Who made a dollar worth a dollar?


Some years ago, the founder of this blog, VThunderlad, suggested that the time had come for the English-speaking world to scrap its old Christmas carols and adopt a new set. I was willing to be convinced, until he proposed that the first to be retired should be “The Carol of the Bells.” “The Carol of the Bells” is the one Christmas tune of which I have the strongest and most numerous memories, and so as soon as he recommended ditching that one I was dead set against scrapping any Christmas carol, even the drab, barely-singable ones.

What brought this story to mind is the ongoing discussion about redesigning US currency, a discussion most recently brought into the spotlight with the US Treasury Department’s decision to partly replace Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman’s. Since Jackson was a slave-trader whose most remembered political achievement was forcing thousands of Cherokee people to leave their homes in the southeastern US, costing an untold number of lives, there has long been a demand that his face should be removed from the $20 bill, but the Treasury Department opened the year with a proposal to remove, not Jackson’s portrait from the $20 bill, but Alexander Hamilton’s from the $10 bill.  The success of the Broadway musical Hamilton (much more productive of sympathy for its protagonist than Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson ever was,) doomed that plan and redirected attention to the $20 bill. Even now, it looks like the Harriet Tubman $20 bill won’t be making its debut until 2030, after four presidential elections, any one of which may bring in an administration that will put a stop to the whole thing. Even if the plan goes through as announced, the new bill will feature on its reverse an image depicting a statue of… Andrew Jackson! The whole thing feels like a fiasco.

Andrew Jackson’s fans aren’t that numerous nowadays, but he is still a popular figure in the state of Tennessee, which was his home in adulthood, and in the border area between North and South Carolina, where he was born and raised. So people from those places felt singled out by the push to remove him, and resisted that push intensely enough to force the Treasury into the ridiculous position it now occupies. I say we should take a lesson from the United Kingdom’s decimalization of its currency, accomplished on a single day in February 1971. If we want to redo the currency, we should do it all at once.

What changes do we need to make? I can think of seven:

  1. The $100 is so attractive to counterfeiters and so inconvenient to the average currency user that it is not reasonable to continue its production.
  2. The $1 and $5 bills wear out so frequently that it would be logical to discontinue their production and replace them with coins. In the past, the USA has introduced dollar coins but kept dollar bills in circulation, with the result that it has not made economic sense to redesign vending machines and cash registers to take the dollar coins. Therefore, currency users have found little use for the coins. Only the discontinuation of the bills will prompt the redesigns necessary to bring the new coins into wide circulation.
  3. All US bills are the same size and texture, exposing the visually impaired to the threat of larceny every time they pay with cash. The $50 bill should be larger than the $20 bill and the $20 bill larger than the $10 bill.
  4. The $.50 piece has never caught on and is valued almost exclusively as a collector’s item. Ceasing production of this coin would inconvenience no one and please collectors by giving scarcity value to a coin many of them can’t help but hold onto, even though, as a coin still in production, it is worth only its face value.
  5. Each $.01 piece costs more than $.01 to produce, yielding negative seignorage. Moreover, they are nearly as inconvenient to currency users as is the $100 bill, and tend to fall out of circulation almost immediately. The presence of the $.01 piece in the US currency system benefits only two groups: the zinc industry, which would still be doing just fine without the subsidy the piece represents, and retailers who advertise prices of “$9.99” or “$19.99” knowing full well that, on the one hand, these keep them under the psychological barrier that $10 and $20 present to many customers, and on the other that buyers will leave a $.01 piece rather than claim it in change. As such, the $.01 piece not only costs the taxpayers money and unnecessarily inflates the price of a strategic mineral, it also encourages deceptive trading practices. Its production should be discontinued.
  6. As the physical size of bills should decline in proportion to their value, so the diameter of coins should decline in proportion to theirs. So, the $5 piece should be the largest coin, the $1 piece the next largest, and so on, so that the $.05 piece, not the $.10 piece, should be the smallest coin.
  7. All the men who are now or have ever been on the obverse of US coins or bills should be retired from them, and should be replaced by the faces of others who symbolize reasons why a dollar is worth a dollar.

The first six points are relatively familiar, and I don’t propose to enlarge on them. Point seven does require a bit of explanation.

That all the men who have been featured on the obverse of coins should be retired I support by the example of the not-entirely-unsuccessful resistance diehard Andrew Jackson fans have put up to the idea of removing him from the $20 bill. Only if every region and interest group that has ever succeeded in putting the face of its favorite on the money simultaneously gives up that success will reform go through.

Why should the new faces symbolize reasons why a dollar is worth a dollar?  Ever since the end of the seventh century BCE, when Alyattes of Lydia struck the oldest coin known to numismatics, it has been customary to put an image on the obverse of the coin indicating the power that gives the coin its value. In Alyattes’ case, that image was a lion, an image that his house apparently used as an heraldic device:


The coin was worth what it was worth because Alyattes and his kinsmen said it was worth that much, and no further explanation was required. It better not have been required, since it wasn’t going to be forthcoming from the unadorned gouge on the reverse:


A bit later, Alyattes’ old neighbors in Lycia started stamping portraits of their kings on the obverse of their coins, and the Greeks then started putting deities symbolic of the community at large on the obverse of their coins and doing imaginative things with the reverse. In each case, the point was to show who guaranteed the value of the coin, and with the reverse designs to give some background as to why that guarantee could be trusted.

The USA has no king, of course, but the images on US currency are still meant to show why a dollar is worth a dollar. Abraham Lincoln is on the $.01 piece and the $5 bill, and Ulysses Grant is on the $50 bill, because the Union’s victory in the civil war of 1861-1865, and the subsequent rise of a relatively strong central government, made it possible for the USA to build single internal markets for capital and labor, to conduct trade policy on a grand scale, and to break free of British economic domination once and for all.

Thomas Jefferson is on the $.05 piece and the $2 bill, and Andrew Jackson is on the $20 bill, because these two men were instrumental both in the territorial expansion of the USA in North America, and in the creation of the Democratic Party, which, despite the anti-nationalistic ideology of its first century of existence, as a political party operating on a national scale could not but act as a force consolidating the USA, thereby inadvertently promoting the ends which Lincoln and Grant served consciously.

Franklin Roosevelt is on the $.10 piece, not only because he had polio and the anti-polio efforts of the March of Dimes were very much associated with the $.10 piece at the time when Roosevelt’s portrait was put there, but because his New Deal policies normalized the idea of a mixed economy in which large-scale state intervention would both ease the plight of those individuals who took financial or career risks that did not pay off and counter the extremes of the business cycle. Moreover, leading the USA’s efforts in the Second World War, the Roosevelt Administration did three things that still help to make a dollar worth a dollar. First, in the period from September 1939 to December 1941, Roosevelt did what Woodrow Wilson, in an act of negligence approaching outright treason, failed to do in the period August 1914 to April 1917, and forced the UK to give up its gold reserves, its equity in strategically vital US industries, its naval bases in the Western hemisphere, and other assets that not only would have been dangerous had they fallen into German hands after a British surrender, but which also represented the dead hand of the former colonial power on the American economy and the US position in world affairs. Second, the USA did play a key role in defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, two powers which would have built an intolerable world had they won a secure triumph, and which would have left the world in utter chaos if, as was more likely, they had been unable to hold onto their gains. The USA emerged from the Second World War, not into either of those nightmare scenarios, but into a world in which it had greater access than ever before to the markets of Western Europe and Northeast Asia. Third, it was under the Roosevelt Administration that the USA established the relationship with Saudi Arabia that has periodically stabilized the price of petroleum over the last 70 years, a stabilization that has made possible worldwide industrial development that well merits the words of Gordon P. Merriam, an official of the Roosevelt administration, who called Saudi Arabia’s petroleum reserves “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

George Washington is on the $.25 piece and the $1 bill because if the thirteen colonies had not made a successful military revolt against the British Empire, there would be no US currency, and if the USA’s elites had not managed to create a stable political system in the aftermath of that revolt such currency would be valueless.

John Kennedy is on the $.50 piece because television promotes nostalgia for celebrities who die young, but also because his tough talk about Berlin still highlights the relationship between the USA and Germany, a relationship which guarantees US access to markets throughout the German Empire (or, as it is politely known, the European Union.) In turn, Germany’s desire for access to the American market keeps its behavior in check to some extent, though occasionally one does see the Chancellor unilaterally disregarding Germany’s international commitments, triggering a movement of populations which threatens to dissolve the borders of states in Central and Eastern Europe. And the Germans do still behave recklessly when they see an opportunity to set up operations in territories that have historically been within Russia’s sphere of influence. However, these tendencies are to some degree inherent in Germany’s geopolitical position and the deepest structures of its political culture. The attraction of trade with the USA can moderate Germany’s bent to those forms of bad behavior, but only a strong Russia can contain it, and nothing can eradicate it. So it is not unreasonable that an American coin should commemorate the US-German relationship.

Alexander Hamilton is on the $10 bill because, as the first Secretary of the Treasury, he did a great deal to create a viable financial system in the USA. The musical may have kept him on the bill, but that fact would make it absurd to dump him and only him from the currency.

Benjamin Franklin is on the $100 bill, not only because of his role in the War of Independence and the writing of the Constitution, but also because, as a scientist and inventor, he represents the roles that basic research and technological advancement have played in the enrichment of the USA. Besides, Franklin’s remark that Americans had a higher standard of living than their cousins in Europe because the country’s low population meant that the USA was a country of “cheap land and high wages” explains more about the USA’s economic and political history than any other five words could.

So those guys do a pretty good job of explaining why a dollar is worth a dollar. For old-fashioned types who want the design of the currency to include an explanation as blunt as Alyattes’ family crest, there are the words printed on each bill, “Federal Reserve Note. This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” A dollar is worth a dollar because the Federal Reserve Board says it is, Congress has passed a law saying that you have to take dollars if your debtors offer to pay in them, and the Secretary of the Treasury and the Treasurer of the United States have signed their names to the whole thing. If we’re going to change the images on the currency, we’re going to have to choose a set that give at least as good an explanation of why a dollar is worth a dollar as does the existing set.

What does the existing set leave out?  The first thing that comes to my mind is the smallpox epidemic that wiped out about 90% of North America’s population when European settlers arrived on its shores in the sixteenth century. Without that, Europeans may well have established more of a foothold on these shores than the Vikings had a few centuries before, but there is no way that a federative nation-state dominated by their descendants would today span the continent.  Perhaps the descendants of the natives would today be more prosperous than is the actual United States of America and perhaps they would issue currencies even more valuable than the dollar, but the dollar wouldn’t exist if it were not for that incomparable disaster.

You can’t really put the smallpox virus on a coin; it would be an ill-omen, for one thing, and in quite bad taste. Besides, the thing is just unsightly:


So, I would suggest that the $.05 piece carry a portrait of Dr Donald Henderson, who led the World Health Organization unit that completed the eradication of smallpox in 1967-1977. Honoring Dr Henderson would also honor both technological advancement and international cooperation, two other pillars of US economic might. Dr Henderson is still alive, and no living person may appear on US currency, but by the time this program could be implemented he’ll probably have died.

Some other points illustrated by the faces now on the currency would still have to be brought out. The main enemy US foreign policy confronted, beginning a decade or more before the formal inception of the United States in the 1770s and continuing up to about 1965, was the British Empire. In all those years, the USA’s chief international objective was to resist, contain, and destroy British influence. As I mentioned above in regard to Woodrow Wilson, some American leaders weakened in this resolution or even tried to betray the project altogether, but the general thrust was to restrict the British, whether by fighting them, supporting their opponents, or insisting on the highest possible price for whatever support the USA might give them in some or other limited enterprise. Even today, when Britain is a satellite of the USA in military affairs and a province of the German Empire in its domestic arrangements, memories of that tension linger. It’s hardly surprising they should, since the president of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama II, is the son of a man who may very well have been assassinated by the British Secret Service in 1982.

