Lincoln on Mars

There is a 1909 “Lincoln penny” attached to the probe arm of Curiosity, a unit of currency, as it were, stuck to its palm. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem such a remarkable idea, but on the coin there are three inscriptions: “In God We Trust,” “Liberty,” and the date. That money should precede us in the exploration of other worlds is regrettable, that the money is endorsed by ‘God’ that much more so. Who’s God? Which We? Trust in what?

The space between the robot and the American Indian is five hundred years wide. It measures the time from when Europeans first set foot in the Americas to now; Europeans fortified with the same God, endorsing the same material interests. There is a consistency to that space, therefore, a feeling that nothing has changed. There are no indigenous peoples on the Red Planet, but the mindset that anticipates encounters with otherworldly life forms apparently remains the same.

“Liberty” is a concept associated in particular with Abraham Lincoln, the President who is acknowledged for “freeing the slaves.” Liberty had been a founding principle of The United States, and almost a hundred years later, he had allowed African Americans to include themselves in the idea. Slavery was indeed a reason for Secession but the Emancipation of slaves was not the reason for the Civil War. As Lincoln himself put it, he would bring down the South if it meant freeing one slave, all the slaves, or no slaves at all.

To that end, a new breed of crony capitalists and fanatical militarists joined him in an unprecedented assault against their fellow citizens, both combatants and non-combatants alike. They censored the press, suspended habeas corpus, seized and imprisoned thousands without warrant in the North and introduced total war in the South to kill more Americans than all succeeding wars combined. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, a leading exponent of killing women and children, coined the phrase, “War is Hell” to describe the carnage. Around the same time, “In God We Trust” first appeared on the money.

Since Emancipation had not been the reason for the war, there was no real plan for the integration of “blacks” and “whites” once it had been concluded. Plundering of the South’s material resources on the other hand, was well organized and ruthlessly carried out. When asked how the South – especially the abruptly emancipated slaves would cope with such profound disorientation – Lincoln replied, “Root, hog or die.” It would take another hundred years of inter-racial chaos for the ‘freed’ Americans to be granted the same rights as their fellow citizens. The disorientation nevertheless continues. Despite Lincoln’s moniker, the sentiment on the coin is hardly honest.

Immediately after the Civil War came “The Indian Wars”, with many of the same soldiers reassigned to complete the process that had begun four hundred years before. Generals Sherman, Grant and Sheridan now applied the same total war principles to the forced relocation and removal of the indigenous Native Americans, a process that would continue into the next century.

1909, appropriately, was the year the “Lincoln penny” replaced the “Indian penny.” It was also the year Chief Red Cloud died at the age of 87 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He had outlived all the other major Sioux leaders of the Indian Wars. “They made us many promises,” he said, ” more than I can remember. But they kept but one: They promised to take our land…and they took it.”

It is “They” who own the robot, the heirs to Lincoln’s totalitarian, overwhelming of “We.” Its outstretched arm reads, “Dishonesty, Ruthlessness and Greed.” We’re in good hands.

Curiosity is probably the most sophisticated device ever made, given its purpose, nothing in it, or on it, can possibly be extraneous. The penny therefore, had to be considered as critically as every other component. It is described as “…a calibration object…in the tradition of placing a coin, or other object of known scale as a size reference in close-up photographs of rocks… It gives the public a familiar object for perceiving size easily…”

Of all the objects possible, American money is apparently the most recognizable to the “public”. But if it is so intuitively understood, why not insert a disc that equals its proportions and explain why – something that avoids any kind of parochial, religious, nationalistic sentiment? How many metal workers, sculptors or artists in the world would have jumped at the opportunity to make an object that conforms to the same physical requirements; an object that would travel to another planet? They would have paid for the privilege. If it needed to be embossed with words, then why not the simplest and most relevant?

“Curiosity” “Peace” “2012”

Nothing else is necessary. There is no image that can possibly represent every human being on the planet, certainly not that of a politician. Space exploration isn’t about “tradition” it’s not even about what is. It’s about what might be.

The penny was a conscious decision. Either the ‘message’ was deliberately intended or simply a case of indifference – obliviousness in other words. “Oblivious” is a far worse sentiment than  “God” for a conquistador to wear on its sleeve.

About Malcolm McNeill

Malcolm McNeill worked as a political artist for The New York Times, cover artist for Marvel Comics and collaborated with author William S. Burroughs for almost a decade. His images have been exhibited in London, New York and Los Angeles. As a Director, he won numerous awards including an Emmy, and was introduced at the Broadcast Design Awards in 1991 as “…the man probably responsible for the most imitated [television] design style of the 1980s”. He has written and published four books. More from Malcolm McNeill

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