Wizard of Oz as 1890’s silver crisis metaphor?

Green Economy » Calling for a New Story.

OK, this one caught me off guard. The Worldwatch Green economy blog has a piece on interpreting Wizard of Oz through the lens of the gold and silver crisis of 1890’s America.

It’s also a story about the gold and silver crisis of the 1890s, and about the “little people” fighting the moneyed interests of Wall Street.

That’s hardly what you think about when you watch Dorothy dance off down the yellow brick road with the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man. But the original novel appeared after the depression of the 1890s, and author L. Frank Baum was well aware of the currents of resentment and anger coursing through U.S. society at the time. As recounted by George Akerloff and Robert Shiller in Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, the yellow brick road and Dorothy’s slippers (silver in the novel, changed to ruby in the film because it looked better on screen) “were metaphors for the intense conflict over the gold standard and the proposed free coinage of silver.” The movie’s Munchkins represented the poor working class, the Wicked Witch of the West stood in for the business elite, and the Wizard was President William McKinley (“the great deceiver”). In 1896 McKinley had defeated populist candidate William Jennings Bryan in what some have called the first modern presidential campaign, in which big money and mass communication techniques were combined to carry the day for business interests.

Now while that may be an interesting argument, the point of the article is actually about memes, even though it doesn’t use that word.

The point I’m finally getting around to here is that this phenomenon of contagion—stories that spread like viruses—is amazingly powerful, at least when it serves peoples’ interests to believe it. The housing bubble, driven by stories of people who had bought low and sold high and by the availability of easy credit to ordinarily unqualified buyers, grew to astounding dimensions before bursting—because what renter wouldn’t want a house without a down payment, or the need to have a job or credit record? Bankers, too, were swept up in the something-for-nothing frenzy.

Then it asks what stories could replace the stories of greed and environmental abuse of the 20th and 21st century? I submitted a comment in slightly rushed, breathless writing, as follows.

I’m wondering if the alternate story of future post-peak-everything culture will be one of how today’s society contracted a mad fever and worked far from home in a frenzied rush to buy ‘things’, and then resources ran low so people were forced to live more locally and experience a richer family and community life again. It could become a story of alienation to friendship, and greed to contentment.

I’m not sure who the main characters would be, but if translated back into the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends flee the madness of the Emerald City, dodge the mine-pit toxic wastelands of the now dead wicked witch, and learn to find contentment with the simpler village life of the Munchkins as they heal the land and live less frenzied, slower, but more humane lives.

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