If we have to retire George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy from the currency, whom shall we choose as the symbol of the country’s two-century-plus struggle against Perfidious Albion? I would suggest Samuel Adams, who as an opponent of the Stamp Act of 1765 emerged as the best-known leader of the first step in the process that would reach its climax when the Union Jack was hauled down and the Stars and Stripes were raised in Singapore almost exactly 200 years later. So I propose Samuel Adams for the $.10 piece.

The political stability of the USA has of course been a major factor in raising the value of the US dollar above that of the Thai baht, let alone the Sudanese pound. George Washington is so much the obvious symbol of this circumstance that it is no wonder he is on two denominations of currency, but perhaps someone else could symbolize the same thing as effectively. Much of the cult of Robert E. Lee which is now in the process of evaporating from the USA comes from the fact that Lee’s surrender and his subsequent advocacy of reconciliation with the North were vital to preventing the decades of guerrilla war that usually follow the defeat of a major rebellion. Neither Lee nor any other representative of the Confederacy would be acceptable on US currency now, so I won’t propose him. But perhaps we should look to a gracious loser, rather than to a circumspect winner like Washington, to be our embodiment of political stability, since stability can’t be achieved without both. Perhaps Takanka Iyotanka, a.k.a. Sitting Bull, would serve this role as effectively as Lee did in a different time. The leader of his people and the last man to surrender his rifle at the end of the Great Sioux War in 1881, he strove in his last years to find a place for the Plains nations in the postwar world. Those efforts were repaid by an assassination at the hands of renegade Sioux working for the US authorities, which in itself should serve to remind us that it can be more dangerous to be a peacemaker than to be a warrior.

Much of the wealth of the USA has its roots in the unrewarded toil of dispossessed slaves, of Native Americans, and of women long excluded from direct participation in the labor market. Harriet Tubman is an excellent symbol of this fact, and of the initiative the dispossessed have taken to remedy this situation. She also takes over for Lincoln and Grant as a celebration of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. So, I propose her for the $1 piece.

Technology and basic research are vital to the USA’s economic position, as are the periodic expansions of opportunity to groups previously excluded from participation in the market. Moreover, the ability of various religious groups to live in peace is vital to the political stability, and therefore to the material prosperity, of the USA. One person who symbolizes all four of those things is Maria Mitchell. Mitchell was the first human being to use a telescope to discover a comet, the first American woman to earn a living as a scientist, and a Quaker lady who thought deeply about the relationship between science and religious faith, and about the role of religion in public life. I propose Maria Mitchell for the $5 piece.

Organized labor and the mixed economy are not beloved by the American far-right, but they should be pretty happy seeing pets of theirs like Sam Adams and the guy I have in mind for the $20 bill. So they shouldn’t complain too loudly when we acknowledge that working people not only have as much right to organize to demand better terms for their labor as investors have to form corporations to demand better terms for their capital, but also that increased wages and improved working conditions, which only organized labor can secure, do in fact increase economic activity by moving wealth away from those who would tend to hoard it and towards those who tend to spend it more quickly.  And without organized labor behind them, politicians like Franklin Roosevelt could never have built the mixed economy with the benefits, both to individuals and to the nation as a whole, mentioned above. I would suggest Cesar Chavez for the $10 bill, as symbol of organized labor, of American agriculture, and of opportunities won by the previously dispossessed.

The US financial system has its ugly side, but we started this exercise by facing the fact that the North American smallpox epidemic of the sixteenth century was a sine qua non of the USA’s existence, so I suppose we can stand to acknowledge that a dollar wouldn’t be worth a dollar without that system. Some might think the dollar would be worth a lot more than it is if the USA had a radically different system, but we aren’t trying to speculate about ways to increase the value of the dollar, only about ways to explain the value it actually has. So the $20 bill should feature a financial figure. Alexander Hamilton may have been the single most important figure in the inception of the system, but we can’t make any exceptions- they all have to go. So I would turn to a later stage in the development of the system, and, since the US currency is made up of Federal Reserve Notes, I would choose someone who symbolizes the founding of the Federal Reserve. The basis of the original Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was something called “the Aldrich Plan,” which Senator Nelson Aldrich put forward after a famous meeting on Georgia’s Jekyll Island. So I suppose I’ll suggest Nelson Aldrich for the $20 bill.

For the $50 bill, I think the choice is actually pretty obvious. George Washington Carver symbolizes technological advancement, opportunities won by the previously dispossessed, the unrewarded toil of the still-dispossessed, and American agriculture. Besides, his name has “George Washington” in it, so even if we can’t keep GW on the currency, at least we can tip our hats to him.

Those are the obverse portraits I would suggest. For the reverses, I would suggest three themes that don’t much lend themselves to prominent individuals as symbols. Those would be the natural resources of North America, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the system of legal title that gives US land-owners secure claim to their property.

For the natural resources of North America, I would suggest a wilderness scene on the reverse of the $.05 piece, depicting the world that the people who died in the great smallpox epidemic never had the opportunity to develop with the technology they and their descendants would likely have imported from the Old World had they lived. On the reverse of the $1 piece, I would suggest an agricultural scene suggesting the Great Plains, the sort of image that the people Harriet Tubman led to freedom might have had in mind as a hope for their future. And on the reverse of the $10 bill, I would suggest a scene depicting the Hoover Dam, which, coupled with Cesar Chavez on the obverse, would put the West Coast on regular US currency for the first time. And of course the three together would represent a chronological progression that thrusts up to the present day, inviting currency users to write themselves into the story.

