty!

I was still glowing with righteous pride later that day when another reader pointed me to the December 31, 1960, issue of National Review. There I read the story of William F. Rickenbacker, a staff member at this magazine, who at census time had received the Blue Questionnaire, which is to say, the 1960 equivalent of the Long Form. After studying the queries about how many bathrooms he had, what language was spoken in his parents' home, and how many hours he had worked the previous week, the sturdy Mr. Rickenbacker pronounced, in a full-page article, that the Blue Questionnaire was "uncivilly inquisitorial and absolutely unconstitutional … Some day [he went on] when the summer satrap of the Snooper State comes to ask me why I refuse to contribute my share of statistics to the national numbers game, I shall call for my lawyer."

The summer satrap duly showed up, and Mr. Rickenbacker made his call. The case went to a grand jury, to whom Mr. Rickenbacker declared: "I hope to find out in the courts of law … whether there still lives in this land not only the spirit but the law of liberty, which is inseparable from the idea that a God-fearing citizen may lead a private life that is no concern of the Federal Government."

And, of course, find out he did. On January 14, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review Judge Thurgood Marshall's opinion for the Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit in United States of America v. William Rickenbacker, upholding the government's action against Rickenbacker. He was indicted, tried, found guilty, sentenced to 60 days in prison (suspended), and fined $100.

Honey, did you empty out my waste bin already …?