In the United States, we’ve somehow decided that only presidents are worthy of a place of honor on the currency. Even bad, war-loving presidents are on the money. Now that we as a nation seem to have a bit of a public-relations problem, maybe it's time to rethink this.
Our decision-making on this issue -- and it’s ours, as Congress controls this stuff -- has been nothing but lamebrained. The combination of institutional inertia, having other priorities, and a lack of critical thinking has made us a nation that appears to venerate authority and the occasional mythological figure.
For example, we honor on the utterly ubiquitous $20 bill, Andrew Jackson, a man who, until about 2003 or so, was the front-runner in the “Worst President Ever” horse-race. He enjoyed killing Indians and forcibly removing them from land white Americans wanted for its gold. He also campaigned against those silly, foppish Eastern Elites, thus paving the way for a broad-base of voters who make their decisions based on “common sense” which is just another way of saying “whatever pretty much everyone else thinks is cool.” So George W. Bush is kind of Andy Jackson's fault, but that's for another time.
The next denomination up is Ulysses S. Grant, who, like Jackson, was a better military officer than a president. He presided over a bunch of scandals and disasters on Wall Street, and generally seemed to be an anti-semite. He did nothing truly positive of note, and yet there he is on the $50 bill. Nice.
The $100 and $10 get non-presidents, and deserving ones. The single, fiver and even the $2 bill all get presidents who appear previously on coinage, and they deserve their twin-billing. No one disputes the worthiness of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson for the honor of appearing on American currency, and you won't hear that argument from me, even if I'd like to see some space cleared up for worthy candidates.
And don't get me started on the whole dollar coin mess. First we solved a problem that no one had -- pockets not jingly enough with change, billfolds stuffed too fat with singles. The result was a handsome, attractive failure. A gold-colored dollar that, despite an advertising blitz encouraging Americans to use the new currency (Americans, do you enjoy goods and services? Tired of digging clams all day to barter? Use money!)
Either because the first one-dollar coin in about 20 years was such a unique sight, or because Americans actually thought the dollar was made out of gold, no one spent the suckers (although I distinctly remember being amused by plunking down four of them for a beer in a dive bar once in 2000). America's first attempt to honor a non-white, non-male, actual person was a failure.
Naturally, the minority woman was blamed. The solution: more white dudes. Yes, now every single freaking president will be on a similarly shaped coin. On the back will be an image of another fictional female, the Statue of Liberty, along with a “$1” mark so the illiterate masses would no longer be confused by the words “One” and “Dollar.”
It’s as if no American has ever made any significan contributions to the humanities, the arts, or science. I realize that if Chaz Darwin were a Yank, there’d be no way that GOP congressmen (and the adorably contrarian Blue Dogs!) would allow him to appear on good old American coinage. But in Britain, he gets the £10 note. Which, thanks in part to the doings of our current president (coming to the dollar coin in 2017!) is worth about the same as a $20 bill. On which we honor ... Andrew Jackson. Sigh. I guess in a world where Ronald Reagan's name graces an airport, George W. Bush's mug might as well smirk back at you from the heads side.
If only the United States had produced some, you know, good scientists. Or artists. Or writers. Or musicians. Or great people of any sort besides Warren G. Harding, Chester A. Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes. Oh, would that it were.
But alas, Franklin Pierce’s contributions to the United States and the lives of every American must clearly outweigh those of any writer. What can Walt Whitman’s mere words do against the Kansas-Nebraska Act?
Sure, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but William Henry Harrison’s administration, which was about as long as his inaugural address, clearly had more of an impact on the world.
And let’s not even imagine the “controversy” that would erupt when someone decides that Martin Luther King might someday deserve to join the pantheon of faces on American currency. Sure he kind of saved us from ourselves, but if you think Republicans would let him on the $50 or something without getting Ronald Reagan onto something, then you’re not watching what I’m watching.
And even if these arguments don't sway you, there's this: There's going to be two Grover Cleveland coins.
I realize there are more pressing issues, and there’s even more pressing issues on which our national policy is even more dunderheaded. (Airline security, for example, seems like it’s run by the kids from the slow math group in my fourth-grade class, but with more flailing and spazzing out.) But hey, it’s Presidents Day. If there’s a better time to advocate for restoring dignity and honor to those presidents worthy to be on the money, I can’t think of it.