There aren’t any generals or admirals or wartime political leaders of the USA on my list of obverse portraits; the only warrior is Takanka Iyotanka, who led a valiant fight against the USA. I’m anything but anti-military, but we only have eight units of currency, so some major things have to be left unrepresented. I believe it was James Bryce who said that it was wondrous how ready Americans were to identify as their countrymen’s martial valor what might more accurately be described as the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Those bodies of water have secured US independence by physically separating North America from Europe and Asia. That isn’t the whole story; when George Washington gave his Farewell Address advising against undue involvement in quarrels abroad, he was speaking to a nation that bordered on territories claimed by Britain, France, and Spain, with Dutch and Portuguese bases less than a week’s sailing away. Never since has the USA been within reach of so many revisionist world powers. Anyway, I suggest a scene of the Pacific on the reverse of the $.10 piece, an ocean which the relentlessly anti-British policy inaugurated in Sam Adams’ day made it possible for the USA to reach and, for a time, to dominate, and a scene of the Atlantic, the ocean on whose shores Nantucket’s Maria Mitchell passed her days, on the reverse of the $5 piece.

Secure title to land is a pretty hard thing to illustrate, but an absolutely indispensable part of the story of what makes a dollar worth a dollar. People who have secure title to land can borrow against it to make major investments, and without the ability of so large a segment of the US population to invest substantially the country would not have developed the industry it did or the middle class it did or the democratic politics it did. I’m not sure exactly what images could be put on the reverses of the $.25 piece, the $20 bill, and the $50 bill that would make this point; a mortgage book isn’t a very inspiring sight, neither is a loan officer’s desk. Maybe a house with some big trees out front, suggesting long residence, might do the trick. Or a picket fence, or a hearth, or something like that.

Some notable deaths in 2016

I don’t know how you’d go about proving that a larger number of notable people died in the first 112 days of 2016 than in the usual year, but there sure do seem to have been a lot of them. Just looking through Wikipedia’s list of notable deaths in 2016, here are the names I recognize:

  • Prince, musician
  • Guy Hamilton, filmmaker
  • Victoria Wood, comedian
  • Chyna, professional wrestler
  • Milt Pappas, baseball player
  • Billy Redmayne, motorcycle racer
  • Pete Zorn, musician
  • Duane Clarridge, highly publicized secret agent
  • Yuri Bychkov, art historian with a name that makes teenage boys laugh
  • Doris Roberts, actor
  • David Gest, man who married Liza Minnelli
  • Ed Snider, hockey team owner
  • Howard Marks, marijuana smuggler
  • William Hamilton, cartoonist
  • Jimmie Van Zant, musician
  • Merle Haggard, musician
  • Ogden Phipps, horse breeder
  • Antonin Scalia, jurist
  • Henry Harpending, anthropologist
  • Patty Duke, actor
  • James Noble, actor
  • Winston Moseley, serial killer
  • Mother Angelica, nun
  • Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, military strongman
  • Lester Thurow, economist
  • Garry Shandling, comedian
  • Nicholas Scoppetta, civil servant
  • Tibor Machan, philosopher
  • Earl Hamner, screenwriter
  • Maggie Blye, actor
  • Tom Whedon, screenwriter
  • Ken Howard, actor
  • Joe Garagiola, baseball player, media personality
  • Rob Ford, politician
  • Joe Santos, actor
  • Bandar bin Saud bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nobleman
  • Ralph Abernathy III, politician
  • Frank Sinatra Jr., musician
  • Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, musician
  • Martin Olav Sabo, politician
  • Hilary Putnam, philosopher
  • Louise Plowright, actor
  • Pat Conroy, novelist
  • Ben Bagdikian, reporter
  • Anita Brookner, writer
  • Ken Adam, set designer
  • Sir George Martin, record producer
  • Wally Bragg, footballer
  • Paul Ryan, cartoonist
  • Nancy Reagan, political spouse
  • George Kennedy, actor
  • Douglas Slocombe, cinematographer
  • Peter Mondavi, wine mogul
  • Harper Lee, novelist
  • Umberto Eco, philosopher and novelist
  • Humbert Allen Astredo, actor
  • Boutros Boutros-Ghali, diplomat
  • Edgar Mitchell, astronaut
  • Bob Elliott, comedian
  • Buddy Cianci, politician
  • Abe Vigoda, actor
  • Marvin Minsky, prophet of AI
  • Cecil Parkinson, politician
  • Dan Haggerty, actor
  • Sylvan Barnet, literary critic
  • Richard Libertini, actor
  • Kitty Kallen, singer
  • Judith Kaye, jurist
  • Florence King, writer
  • Pat Harrington, actor
  • Pierre Boulez, musician
  • Helmut Koester, historian
  • Dale Bumpers, politician
  • Guido Westerwelle, politician
  • Ronnie Corbett, comedian
  • Cliff Michelmore, whom I miss every election night
  • David Bowie, musician
  • Carolyn D. Wright, poet
  • Alan Rickman, actor
  • Glenn Frey, musician
  • Forrest McDonald, historian

That’s enough that it overwhelms “the Rule of Threes.” I certainly hope it does; for example, Ken Howard and James Noble were both featured in the 1972 film 1776, so if the Rule of Threes applies, another of the surviving members of that cast is doomed to die soon.

There are other pairs. Just to name a few, there are two judges, Judith Kaye and Antonin Scalia; two men who openly committed crimes before, during and after their time as mayors of major North American cities, Toronto’s Rob Ford and Providence, Rhode Island’s Buddy Cianci; two former cast members of late-60’s soap opera Dark Shadows, Humbert Allen Astredo and Abe Vigoda; two screenwriters, Earl Hamner and Tom Whedon; two baseball players, Joe Garagiola and Milt Pappas; and two Anglo-American eccentrics, Florence King and David Bowie.


