Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The real meaning of the Wizard of Oz

I share Brian Tamanaha's complete surprise that Frank Baum's story The Wizard of Oz was originally written as a political allegory. (I saw the Judy Garland film before reading the book but loved both as a boy, not that it was something that any red blooded male would have openly admitted in a tough neighbourhood at the time).

There is at least a thick volume's worth of material to be filled with stories like this about children's literature and IP disputes in the genre. Maybe I should suggest that to my publishers as my next writing project? Here's what Tamanaha had to say:

"Every now and then I read something that comes as a complete surprise. You might have the same reaction to the following passage from Jack Weatherford's The History of Money (1997), which comes out of his discussion of the late nineteenth century debate over adding silver to the gold monetary standard:

The most memorable work of literature to come from the debate over gold and silver in the United States was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, by journalist L. Frank Baum, who greatly distrusted the power of the city financiers and who supported a bimetallic dollar based on both gold and silver. Taking great literary license, he summarized and satirized the monetary debate and history of the era through a charming story about a naive but good Kansas farm girl named Dorothy, who represented the average rural American citizen. Baum seems to have based her character on the Populist orator Leslie Kelsey, nicknamed "the Kansas Tornado."

After the cyclone violently rips Dorothy and her dog out of Kansas and drops them in the East, Dorothy sets out on the gold road to fairyland, which Baum calls Oz, where the wicked witches and wizards of banking operate. Along the way she meets the Scarecrow, who represents the American farmer; the Tin Woodman, who represents the American factory worker; and the Cowardly Lion, who represents William Jennings Bryan. The party's march on Oz is a re-creation of the 1894 march of Coxey's Army, a group of unemployed men led by 'General' Jacob S. Coxey to demand another public issue of $500 million greenbacks and more work for common people...
I'm sure others know about this, and maybe I'm exposing my particular ignorance, but I had no idea that The Wizard of Oz was a political allegory. What makes this discovery especially jolting, for me at least, is that its meaning at the time--when many people would have recognized Baum's allusions--was so radically different from its taken-for-granted meaning today.

I hesitate to sully a discovery that is fascinating for its own sake, but I will use this example to quickly make a serious (albeit tangential) point. The original meaning theory of constitutional interpretation has prominent contemporary advocates--including, famously, Justice Scalia--who point to solid political theory arguments in support. But we must be mindful of the elusiveness and haze that envelops original meanings. Unless we turn constitutional interpretation over to trained historians with ample resources and time (and even then there will be problems), our assumptions about original meaning will be precarious."

To make an even more tangential point in the context of what I call "digital decision making" in my book, policymakers dealing with large scale digital systems and technologies they don't understand, don't even come anywhere close to the competence of trained historians. If we are to be mindful of the elusiveness and haze Tamanaha notes here in relation to expert interpretation of original historical meanings, how much more so do we need to be in the deployment of high and wide impact digital systems of mass surveillance by people who have demonstrated little or no understanding of these systems.

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