Lions and tigers and crooks, oh my!

I’m beginning to think it’s some kind of contagious disease… Symptoms include a willingness to believe any form of allegation

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about all my old favourite childhood novels is how very differently they all come across when re-read in adulthood. Frank L. Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, for instance – a book I remember reading at the school library, all those yonks ago – is a classic case in point.

It is naturally debatable whether Baum himself intended his work as a political allegory. Speaking only for myself: to me, at that time, it was just a marvellous fantasy involving ‘lions and tigers and bears, oh my!’ (And yes, also an annoying, whiny little girl from Kansas who kept getting in the way...)

But when I re-read it a few months ago, I was struck by all sorts of subliminal references that I had never quite noticed before. The ‘Yellow Brick Road’, for instance... that was supposed to lead to a ‘Wonderful Wizard’, who could solve any problem just by throwing ‘magic’ at it. As a child, about the last thing that would ever have occurred to me is that it might be metaphor for the ‘Gold Standard’... at a time when it was about to be abandoned, with all the uncertain economic and political ramifications that entailed.

Even now, I suspect this interpretation (which is not mine, incidentally: a certain Henry Littlefield suggested it in an article in 1964) might be a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, the story does lend itself to precisely that sort of analysis.  Substitute ‘magic’ for ‘money’, and... hey presto! The real magic begins.

Let’s start with Oz himself: the ’Wizard’ who, as we all know, turns out to be a ‘humbug’ in the end... and whose ‘magical solutions’ are all exposed as nothing but mechanical contrivances behind a curtain. Even the Yellow Brick Road loses its lustre (and most of its yellow bricks) the closer Dorothy and co. actually get to the ‘City of Emeralds’...

So even if this interpretation was entirely unintended, ‘Oz’ (which, incidentally, is also an abbreviation for ‘ounces’: the unit measurement of gold and silver) today reads like an uncannily accurate warning about the false promise of capitalism... written only two decades before the Wall Street crash. From this angle, ‘We’re off to see the Wizard’ takes on a whole new dimension of meaning: we are all following the same Yellow Brick Road, towards the same catastrophic denouement, with the same naive conviction and enthusiasm as Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

In so doing, we are also setting ourselves up for precisely the same sort of disillusionment at the end of the journey (only without the benefit of a ‘magic pair of shoes’ that can simply whisk us away from the nightmare any time we want. Oh, and no flying monkeys, either...)

But the one that resonated most was the Emerald City itself. Why was it called that, anyway? Was it because – as Dorothy first assumes – the city was built entirely out of precious green stones? Erm... not quite. We find out much later in the book (though it’s an easily predictable twist, even by childhood standards) that it appears ‘green’ only because all visitors and residents are compelled to wear green-tinted spectacles at all times while within the city precincts.

It is no longer important to establish guilt before administering ‘justice’... mere suspicion will do just as nicely, thank you very much

The ‘Emerald’ of ‘Emerald City’ is just another illusion concocted by the humbug Oz: and while it isn’t exactly ‘magic’, the device nonetheless serves it purposes admirably enough. The city’s entire population is indeed fully convinced they live in a city made of precious stones... because they have all willingly subjected themselves to another person’s perspective.

Sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? You don’t even need to know what contemporary reality Baum might have been taking a satirical pot-shot at there: it is an image which has near-perfect universal applicability.

If it’s local examples you want.... to start with, there’s our national tendency to resort to instant classifications, when talking about people we don’t like. Isn’t it odd, for instance, that absolutely everyone in any way connected with the present government – no matter how remotely – is suddenly a ‘crook’? Oh, no doubt some of them are. Just as there can be no doubt that ‘some people’ associated with all governments, of all shades of the political spectrum, in all countries, at all times, have always been ‘crooks’.

After all, ‘crooks’ tend to gravitate around the centres of power in any country... all the more so, when the centre of power also administers the entire nation’s wealth.