A not-so-good cartoon

Many psychologists study the way the brain reacts when too much information comes up all at once. For example, this cartoon by Randy Bish, embedded in a tweet by Matt Bors, brought to my mind more objections than I could, all at once, put into words:

Why is this a dumb cartoon? Well, here are a few reasons:

  1. Many veterans of the US armed forces work in fast food restaurants. Like nonveterans in the same line of work, they deserve to be paid a living wage.
  2. Many workers at US fast food restaurants are shot at or actually shot in the course of robberies. Like their coworkers who avoid that unenviable fate, they deserve a living wage.
  3. Fast food workers and enlisted military personnel in the USA are, by and large, working class people. Is Randy Bish saying that working class people don’t deserve a living wage unless they subject themselves to violence? If that isn’t what he’s saying, then what he is he saying? I can’t find an interpretation of the cartoon that doesn’t involve that idea.
  4. The difference between substandard wages many fast food workers currently receive and the living wage proposed by strikers demanding at least $15 an hour would not come from veterans’ benefits, or pay to active duty military personnel; these are not the groups in conflict in these strikes.
  5. The military has not been deployed to break fast-food strikes, and is not likely to be so deployed. There is no reason to expect confrontations of any kind between strikers and either active-duty or retired military personnel. The confrontation seen here is one that exists only in the imagination of Mr Bish. Usually editorial cartoons dramatize conflicts that are actually going on in the world; that he presents us with this imaginary one suggests that he sees it as somehow real.
  6. When right-wing commentators grow lazy, they often invoke veterans as a symbol of whatever position they want to promote. This imaginary veteran with his passive-aggressive remarks thus represents, not the views of actual veterans, but cartoonist Randy Bish’s failure to engage with the topic. Mr Bish should be ashamed of himself for hiding behind veterans.
  7. Warriors on the front lines sometimes develop a mentality in which they lump everyone not in the line of fire into the single, undifferentiated category of “lucky bastard.” I don’t know whether Randy Bish has been going around getting himself shot at, whether in uniform or out of it, but as a widely syndicated editorial page cartoonist he has a job far enough from the front lines that he can hardly claim to have come by such a mentality honestly. I’ve spent enough time in VA hospitals and known enough veterans, including veterans who have emerged as leaders in the labor movement and the antiwar movement, to know that such an attitude rarely dominates the minds even of the most battle-hardened vets after they’ve left the combat zone.
  8. Many people in the USA seem to regard it as socially acceptable to disapprove of adults taking jobs in the fast food industry; these are not, for the most part, people who shun fast food itself, but people who regard it as a disgrace or punishment to work at a fast food restaurant once past adolescence. This attitude is often manifested most strongly in the same kind of people who tend to fetishize everything about the military (except actually serving in it, which they are glad to leave to others.)  The cartoon seems expressly designed to appeal to the emotions of people who show both disdain for fast-food workers and exaggerated respect for the idea of the military.

So those are eight things that came to my mind right away. Since they all came at once, it took me several minutes to put my thoughts in order. During that first rush of thoughts, there was a moment of disorientation that may have been similar to what Mr Bors felt when he commented “You know what? Shoot me. I want to die.” A world where such sheer, condensed stupidity can not only exist, but can find its way onto editorial pages that can’t seem to find space for good cartoons by, well, Matt Bors for example, that’s a dispiriting place. And when the reasons for that dispiritingness seem to be both so numerous that you can’t put them into words, and so obvious that you can’t believe you have to put them into words, the thought of giving up completely and succumbing to the homicidal stupidity at the heart of the cartoon may logically occur.

Tom Mulcair’s voice

Canada’s New Democratic Party recently ousted Tom Mulcair from his post as its leader. Which gives me an opportunity to tell a true, if not very grand, story.

The first time my wife, Mrs Acilius, heard Mr Mulcair’s voice, she was very excited. She’s all about inclusion of people with visible disabilities (which is why “Disability Visibility” is a topic on this blog,)  and she was thrilled that someone using an electronic voice synthesizer was the leader of a major political party. I hated to tell her that he just talks like that, but I had to- she was so happy about it, she was on the verge of calling up friends of hers who do in fact use voice synthesizers and sharing the good news with them.

She refused to believe me. He was on TV, not the radio, so she came into the room where I was watching him and saw for herself. Here’s a video clip that may show you why she was so convinced:

Anyway, far be it to me to kick a man when he’s down, even if I suspect he may be at least part robot. Best wishes to Mr Mulcair for success in his future endeavors, whatever they may be.

A links post, like in the olden days

Biswapriya Purkayastha, alias “Bill the Butcher,” creator of Raghead the Fiendly Neighborhood Terrorist, posted this ravishingly beautiful prose poem on his blog last week. Maybe the opening will hook you into following the link and reading the whole thing:

I was lost in the forest at night, alone, and I called to my ghost; and at last, my ghost came to me.

I asked my ghost, “Why, when I was lost and I was calling, did you take so long to come? I have been wandering alone and blind through the dark, and I could have harmed this body beyond repair.”

And my ghost settled before me like mist on the ground, and reached out to touch me.

“I was gone far,” it said, “looking along the paths of the forest, and the things that dwell therein.”

“And what did you see?” I asked my ghost, and saw that it still hung away from me, as though reluctant to come home to my body.

“I saw pain and hunger,” the ghost said. “I felt death and the terror of many small scuttling things. And I saw on the fringes of the forest, villages; but the villages lay empty, burned by fire and disease until the living fled and the ghosts of the dead, unable to bear the loneliness, fled after them.”

“What else?” I asked, for I knew the ghost had more to tell; it was my ghost, and it had dwelt within me since the moment I was born.

“And I saw on this path, before us, five images in the shape of women; but women they were not.” The ghost paused, and I could feel it look away into the jungle with its eyeless eyes. “They had skulls for faces, and were clad in robes made of the night. And the first of them had a flame in her hand, for she was the spirit of passion and the heat of vengeance, and she would burn you to ashes if she found you; not because she would want to, but because it is her nature.”

“And the second?” asked I.

