History & Money, Lawyers & Politicians

My kids are currently in grade school. They’re learning all about the various wars, the soldiers, women and children collateral damage, and the heroic politicians and lawyers who saved us all. Just look at our currency. Way back when I was a child in Europe, before the Euro, European currency was (and somewhat remains) a colorful and lively affair, DE30much different from the pompous self-importance exuded by our own US currency. Here’s what a 5 Mark bill looked like in Germany (before the Euro).

The site, banknotes.com, which offers a collection of currencies from around the world (and the site from which most of these images come), identifies the image on the bank note as a “Portrait of a young Venetian woman (“Junge Venezianerin”) (1505) by Albrecht Dürer.” There are two things I love about the bank note. The first is that it’s a smiling woman (remember? — there are women on this planet too?) and the second is that the banknote honors an artist – Albrecht Dürer. Imagine that! An artist! Not a white, male politician, banker or lawyer. sacagaweaWhen is the last time our politicians deigned to put a woman on our currency? There’s the Susan B. Anthony, but my favorite remains the Sacagawea dollar.

There’s almost a smile there. She’s beautiful. She’s a mother. There’s a child. She’s native American. (Whenever I played cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be the Indian along with idolizing Daniel Boone.)  As far as I’m concerned, Sacagawea, along with any number of great Native Americans, — men, women visionaries, chiefs and medicine men — deserve to be, permanently, on our currency. There’s not a single native American honored on the Fifty State Commemorative Quarters. (Remember the Indian head penny and nickel?) Likewise, there’s not a single artist, writer, architect, scientist, poet or composer (and I’m not sure there ever has been). Since its politicians (and by extension lawyers) who get to decide who and what’s important, they naturally conclude that they, in fact, are the most important members of our society. American’s politicians crafted their currency in their own image. Do we really need George Washington on the quarter and the one dollar bill? Washington, for all his good qualities, was also the owner of 135 slaves who played fast and loose with the law despite and during his (eventual) objection to slavery. He could have freed his slaves at any time, but chose not to, unlike his wife, who freed all the slaves she inherited some 12 months after Washington’s death. Washington’s status wouldn’t have been possible without his slaves. I’m not saying Washington doesn’t deserve to be honored, but what about Frederick Douglas? Douglas was, so I’ve read, greatly responsible for persuading and hardening Lincoln’s stance against slavery. Far as I’m concerned, Douglas deserves to be on the quarter. As Wikipedia puts it:

“Douglass was a firm believer in the equality of all people, whether black, female, Native American, or recent immigrant, famously quoted as saying, ‘I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.'”

Such are the ideals that have made and continue to make our country (and any country) great. By comparison, here is what the Confederacy chose for their currency:

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Alabama, Central Bank, $10, October 1, 1857

This image comes from the online article Beyond Face Value: Slavery Iconography in Confederate Currency by Jules d’Hemecourt. Here is what d’Hemecourt writes about the 10 dollar note:

“When Baldwin, Ball & Cousland–another group of Northern printmakers hired by Confederates–produced a $10 note for the Central Bank of Alabama, it unabashedly presented detailed scenes of slaves picking and baling cotton beneath the reassuring bulk of the original Confederate capital of Montgomery, suggesting official protection of the slave system. Most telling of all is the inclusion of the iconic Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, whose presence serves as a reminder that the greatest of all American presidents to date had been a Southern slaveholder, and, by implication, a supporter of the Confederacy and the perpetuation of the slave labor system. No symbol was more potent to Americans than that of George Washington, and throughout the war, Confederate and Union printmakers alike would claim his image as their own.”

