Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Harriet Tubman and the twenty-dollar bill (follow-up on Democracy Lost)

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As I heard today, Andrew Jackson is being removed from the U.S. twenty-dollar bill in favor of one Harriet Tubman—a name that did not ring a bell with me*. My curiosity was awoken and I did a bit of reading up. Visiting her Wikipedia page, my memory was sufficiently refreshed that I knew that I had heard of her before, but not with so often or in such detail that the name had remained with me. However and more importantly, it turns out that this change of portrait is a very good example of the issues that I discuss in a recent blog entry on democracy. Furthermore, the decision is at best arbitrary in other regards.

*With my being European, this is not extraordinarily remarkable, but I know enough of U.S. history, society, and culture that I rarely encounter a “household name” that is unknown to me (outside of pop culture).

Before proceeding, let me stress that I have no beef with Tubman herself (the object of my attack is the decision making). On the contrary, going by her Wikipedia page, she was a true hero, someone who went through great dangers and hardships to save others. In this, she is by no means unworthy of the honor and there are other people on bank notes who are far less worthy in terms of personal achievement and merit—including a great many members of royalty who just happened to be born to the right parents. (Note that I deliberately do not extend this to all members of royalty. I equally deliberately do not make any comparison whatsoever with other people on U.S. bank notes, including Andrew Jackson.)

I see the following problems:

  1. She was picked for all the wrong reasons and in a manner that illustrates some problems discussed in my previous post: A lobbyist* campaign was started to force the choosing specifically of a woman**. The campaign presented a number of hand-picked candidates that were suited to its own overall agenda*** (as opposed to candidates picked for being the most deserving) and then a popularity contest**** was held.

    *Lobbies and similar “para-democratic” means are extremely dangerous and potentially ruinous to democracy. I stress that this campaign was not a grass-root driven attempt by the people to get the attention of the elected for a particular cause, which would typically have been legitimate within the democratic framework.

    **I have nothing against women being on bank notes. However, I am very, very strongly opposed to all such systematic and deliberate discriminations. (And make no mistake, “affirmative action” is just a euphemism for discrimination.) At best, such are a good examples of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. More often than not, they add more injustice than they remove. Further, in the times we are currently living, any imbalance in the proportion of the worthy and the honored among men and women will straighten it self out in time; particularly, if a woman is the worthiest candidate right now, there is no reason to give her a leg up—just give her a fair contest. In contrast, if she is not the most worthy, well, then she should certainly not be given an undeserved victory. This type of discrimination is caused by stupidity and populist politicians, two other great problems of democracy.

    ***In the full list of candidates, almost all appear to have been chosen for their roles in areas around women’s rights, feminism, or race, effectively making the list a political statement and forcing the poll participants to choose between candidates (almost) all resulting in the same message. In contrast, there is no woman on the list who is present for scientific achievement, great inventions, literary or artistic accomplishment, or similar. Some language is highly tendentious, e.g. (regarding Patsy Mink) “Largely responsible for passage of Title IX bill ending sex discrimination in education, including in athletics.”—where others have directed heavy criticism against Title IX and the way it has been interpreted by courts and colleges, including for its negative effects on freedom of speech, for having resulted in many excessive and unfounded accusations of various sex crimes and “sexcrimes”, and for many cases of discrimination against male athletes. (Fewer women are interested in sports than men and when the proportion of women participating in college sports do not match the proportion of enrolled women, colleges have been accused of Title-IX violations, causing many colleges to artificially reduce the sports opportunities for men, giving women with an interest in sports an equally artificial advantage over men with an interest in sports.) This all apart from the assumption being extremely naive that a de jure requirement will automatically be reflected in the de facto situation: An existing discrimination might have been diminished, but would not magically have disappeared. See e.g. [1], [2], or [3].

    ****Degeneration of democracy into popularity contests is yet another grave threat.

  2. While Tubman, cf. above, is not unworthy, history is full of other characters with a similar degree of worthiness for their accomplishments, sacrifices, or their impact on the lives of others. This especially around the time of the Civil War (including others with a similar background) where a considerable portion of her activities fell. Why would she be more worthy than e.g. Frederick Douglass (like her a slave and influential abolitionist)? Maria Goeppert-Mayer (besides Marie Curie the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics)? Jackie Joyner-Kersee (arguably the greatest female athlete in history, and also a black woman)? One of the other many worthy candidates (including both black women and those pesky white men)?
  3. I would strongly prefer that the use of portraits on bank notes ceased entirely—or that it be limited by very strict constraints:

    Historically, money has mostly portrayed heads of state (kings, queens, presidents, and the like)—in as far as historical people have been depicted at all. In the case of the currently ruling king in a pure monarchy, this had some justification in that he was in some sense the issuer or the final authority when it came to money. In doubt, he was someone whom it could pay to suck up to, e.g. through using his portrait. Even going the step to include past kings or presidents (past or not) is more dubious through the implied relative valuation of their importance and actions. Including people, not in anyway restricted to Tubman, who are not heads of state is treading on very dangerous ground.

    As a very relevant case in point: Apparently there are some native tribes who refuse to accept the current twenty-dollar bills, because they disapprove of Andrew Jackson. As soon as there is a subjective valuation entering an area like this, such conflicts are almost unavoidable. Possibly, there will be KKK members who feel the same way about the new twenty-dollar bills.

    Doing some brief research, I found a list of current (?) U.S. bills. There are only three non-presidents on the list, and of two of the three (Alexander Hamilton and Salmon P. Chase) where both Secretary of the Treasury, and thus involved with the issuing of money in a role similar to a head of state—and they both appear to have been historic within the group of their colleagues. The third is Benjamin Franklin, who is possibly the most revered non-President in U.S. history. All three were major characters in and around one of the two defining crisis of U.S. history (the independence from England respectively the Civil War).

    Giving the important twenty-dollar bill to anyone outside a very narrow range of candidates is thus a very major policy change. (Although it is conceivable that people outside this narrow range have been honored in the past.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 21, 2016 at 8:54 pm

One Response

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  1. […] outside the scope of this post, what amounts to popularity contests are all too common (c.f. e.g. my discussion of Harriet Tubman and the twenty-dollar bill or any number of TV shows following a certain […]


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