It just gets better from there, it really is a gorgeous bit of writing.

It’s certainly at the opposite extreme from the sort of thing I encounter that sometimes makes my daily habit of looking at things on the internet feel like this:


I am very fond of this installment of The Periodic Table of Videos. My favorite moment comes when the Prof says, “I’ve no idea how this sample got to London. It was brought to me in London, in Max’s bag.”

At The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs worries about the extent to which Americans have taken up, as a favored hobby, hatred for those whose political views differ from theirs.  He recommends pieces in this topic by blogger Scott Alexander (an essay that made its way into the DNA of Weird Sun Twitter,) journalist Lynn Vavreck, and scholars Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood.

The “Archdruid,” alias John Michael Greer, is occasionally brilliant; this essay about “The End of Ordinary Politics” builds on his theory that the distinction between hourly wages and salaried employment marks a class division that explains much of American social life, and that the US political elite has little comprehension of or curiosity about the economic interests of wage laborers. The Archdruid holds that the kind of partisan hostility that Alan Jacobs, Scott Alexander, and others lament is largely explicable as the result of tactics representatives of the salaried classes deploy to keep wage laborers off the political radar:

I’m thinking here, among many other examples along the same lines, of a revealing article earlier this year from a reporter who attended a feminist conference on sexism in the workplace. All the talk there was about how women in the salary class could improve their own prospects for promotion and the like. It so happened that the reporter’s sister works in a wage-class job, and she quite sensibly inquired whether the conference might spare a little time to discuss ways to improve prospects for women who don’t happen to belong to the salary class. Those of my readers who have seen discussions of this kind know exactly what happened next: a bit of visible discomfort, a few vaguely approving comments, and then a resumption of the previous subjects as though no one had made so embarrassing a suggestion.

It’s typical of the taboo that surrounds class prejudice in today’s industrial nations that not even the reporter mentioned the two most obvious points about this interchange. The first, of course, is that the line the feminists at the event drew between those women whose troubles with sexism were of interest to them, and those whose problems didn’t concern them in the least, was a class line. The second is that the women at the event had perfectly valid, if perfectly selfish, reasons for drawing that line. In order to improve the conditions of workers in those wage class industries that employ large numbers of women, after all, the women at the conference would themselves have had to pay more each month for daycare, hairstyling, fashionable clothing, and the like. Sisterhood may be powerful, as the slogans of an earlier era liked to claim, but it’s clearly not powerful enough to convince women in the salary class to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of women who don’t happen to share their privileged status.

To give the women at the conference credit, though, at least they didn’t start shouting about some other hot-button issue in the hope of distracting attention from an awkward question. That was the second thing relevant to my post that started happening the week after it went up. All at once, much of the American left responded to the rise of Donald Trump by insisting at the top of their lungs that the only reason, the only possible reason, that anyone at all supports the Trump campaign is that Trump is a racist and so are all his supporters.

The Archdruid isn’t a Trump supporter and does not deny that Mr Trump’s appeal is at least partly racial, but he focuses on the questions of economic status that have drawn so many white wage-earners to that particular loudmouthed landlord when they might have chosen to throw their lot in with any of a number of other race-baiting demagogues.

Speaking of Scott Alexander, here’s a bit of speculation from him about where religions come from. These paragraphs are from the middle of it:

If we were to ask the same New Guinea tribe to follow Jewish food taboos one week and American food taboos the next, I’m not sure they’d be able to identify one code as any stricter or weirder than the other. They might have some questions about the meat/milk thing, but maybe they’d also wonder why cheeseburgers are great for dinner but ridiculous for breakfast.

People get worked up over all of the weird purity laws and dress codes in Leviticus, but it’s important to realize how strict our own purity laws are. The ancient Jews would have found it ridiculous that men have to shave and bathe every day if they want to be considered for the best jobs. One must not piss anywhere other than a toilet; this is an abomination (but you would be shocked how many of the supposedly strait-laced Japanese will go in an alley if there’s no restroom nearby). I have been yelled at for going to work without a tie and for tying my tie in the wrong pattern; wearing sweatpants to work is right out. And once again, this gets even longer if you you let the more modern/rational rules onto the list – Leviticus has a lot to say about dwellings with fungus in them, but I recently learned to my distress that landlord/tenant law has a lot more.

Once again, if we made our poor New Guinea tribe follow Jewish purity laws one week and American purity laws the next, they would probably end up equally confused and angry both times.

So when we think of America as a perfectly natural secular culture, and Jews as following some kind of superstitious draconian law code, we’re just saying that our laws feel natural and obvious, but their laws feel like an outside imposition. And I think if a time-traveling King Solomon showed up at our doorstep, he would recognize American civil religion as a religion much quicker than he would recognize Christianity as one. Christianity would look like a barbaric mystery cult that had gotten too big for its britches; American civil religion would look like home.

Insofar as this isn’t obvious to schoolchildren learning about ancient religion, it’s because the only thing one ever hears about ancient religion is the crazy mythologies. But I think American culture shows lots of signs of trying to form a crazy mythology, only to be stymied by modernity-specific factors. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many historians around to tell us exactly how things really happened. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we have too many scientists around to tell us where the rain and the lightning really come from. We can’t have crazy mythologies because we’re only two hundred-odd years old and these things take time. And most of all, we can’t have crazy mythologies because Christianity is already sitting around occupying that spot.