In its currency, a country reveals what it values, it’s expectations and its ethics (and, at worst, propaganda). It’s telling that US Currency ignores the ordinary women, men, craftsmen, laborers, poets, writers, architects, artists and scientists who, arguably, did more for this country than all but a handful (a small handful) of lawyers or politicians. Interestingly, Among Lincoln’s earliest ambitions was the ambition to to be a poet. Lincoln’s favorite poem was Mortality by William Knox. Lincoln said of it:

“I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”

The value that Lincoln placed on language, the necessity of its beauty, and its power to persuade can’t be overstated. Lawrence Weldon, who heard Lincoln recite Knox’s poem, said of Lincoln:

“The weird and melancholy association of eloquence and poetry had a strong fascination for Mr. Lincoln’s mind. Tasteful composition, either of prose or poetry, which faithfully contrasted the realities of eternity with the unstable and fickle fortunes of time, made a strong impression on his mind.”

Lincoln’s awareness of poetry, inasmuch as poetry itself encapsulates a recognition of the beauty of language, rhetoric, style and its concomitant powers of persuasion, are unmatched by any other President (let alone American politician) and would eventually result in one of the greatest political speeches ever given — the Gettysburg Address. Nothing so encapsulates Lincoln’s genius and gift for rhetoric and language. But to really appreciate Lincoln’s awareness and ambition as a poet and writer, read Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills.

So, I may like Lincoln for reasons other than that he was a lawyer and politician.

Here are some of my favorite bank notes (retired and current) from around the world:

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DE46German: Clara Schumann was a composer and concert pianist, wife of the great composer Robert Schumann.

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DE44German: The brothers Grimm, collectors of the Grimm fairy tales, known round the world.

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FR157French: A. de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince. See him?

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DK44Denmark: Hans Christian Andersen.

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GB377BEngland: Sir Isaac Newton (Shockingly, England omits Shakespeare, only the world’s greatest poet & dramatist; but somehow made room for Sir Edward Elgar. Really? Elgar?)

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BE149Belgium: Belgian surrealist artist René François Ghislain Magritte (1898-1967)

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IT118RItaly: School of Athens by Renaissance artist Raphael.

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RU275Russia: The Bolshoi Theater

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NO41Norway: A woman and writer Camilla Collett (1813-1895).

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EURO500The Euro: Most of these, but for Newton (which was retired for separate reasons), were replaced by the Euro. In an effort to avoid arousing nationalist rivalries, the Euro doesn’t feature personalities (absolutely no politicians) but pragmatically showcases architecture — all of it quite beautiful.

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DDR29DDR: The only retired currency (that I know of) that featured a poet, and a truly great one at that, was printed by the DDR (former communist East Germany). Unfortunately it’s hard to know what part of Goethe’s prominence was cynical propaganda and what part a genuine honoring of the poet.

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In 2011, the Israeli cabinet approved currency featuring four poets and writers. The result?

IsraelInterestingly, the new currency was met with some outrage. As the linked article states, “No Sephardic or Mizrahi figures were chosen for this new series.”

“This morning’s approval is a symptom of the government’s behavior toward the Mizrahi public,” [Shas MK Aryeh Deri] said. “Mizrahim are excluded from the Supreme Court, academia, the media, the Israel Prize, the current government, and now it’s reached our banknotes.

Netenyahu’s reaction was to suggest “that the next figure to appear on an Israeli banknote be Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher.” But the article argues this is unlikely to happen. Which explains why the Euro chose to stick with architecture though, in my view, they could have also featured a great painting, the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the blackboard scrawling of Neils Bohr or Einstein (without offending anyone). Such personalities are universal figures who collectively elevated mankind unlike, let’s say, Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambition (despite what one may think of him) indisputable resulted in the deaths of millions (by some estimates).

And that brings me back to my children’s education.

What is taught as history is generally the history of warfare. Children learn about the nation states of classical Greece, their politics and strife, but little of its architectural, philosophic and artistic innovations (at least in my own experience and judging by my own children’s education). History seems to be the study of conflict, not innovation or creativity.  Who decides what appears in our public school textbooks? The government. And that governance sometimes amounts to little more than a handful of (ironically) anti-government, elected, authoritarian, ideological, school board officials in Texas.

