Turning U.S. currency into art was never going to end well

There’s already quite the battle taking place around the country over the decision to replace Old Hickory on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman. (And were any of you really shocked? We can start a fight over the color of stoplights in this country these days.) We’ve already heard about several aspects of the debate from John, Ed, and Allahpundit this week, but there seems to be one element of the argument which has been overlooked. Why are we using the official currency of the nation as a billboard for either artwork or messaging in the first place?

I got to thinking about Tubman’s place on our folding money when I read both the Washington Post editorial on why this is such a “brilliant” plan and a companion piece from Eugene Robinson making the pro-Tubman case. In the latter article, Eugene argues that it carries on an ancient tradition of honoring those who are worthy of respect or even worship.

It matters who’s on the money. Since the ancient Greeks began stamping coins with images of their gods, nations have used currency to define a pantheon of heroes. Tubman was a great hero not because of who she was but what she did: bravely fight to expand the Constitution’s promise of freedom and justice to all Americans.

Here’s the problem. Robinson makes a brilliant case for not only why Tubman should garner some support from both conservatives and liberals alike, but for her special place in history. Personally I completely agree with his assessment of her life. The issue we’re confronting is that there are obviously at least some people who disagree. And even among those who are loudly agreeing, their reasons for endorsing her can be quite different and clearly intended as a way to poke a finger in the eye of “the other side.” (For more on that, see National Review’s glowing approval of Tubman as a gun-toting, God fearing Republican hero of America.)

There’s more to it than that, though. Even if we couldn’t find a single person who disagreed with the choice or even anyone who disagreed with why it was a good idea, since when did we establish a formal government policy of settling any disagreement at all by putting forth what can only be interpreted as an official United States endorsement on our currency? For that matter, even absent any political debate, why are we converting our money into an easel for the display of paintings? (Believe me, people argue over the social and aesthetic value of art even more than they do politics.) When we started on a very early path of turning currency into artwork we established a pointlessly divisive precedent. Believe it or not, I agree with Eugene when he says that “it matters who is on the money” because, as I said above, the money is issued by the federal government (the government of all the people as you may recall) and it is part and parcel of our entire capitalist society. By putting anything on the face of the coins and the bills, it stands out as an endorsement by the government of the United States of America, not just in banks and gas stations around the fifty states, but across the globe.

Look back for a moment at the beginning of Eugene Robinson’s history lesson regarding the origins of faces on currency, we should find a clear, if unintended warning. He reminds us that the “ancient Greeks began stamping coins with images of their gods.” Say… there’s a fabulous idea! Why don’t we do that too? But wait… which god, prophet or other religious figure shall we endorse in this fashion? Jesus? Buddha? The Prophet Muhammad? (Hold on… that last one could lead to some real problems.)

Do you see what I’m getting at here? We have a government which is supposedly more of a referee of free expression, opinions, religions and all the rest. Why is there any sort of art or depiction of individuals on our money? If you really want to make a change and you can’t settle for simple numbers and letters identifying the denomination of the currency, how about some pictures of the treasury, the White House, the Capitol Building or a map of the country? At least that would be neutral in nature and you could all get back to that urgent fight over whether or not the designated hitter rule should be used in the World Series.


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