I have a weakness for maps that purport to describe what people are like in various locales, such as this one, which I saw here and which comes from this article:


It’s hard to have a substantive conversation in the form of a series of Tweets

I had an odd little colloquy this afternoon on Twitter:

I had two things I wanted to say in response to this. First, if I hear someone using the phrase “fundamental racial inferiority,” I will be disinclined to argue against them, not because I am afraid they will be right, but because that phrase is gibberish.  It’s possible to argue that some trait or other that is the result of a genetic endowment specific to one population may be more helpful to members of that population in some environments than in other environments; so for example, a complex of genes that promotes hardiness in cold climates may be a disadvantage in people who carry it if they move to a warmer climate, and vice versa.  To translate that into “fundamental racial inferiority” of one group as opposed to another, you would have to declare that one kind of climate is, in some absolute and transcendent sense, more important than the other, so that adaptation to it would be of greater value than is adaptation to the other.  Since humans live all over the earth’s surface, had already done so for a long time before any existing social institution came into being, and show no signs of leaving any particular climatic zone behind, I don’t think anyone would be likely to declare that adaptation to one climate is more valuable than is adaptation to another, unless that person were looking for an excuse to declare that people adapted for one climate are of lesser worth than are people adapted for that other.

With that first thought in mind, I wrote this:

I should explain to anyone who may not know that Freddie deBoer is an academic who has written on ways that tactics which may originally have been intended as means for antiracists to shut down racist demonstrations have turned into devices that elites use to perpetuate themselves. He wrote a very memorable piece last year in which he told stories about well-to-do white undergraduate students of his who had gone to highly selective private schools and who used antiracist vocabulary to silence and humiliate less affluent students, including students of color, who had not had the training in that lingo that their expensive private schools had given them. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t shun people who are actually being racist, but that we should not be quick to jump to the conclusion that people are guilty of this serious misconduct.

So I figured I could take it for granted, talking to a PhD with a professional interest in antiracist language, that when I said would not engage outright white supremacists  “on their own terms” that he would know that I would be shifting the terms of engagement. Not that I like to call people names, but the whole point of having words like “racist” or “sexist” or “extremist” or “terrorist” in the language is to terminate conversations, to tell a person that we are not going to talk with them in the way that they seem to want to us to do.   Laboring under that assumption, I may have been a bit confused when Mr deBoer replied thusly:

Along with some other tweets of Mr deBoer’s around the same time, I had a pretty clear idea that he was thinking of IQ variation among racial groups as a topic of study among psychologists and educationists. I’ve been around enough discussions of this topic to have reached the conclusion that it isn’t as scary as it is made out to be. That was the second point I wanted to make, so I decided to drop the thing about how, if someone came up to me and started telling me about the “fundamental racial inferiority” of some population or other, I would give that person the cold shoulder.

Maybe I should have explained what I meant by not wanting to talk with someone who was going on about “fundamental racial inferiority,” because that drew the following response:


I wanted to focus on the point that “These ideas,” the ideas explored by mainstream psychometricians and by journalists like Nick Wade, are not in fact just the same as the ideas we might associate with nineteenth century racial theorists,  and that if you follow them through logically they are just as plausible as underpinning for vigorous affirmative action policies as for anything a white supremacist might like. So I let the “If we ignore this it will go away” line slide, and wrote:

Apparently that didn’t cut much ice. Mr deBoer’s response:

I will admit to finding this response a bit annoying. Here’s someone who has initiated a discussion by declaring that he is so open-minded that he will gladly debate someone who declares that populations can be marked by “fundamental racial inferiority,” and when I dissent from the proposition that this issue is actually at stake in mainstream academic work, he dismisses my case unheard. Further:

So I had to at least offer to clear up the false impression that I wanted to disregard the issue. I responded:

I suppose the best I could have hoped to elicit with that was “You’re not saying we should ignore them, what are you saying?” I didn’t get that. What came instead was:

Now Mr deBoer is a busy fellow, and basically very pleasant. He does discuss a lot of very sensitive topics online and in print, and I’m sure he gets lots of tiresome and abusive electronic communications. So, annoyed as I admit I was with him for implicitly classifying me as worse than the sort of person who is into notions of “fundamental racial inferiority,” I wanted to be gracious about it. So I closed the conversation with:

I leave it to the reader to decide whether I was being obnoxious, though apparently Mr deBoer found me so.

He then tweeted on his main timeline, apparently thinking of me:

So apparently, I really made him mad. I was tempted to respond to that tweet by saying that, if I were the liberal he was thinking of, he misunderstood my point pretty completely, but of course that would only have made it worse, so I left it alone.


Broken habits

The last couple of days there has been a lot of discussion about a minor incident on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. A Dominican priest named Jude McPeak, wearing the elaborate white habit his order dons on major occasions, visited campus and was mistaken for a Ku Klux Klansman. Here’s a picture of the gentleman in question:

indiana dominican

The Rev’d Mr Jude McPeak at a salad bar

And here is a picture of a group of Spanish Dominican priests wearing the full habit during a solemn procession in Seville during Holy Week:


Dominican priests in Seville during Holy Week


Perhaps you can see why Indiana University students, not all of whom have spent Holy Week in Seville, mistook the Rev’d Mr McPeak for a member of the terrorist gangs that for several years dominated politics in the state of Indiana and that still have a considerable presence in towns near the I. U. campus.

I offered a comment about this matter in response to a blog post by Rod Dreher today; Mr Dreher hasn’t got round to approving comments yet, so I don’t know if mine will make the cut. Be that as it may, I’ll make the same points here.

Visual symbols, like spoken words, mean what people use them to mean. It is certainly a sad thing that the founders of the Ku Klux Klan copied the Dominican habit for the costume of their group, and that, to Americans, the Klan and its crimes are what that attire brings to mind. At what point does a group of people, entrusted with a symbol that is important to them, admit that abuse of that symbol by others has robbed it of the important, even holy, meaning that it once had for them? I don’t mean to disrespect the Dominicans; I realize that their order has a holy significance in their eyes, and that the connection to its history which the habit represents is precious to them. At a certain point, however, the only responsible thing to do is to acknowledge that the old meaning is lost and to move on.

It’s like an April Fool’s Day story I read in the news some years ago about a Swiss whose family name was Hitler. This man refused to change his name, saying that he had made it his life’s goal to rehabilitate the honor of the name by demonstrating in his own life that not all Hitlers were like the late Chancellor. Trying to salvage the good name of the Hitlers seemed like rather an overly ambitious undertaking.

