woody zimmermann 120I have sometimes noted in this column that we live in strange times. I might have added that we are, in many ways, a pretty strange country, too. Part of the reason for the latter is our vast wealth and the free time it affords us to pursue things besides just scratching out a living to survive, as folks do in many other places. No doubt some of our people worry about these basic things, too, but most do not – at least, not in a desperate sense. A huge media-industry – lavishly funded by gazillions in advertising – must fill 24-hour news cycles with something. So it produces a daily diet of diversions for us. This flood of “news trivia” washing over the country is at the heart of our essential “strangeness.”

The “news” items gushing from broadcast-, print-, and internet-outlets include all manner of odd events, bizarre people, and solutions looking for a problem. In themselves, these things are not particularly bad or damaging – except when they obscure matters of serious import that really do require the attention of citizens of history’s greatest republic. Among other important issues, these matters include choosing leaders for the country and for our states and localities. Selection of those new leaders should be based on informed evaluations of how the nation’s defense, security, governance, and economic well-being have fared under its current leadership – as well as on an awareness of where prospective leaders stand on important issues, and where they want to take us in the future.

With so many news outlets extant, one would think it should be fairly easy to obtain solid information on where various candidates stand and what they plan to do in office. But one would be wrong. Instead, we get a steady stream of schoolyard-level reports on who said what mean thing about whom, who has a better-looking wife, who cares the most about the problems (real or imagined) of various interest-groups, who knows how to use an ATM machine, and who has either too much or too little money. We get unending trivia about the candidates, but very little solid information about what they want to do and how they plan to do it.

Never (in my memory) have essential issues of governance been so poorly reported in a national campaign. An avowed socialist is running around the country promising the moon to gullible young people who wouldn’t know Karl Marx from the Marx brothers. (Probably neither, actually.) To them, socialism sounds like a wonderful new idea that hasn’t been tried. They don’t realize that it’s really an old idea that has repeatedly been tried and found wanting. Barely a peep is heard from our media about an entire century of economic failure in countries that have tried socialism. It has never worked, and it can never work because its central premise is antithetical to a basic facet of human nature: i.e., that people will not produce without a stake in the outcome of an enterprise. If reporters know all this, they certainly aren’t saying. They like the “action.” And I suspect that most of them are as ignorant about socialism’s fatal flaws as those enthralled college kids thronging to the “free stuff” rallies.

Other candidates declare that they want to “make America great again,” or promise to bring back well-paid employment, or vow a return to “traditional American values.” We have some idea of how they hope to accomplish these things, but not much. Candidates of one party have declared that they are willing to destroy our entire affordable energy industry – i.e., coal – to save the world from a climate-catastrophe that might occur a century or more hence. (Scientists can’t agree on whether this will actually happen, or on what will cause it, if it does.)

Generally speaking, though, reporters spend little very time on such boring stuff. It’s much sexier – and produces better ratings – to concentrate on candidates’ taxes, hair, personal finances, or the size of their hands or feet (or other body-parts). We know more about how many pantsuits the female candidate has in her closet – and who designed them – than we do about how she plans to deal with enemies, foreign or domestic, and how her approach will differ from the confused modus operandi of the current president who shares her party-affiliation.

Our “news” media are again failing to inform us about the important choices offered by the various candidates. I say “again” because this campaign is shaping up as a disastrous repeat of the last two campaigns, when media assiduously avoided substantive reporting about the candidates of both parties – concentrating instead on race- and gender-politics, well-tailored suits, soaring oratory, schoolboy bullying, animal-mistreatment, and other trivia that obscured what the public needed to make intelligent decisions. 2016 is shaping up as a new low in political reporting.

But the media aren’t finished distracting us from the serious issues we should be considering and the critical choices we need to make. Attracted by the wonderful aroma of fresh red meat, reporters in full cry are running after two completely absurd controversies: (1) who can use public restrooms reserved for women or men; and (2) whose portrait should be on the $20-bill. (I’m not making this up! No one could make up stuff this silly.)

Both issues are contrived by political operatives who find value in distracting people from serious issues. Roman emperors offered “bread and circuses” to distract the masses. We offer no food – only idiotic controversies over men using the ladies’ restroom (or vice-versa), and whether a black woman should replace an old white guy on our paper money. If Europeans aren’t laughing at us, they should be – although the French already have unisex restrooms. What a glorious day! Shoulder-to-shoulder with the French once again. (It kinda makes you proud.)

For my part, I’ll simply say that the potté-war is the dumbest thing I’ve seen in 60+ years of observing politics and culture. I can’t believe public officials are taking it seriously. Surely it’s a gag dreamed up by stoned frat boys in a late-night bull session. Maybe some men will welcome a woman in the men’s restroom, but what normal woman would want to go there? In the other direction, I predict that women will not allow it – no matter how many confused officials or “girlie men” come out of the woodwork to say they must. I saw a video-clip in which a man in drag tried to enter a ladies’ room. He was ejected on every one of a half-dozen comical tries, with a few ruffles and flourishes added to speed him on his way. (Really, I had no idea women had such rich vocabularies. I think one lady kicked him in the butt.)

The currency “issue” – using the term loosely – is also entirely contrived and unnecessary. It’s a quintessential “solution in search of a problem,” introduced for maximum distractive value. No doubt many worthy Americans from our history could deserve a place on our currency. But we have only twelve official currency denominations, plus one that is unofficial. (For my readers’ edification I have furnished images of every bill, along with brief descriptions of the persons pictured on each, at the end of this article.)

Each bill bears the portrait of an American who has meant something to the country – some more so than others. Only the seven lowest denominations – i.e., $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100 – are familiar to most of us, as they are the only bills in circulation. Higher-denominations are legal tender, but you can’t get them at the bank. (When I tried to get a $500-bill, a bank official advised me to try a casino.)

Except for James Madison ($5,000), it’s hard to see why most of the guys on the higher-denomination bills are there. But who cares? Most of us have never seen one outside of the Bureau of Engraving museum. Even the $100 bill has limited utility today. When I tried to use one on a trip, the cashier wanted my name and driving-license number, in case the bill turned out to be bogus. (I paid by credit card and haven’t used a C-note since.)

With respect to replacing some “dead white guys” to please contemporary political sensibilities, shouldn’t the people have a voice in this? If Mr. Obama starts a trend for outgoing presidents to change the currency, unilaterally, where will it end? Soon we’ll be like politically correct universities that are throwing out statues and portraits of various historical figures because they owned slaves or fought for the Confederacy, etc. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves. Will they be next on the chopping block?

I don’t deny that Harriet Tubman was a courageous woman who did valuable service helping slaves to reach freedom. But should she replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill? Old Hickory (as he was called) was pretty important to our young republic, too. Must he get the bums-rush just because most of us don’t know much about him anymore? I don’t like this. (OK, I’m an old fogey. I admit it.)

As a compromise, perhaps we could replace some of the less-important figures on the higher-denomination bills; or maybe produce a new denomination – say $250 – for Harriet Tubman; or put images of certain figures on the back of some bills. This probably deserves some thought and debate. Where is the Congress on all this?

This debate, however, can be delayed until a later time. Right now, it’s a distraction from matters of greater moment. We need to keep our eye on the ball. Who gets elected will matter a lot more than who is pictured on our money.

See U.S. Currency here: