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Money Talks... In More Ways Than One
July 29, 2003
By Pab Sungenis

Any historian, not to mention any collector of ancient coins, will tell you that one of the best ways to judge a society is by what they put on their money. Commemoration of great events, beloved leaders, and symbols of what a society considers important are immortalized through the images on coins and bills.

Consider what is probably the most recognizable ancient coin: the tetradrachm of Athens, whose portrait of Athena and an owl signified the city state's appreciation of wisdom. A modern version of this coin can be seen on Greece's new Euro coin, renewing that commitment to the ideals of Athens.

There are symbols on our money, as well. From the beginning the United States has used its coins and currency to express our values, from the early idealized heads of the Goddess of Liberty to the commemoration of great leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But this year, the Bush Administration is changing two of the more important pieces of currency, and their choice of symbols sends a shockwave through anyone with enough knowledge to decipher the symbols.

First of all, take out a dollar bill and turn it over. See the eagle on the back? The eagle, as our national bird, represents our country, and holds two items in its talons. In its right claw (the position of honor) the eagle holds an olive branch, in its left a bundle of arrows. This placement, taken from the Great Seal of the United States, represents that our nation prefers peace but is prepared to defend itself when needed. Every eagle on our currency (at least those that carry the two symbols) since 1807 has followed this example, sending the message that the United States is a peace-loving nation, but will not allow its love of peace to be taken advantage of any more.

Not any more. This fall, the Bush Administration is rolling out a new $20.00 bill. Even though it is the most common bill in circulation, the $20.00 is not the most often counterfeited; that honor goes to the $100.00. But Bush has decided to lead the way in this wave of currency redesign with the bill that most Americans, and most foreign nationals, will see the most often.

One of the "enhancements" to the bill is the addition of what the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (you can see the design for yourself at the their website) refers to as Symbols of Liberty. To the left of Andrew Jackson, the bill shows a large eagle facing the former President and the bill holder. In its right talon the eagle holds…a bundle of arrows. In its left talon, held as far away from its body as is anatomically possible, is an olive branch.

Anyone who knows symbolism (and, more importantly for Europeans who might see the bill, knows heraldry) can easily decipher the message that those of us who have been fighting the dictatorial grip of Bush for years have long known. Bush's America holds war in the highest regard, but is willing to accept peace when (and only when) it suits our purposes. Bush is sending a message to the world: the United States' doctrine is now one of war whenever possible. While some may say that the decision was a mistake (like the claims that Iraq was trying to buy Uranium from Niger?) Bush's actions in the past two years suggest otherwise.

As if this change wasn't enough, there is a new nickel on the way as well. Later this year, the reverse ("tails" side) of the nickel is being redesigned in commemoration of the Louisiana Purchase. The image that the Bush Administration has selected for this coin? The reverse of the Jefferson Indian Peace Medal of 1803.

While some may find this selection reassuring, consider the medal's history. The Jefferson Peace Medal, like those used by most early Presidents, was given as a gift to the chiefs of tribes who signed treaties with Washington. Of course, the United States has abrogated most, if not all, of the Indian treaties it has signed. Using this design commemorates the American tradition of "say what it takes to get them on your side, then go ahead and do whatever you want." As the President who pulled out of Kyoto and the ABM treaty, Bush will feel at home with a nickel that remembers broken promises and false treaties.

The message to the world? You may think you're our allies now, but when we choose to, we will gladly turn our backs on you, as we did with the Native Americans. Hopefully, they won't get the impression that we will take the next step with all of them that we did with the Indians: wholesale slaughter and genocide. If they do, then we may find ourselves on the receiving end of a Bush-like doctrine of pre-emptive war.

In 1996, right after the $100.00 bill was redesigned for the first time, Presidential candidate Steve Forbes promised that if he became President, he would order the bill back to its old design. If a Democrat unseats Bush next year, I would hope that he or she would follow through on a commitment to order the values expressed on the new $20.00 bill and nickel back to what they had been before: peace, preparedness, and co-operation, not war and self-interest.


Pab Sungenis is a radio host, Democratic Committeman, movie theater owner, and wishes he had more of the older designs of money, or indeed any money, than he currently does.

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