2010 Census: The Big Shrug?

“Nearly one in three Americans failed to return their census questionnaires by Friday’s official deadline,” reports the New York Times. Using the same methods of accounting for returned mail and such, that’s a 4% increase in non-compliance over the 2000 census.

A surge of conscious resistance to the state? Not as likely as simple apathy, but I still find this news encouraging. The “I don’t have time for your nonsense” shrug is in some ways at least as significant as the “I don’t recognize your authority” raised middle finger. That’s especially true given the vast environmental and experiential change in America over decade separating the two head counts.

The 2000 census may have been advertised and publicized, but not the way this one has been. In my neck of the woods — the St. Louis, Missouri metro area — it’s virtually impossible to travel more than a block without seeing a “Stand Up And Be Counted!” or “Send It In!” sign. It looks like the Census Bureau must have bought up half the online advertising industry’s banner inventory for the last month or so, too. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but it seems like every time I walk past one, there’s a census commercial running.

My household got a postcard in the mail to let us know the census form would be coming. Then we got a letter to let us know that we’d been sent the card. Then we got the actual census form. Then we got another card hectoring us to fill the thing in. Last week, we got another census form.

Our town government’s monthly newsletter has touted the census for the last four months, reminding us that Greendale might not get “its fair share” of tax loot if we don’t fill out the forms and mail them back.

Assuming that we’re not special, i.e. that pretty much every household with a mailing address in one of Uncle Sugar’s database got the same metric ton of mail and such, it seems unlikely that one third of the country just completely missed or forgot the fact that the census was happening.

A general laxity or lack of intimidating presence on the part of government itself certainly isn’t to blame.

Over the decade between the last census and this one, Americans have learned all about queueing up, removing their shoes, and submitting to everything from electronic wanding to cavity searches just to indulge in the “privilege” of traveling by air.

If we prefer to drive, we have to produce our “papers,” apparently in a connected chain running all the way back to the Domesday Book or the scrolls of Confucius, in order to renew our “licenses.”

Heck, as of this year, the President of the United States even claims the power to have any or all of us who happen to rub him the wrong way assassinated.

Despite this advertising blitz and general transition toward totalitarianism (or perhaps because of it), the public perception of government’s moral authority to demand, and practical ability to enforce, compliance with its census continues to decline.

I doubt that we’ll ever see hard numbers on “actively resistant response” — how many people sent the census form in, but declined to provide all the information demanded by Big Brother — but I strongly suspect that if non-returns and resistant returns are added together, they constitute a majority of households.

This may not be a sign of nascent revolutionary consciousness, but it’s at least a sign of residual cultural health. A plurality — perhaps a majority! — of Americans are either ignoring or resisting the state’s demands that it participate in what’s advertised as a key obligation of citizenship. That’s a good thing.

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