That story was a joke. But other people are quite earnestly trying to detach from its association with the Nazis a symbol that calls to mind quite as effectively as does the name Hitler the horrors of his regime. The other day I was reading about some Hindu nationalists who have been working to rehabilitate the swastika. After all, people in India had been using it as a symbol of peace and prosperity for centuries before there was any such thing as a Nazi, and today, 71 years after the annihilation of the Nazi regime, India is home to over a billion people and one of the world’s principal civilizations. Nor is it just India; swastikas, also known as fylfots, can be found inscribed in the stonework of churches all over Europe from the millennium and a half when the bent cross was a significant Christian symbol. There’s even a town in Ontario named Swastika.

saint mary's great canfield

Saint Mary’s Church, Great Canfield, Northumbria

In India and neighboring countries, the swastika can still be used without evoking the Third Reich in the minds of most of those who see it. So this young lady, for example, is probably not a Nazi:

fylfot girl

Ready for Diwali

Nor is this one:

sleepy swastika

Ready for Diwali to be over

I don’t believe this gentleman has any desire to recreate the Hitler regime, either:

dalai fylfot

The Dalai Lama

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that all churches everywhere adorned with fylfots should mill them off the walls. But. Outside India, the swastika does bring the Hitler regime to mind. It may not be fair that it does, but it does. So Indian groups abroad do, as a matter of fact, have to be mindful of that association when they use it, and parishes with old church buildings do, as a matter of fact, have to at least put out flyers explaining what’s going on if they decide to keep their fylfots.

Now, if it’s Holy Week in Seville and you see a bunch of guys marching along in white robes with peaked white hoods covering their faces, it is reasonable that you should be expected to know that they are Dominicans. But if it’s southern Indiana, that outfit is a Ku Klux Klan costume and nothing else. It is a terrible shame that those morons were able to rob Dominicans in the USA of that form of their habit, but that is in fact what they have done. At this point, it is simply childish to pretend that it hasn’t happened and to walk around as if people are going to take you for anything else.

Minority voting

Writing for The Atlantic, Matthew Delmont considers “What African Americans lost by aligning with the Democratic Party.” It’s a brief piece, but makes important points about the limits of the Democratic Party’s collective vision of race relations in the USA, and the ways in which those limits have exacerbated regional and class divisions among African Americans.

I would just like to add one point. It would be illogical for African Americans to vote otherwise than as a bloc supporting one party with 90% or more of their votes. Illogical, because in each of the fifty states and in most other jurisdictions around the USA, African Americans are a numerical minority. Say African Americans constitute 10% of the vote in a given state, and that there is no ethnic bloc voting in that state. If African Americans give one candidate 5.1% of the vote and the other 4.9%, that .2% difference will matter only in the most closely divided election. It will hardly be worth any candidate’s while to address issues of special concern to the African American community in pursuit of so small a reward, especially since white voters tend to be quick to see any effort to appeal to African Americans as a sign that politicians are neglecting their interests. Even an African American vote that divides 6% to 4% will give politicians little incentive to risk alienating the touchier segments of the white vote by focusing on specifically African American issues, since many or most undecided African American voters would be concerned chiefly with issues that are as important to whites as they are to African Americans.

By voting solidly for the Democrats, African Americans do lose the interest of the Republicans, and do wind up tied to some unattractive politicians. But they also constitute the single most powerful voting bloc within the party. In the Deep South, where whites vote almost as solidly Republican as African Americans vote Democratic, the institutional Democratic Party is a space where African Americans can influence events on a national and international scale. This in turn gives African Americans in those states an incentive to value loyalty to the institutional Democratic Party. We saw the results of this several weeks ago, when Bernie Sanders, who joined the Democratic Party only last year after decades in politics as an independent, lost every southern primary by enormous margins to Hillary Clinton, who, having been Secretary of State under the current Democratic president and wife to the Democratic president before him, is as much a symbol of the institutional Democratic Party as is any red, white, and blue cartoon donkey.

Ethnic bloc voting is not peculiar to African Americans and to whites in the Deep South, of course. It is the norm wherever the largest ethnic group does not form so large a supermajority of the voting population that it can be confident it will dominate whatever government emerges from an election. In the northern states of the USA, a significant percentage of whites vote for the Democrats, knowing that while African Americans might have more influence and more representation in Democratic state governments than in Republican ones, most of the leadership will still be white, and whether the leaders are white or not, they can hardly hope to stay in office long if they alienate a significant percentage of the otherwise-available white vote. In southern states, where African Americans are a much larger percentage of the population, if a quarter or less of whites voted Democratic, that might be enough to install a Democratic state government. Most of that government’s support would come from African American voters, and so its first order of business if it were to survive would be to address itself primarily to the concerns of African Americans.

I remember public discussion in the USA leading up to and away from the Iraqi elections of January 2005. Before the elections many experts warned that elections in Iraq at that time would, in effect, be an ethnic census, in that Shia Arabs would vote for the Shia coalition, Sunnis would vote for the Sunni coalition, and Kurds would vote for the Kurdish coalition. After the election, observers pointed out that precisely this had happened. Much of that commentary hinged on the phrase “at this time.” An election held “at this time” would be little more than an ethnic census. I wondered what time might come when it would not be so. The hated Steve Sailer likes to quote an August 2005 interview in which Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew said that “In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.” I first saw him quote that in August 2005, when that Iraqi election was still fresh in my mind, which is one of the reasons why that line made an impression on me (and why I am still in the habit of reading Mr Sailer’s blog.)

If African Americans ever do break away from the Democrats, it’s hard to see where they will go. Wherever they do go, it will probably be in their best interests to go there as a bloc, since demographic trends don’t suggest that African Americans will be a supermajority of the USA’s population any time soon. Indeed, all current trends suggest that the African American share of the population will continue to decline throughout the remainder of this century.