Politicians are naturally going to see history in their own image — a history of ideology (religious and political), conflict, strife, winners and losers. As goes the political ideology of those in power, so goes the history lessons and textbooks. Currently, my children’s history class (7th grade) divides history into five currents: Geography, Desire for Power, Technology, Values, Economics.

Geography: An advantageously location will encourage economical prosperity.
Values: A culture’s religious beliefs can profoundly affect economic growth.
Economics: Dependent on its economic and political systems, prosperity may or may not be sustainable.
Desire for Power: Economic prosperity breeds ambition (economic and political) and potential conflict with other rival nation-states.
Technology: By technology, we mean weaponry. Economic rivalries inevitably breed arms-races as economic, political and geographic exigencies are disputed.

Are these the forces that drive history? They beautifully define what drives politics and politicians. I wouldn’t argue that they don’t matter, but I personally find the most important forces in history to be philosophical, inasmuch as philosophy eventually became science and that it was science, thought, exploration and innovation that created the world we live in.

  • In Ancient Tragedy and the Origins of Modern Science, Michael David finds the origins of modern science, in part, in the ancient classical Greek tragedy of Sophocles.

It was ideology and fundamentalism that destroyed the library of Alexandria. It was the ideology and fundamentalism of Islam that brought the brilliant mathematical innovations of Arabic mathematicians to an end. It was ideology and fundamentalism that nearly finished Galileo. Where freedom of thought (freedom from ideology) predominates, civilization flourishes. This is probably not the kind of history a good many Texas school boards would like (being populated, as they cyclically are, by rigid ideologues and religious fundamentalists). Ideology and fundamentalism are, by nature, authoritarian, and are traits that sit comfortably within (and gravitate toward) just about any religious context, and which frequently ignore or are in conflict with the liberal teachings of peace, love generosity and forgiveness. The problem is that most religions provide a ready toolbox for the ideologically and fundamentally minded — beginning with an unquestioning deference to authority.

What would I offer as the driving forces of history?

I think, first of all, that asking the question like this predetermines the answer because the word history is already rife with associations and assumptions. It’s how we’ve been educated. How about this question: What are the driving forces behind art, culture, innovation, cooperation, peace, prosperity? Instead of putting the emphasis on warfare and governance (and glorifying some extremely unsavory figures) we might teach children how human beings managed to get along and prosper (sometimes despite those forces).

I don’t expect everyone to agree. Many will remain much more interested in the world’s Cromwells than in its Aristarchus’s, Platos, Shakespeares, Bachs, DaVincis or Mozarts. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be and that they don’t have their place, only that our De facto starting point doesn’t have to be Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Charlemagne, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and any number of other egomaniacs, sociopaths, psychopaths and mass murderers — the inevitable biography of history, it seems, if history is reduced to nothing more than Geography, Values, Economics, Desire for Power, and Technology.

So, I admit I’ve vastly simplified the issues (it’s not my area of expertise) but I just wanted to sketch out some ideas.

Let me know what you think.

I’m one of those people that think Thomas Edison and the light bulb changed the world more than Karl Marx ever did.” Steve Jobs

Up in VermontJanuary 5 2014

6 responses

  1. A very interesting article, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree, bank notes in the US could and should reflect a country’s history and culture.

    I thought when I read about England’s notes I had actually seen a note with Shakespeare on the back, albeit a long time ago.

    The custom of depicting historical figures on the reverse began with William Shakespeare on the Series D £20 note in 1970. Since then, many other figures have featured on successive issues.

    From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banknotes_of_the_pound_sterling

    • Then I’m very happy to hear that Shakespeare made it onto a bank note. Seems to me they never should have let him go. Shakespeare is *the* diamond in England’s crown. :-)

    • Ha!
      We’ve just had an upgrade. All the same people, but they seem to be getting progressively younger across the different versions.
      And some seem to think that our newest batch are scratch-and-sniff maple scented.

    • //…they seem to be getting progressively younger across the different versions…//

      Yes… I’ve had that same experience, even in my own photos I look progressively younger. I don’t get it.

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