But... ‘absolutely everyone? ‘Everywhere you look’? Hmm. This is where reading ‘The Wizard of Oz’ might come in handy. Of course, you’re going to see ‘crooks’ everywhere you look... if you’re looking at the world through a pair of spectacles that have ‘Everyone I hate is a crook’ imprinted on each lens.

To be fair, however, it is by no means a local phenomenon (otherwise, Frank L. Baum wouldn’t have written a book about it, would he?)... and there is a far more pressing international example under way even as we speak. It involves the widening rift between Europe and Russia. (Ha! Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)

As I write this article a little earlier than usual this week – Good Friday, and all that – the latest news is that Malta has somewhat hesitantly decided to temporarily recall its diplomatic mission to Moscow ‘for political consultation’. This at a time when most other European member states have already gone a step further, and cut diplomatic ties with Russia altogether.

Already you can see, from both Malta’s and (separately) Luxembourg’s evident flip-flopping on this issue, that the decision is obviously a half-baked attempt to uncomfortably keep a foot in both camps. Clearly, Malta doesn’t feel any pressing need to resort to such drastic diplomatic decisions – ‘recalling ambassadors’ is generally considered the traditional prelude to any war – and traditionally, we have always at least tried to avoid any direct entanglement in disputes involving ‘superpowers’.

But equally clearly, there is pressure on EU member states to maintain a united front... and Oz only knows what sort of levers and buttons are currently being pulled and pushed behind the (ahem) curtains.

There has, in a word, been a call for all good European comrades to dutifully put on their national ‘We hate Russia’ specs... and most countries have hastily complied, and are already looking at this issue from the perspective that is demanded of them from their own ‘Great and Terrible’ governments.

What actually took place before their eyes was an attempted murder, by poisoning, of a former Russian spy in Salisbury, UK - which, for all we know, could have been perpetrated by anyone with an interest in destabilising Russia-EU relations right now, for any of dozens of possible motives... yet what they think they’re seeing through the filters on their glasses is... ‘The Russians did it.’

Yes, indeed; no doubt about it whatsoever. Russia ‘looks’ guilty; it ‘feels’ guilty’; it ‘smells’ guilty... much more beside, it behoves us to think that it is guilty... so, hey presto! Guilty as hell...

Huh? How did we even end up at a point where such extreme diplomatic measures could be taken, on so flimsy a pretext? Yes, sure, Russia might have been behind the attack... but that is only one possible interpretation. I have no doubt the Russians are also wearing filtered spectacles of their own. Who knows how they’re seeing matters right now? My guess is: ‘It was a false-flag operation to turn public sentiment against Russia, while simultaneously engender sympathy for Britain in the wake of the Brexit fiasco’. I imagine the ‘Wicked Propagandists of the East’ are already mass-producing and distributing the necessary optic filters to that effect...

Meanwhile, other people might look at the same case, and put on their ‘It was Aliens’ specs. Or ‘It was the CIA’. Or forge some kind of link with Atlantis...

And why not, anyway? One hypothesis is just as worthless as the next, when none of them is rooted in any hard evidence.

I don’t know... I’m beginning to think it’s some kind of contagious disease, and we’re living in the middle of an unprecedented global epidemic. Symptoms include a willingness to believe any form of allegation, so long as it conforms to a pre-ordained prejudice; and from there, it is a small step to stage two... the wholesale abandonment of millennia’s worth of jurisprudence, all aimed precisely at distinguishing between ‘suspicion’ and ‘guilt’.

All those legal principles we were all brought up to believe in? ‘Innocent until proven guilty’, etc.? All gone, just like that. It is no longer important to establish guilt before administering ‘justice’... mere suspicion will do just as nicely, thank you very much.

Sadly, this is also where ‘The Wizard of Oz’ has no real answers to provide (beyond dispelling the illusion, which is perhaps achievement enough). There is, after all, a point in that book when Toto (and please note: it had to be the dog, not the human, to suss it out) finally rips the curtain down, and lays the humbug’s devices bare for all to see.

I don’t see any corresponding reality to match that metaphor. But then again, maybe I’m just wearing the wrong glasses...

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