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`Junk mail': A sign of democracy at work

IT has been that time of year again. All our mail baskets are sagging beneath the weight of materials from national civic organizations, asking one and all to support their causes by joining their rolls. This surge of mail solicitations for self-proclaimed worthy causes prompts some of my friends to complain about this ``junk mail,'' as they describe it. Such familiar complaints prod me to wonder why anyone would call these appeals ``junk mail.'' They represent a wonderful democratic initiative which should invite a more understanding and curious attitude. Each nonprofit group uses lists of people whom they think will be interested in their messages. Then, they carefully write letters to attract reader attention in the first few seconds of scanning.

For a variety of reasons, about 98 or 99 of every 100 recipients do not respond to these unsolicited letters - hence the possible basis for the term ``junk mail.'' No doubt, however, the percentage of those who learn something by reading these letters is considerably higher than the percentage sending checks. I've learned to view these messages as informative in their own way as are newspaper editorials, features, or reports. Granted the descriptions are those of advocates or partisans; but the reader is put clearly on notice that such is the case.

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Our family is more informed as a result of a mounting number of these requests for support in recent days. The United Negro College Fund which helps black colleges tells us about the opportunities provided low income black students in these venerable institutions. The American Civil Liberties Union warns of specific government repression. Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau conveys eloquently the wonder of the oceans and the damage from pollution to this critical life-support system. The League of Women Voters writes about its educational programs on national security. Then there are the inimitable Gray Panthers offering aggressive involvement for older people who want to make a difference and reassert their values in practice.

The mail keeps coming. A letter from the Farmworker Justice Fund reminds us of the chronic plight of migrant workers and their families who harvest our fruits and vegetables. The National Taxpayers Union warns of runaway pension liabilities and wasteful government spending. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) urges mobilization against highway drunkards and SANE works to stop a spreading nuclear arms race. Exquisite stamps with beautiful birds in colorful plumage are enclosed with the Audubon Society's letter. Meanwhile, the Wilderness Society objects to the Reagan administration's alleged misuse of public land resources and attaches an opinion survey and an artistic decal.

Whether it is a group to save the wolves or the whales, or a conservative association predicting a global debt collapse, censuring the Federal Reserve, or demanding curbs on the spread of pornography - these are people who care about their times. Of course, there are exaggerations, opinions one dislikes, or recommendations that can seem less than sound. But, in these sometimes duplicatory letters, the pulse of citizen action beats with all its fervor. And, as with the worldwide work of groups such as Oxfam and the American Friends Service Committee, the pulse beats with idealism, hopes, and accomplishments combined.

So, can we really describe these summons to activity as ``junk mail''? To my ears, they bring the sounds of democracy, warts and all; they are convenient bulletin boards keeping me up to date on happenings in the citizen world.

Viewed broadly, our nation facilitates volume use of the mails by citizen groups beyond that of other Western nations whose nonprofit postage rates are substantially higher. This gap is narrowing, unfortunately, because in recent years the US nonprofit postage rate has risen sharply; it will continue to do so until we realize how important the civic encouragement purpose is which lies behind such rates.

Next time you receive another of these solicitations, please be patient. Ask yourself what kind of society we would have if such ``junk mail'' could not make it to our doors? And, imagine what life is like in those countries where authoritarian decree prohibits such diverse appeals.

Rose Nader is a homemaker in Winsted, Conn.

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