Dorothy’s adventures in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ offer more than fantasy for children. Like the wizard behind his curtain, politicians world-wide deal in deceit.
Can a beloved children’s story unveil truths about the politics of today and even about ourselves?
When I was seven years old, I fell in love with the film The Wizard of Oz. Set in the magical land of Oz, the tale followed Dorothy, a girl from the U.S. state of Kansas, and a merry band of misfits in their search for the enigmatic Wizard of Oz.
As Dorothy’s adventures captured my imagination, for a moment fantasy became my reality. But as I’ve grown older, the spread of “fake news” and political corruption have led me to reconsider the blurred line between truth and fabrication, reality and fantasy, life and Oz.
I wonder, could Oz offer insight into the world today? Perhaps it’s more than just fiction after all.
‘Wizard of Oz’ author knew he had written something special.
From fables to fairy tales, children’s stories have long provided lessons on human behavior. Stretching back 26 centuries, Aesop’s fables warn readers against falling prey to bad habits like arrogance. For more than 200 years, the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales have tapped into readers’ darkest fears.
“We tell, we have always told, such stories to explain things,” author Gregory McNamee wrote. “They are what make us human.”
Telling stories is not new. What matters are the lessons they teach and their impact.
When Lyman Frank Baum wrote the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he was determined to create “tales of fantasy with a difference,” according to professor and author Russel Blaine Nye. Baum said he wanted to craft stories that would “bear the stamp of our times and depict the progressive fairies of today.”
Upon completing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899, he “knew at once he had written something special,” explained Michael Hearn, a preeminent scholar on Baum’s works.
But even Baum could not predict the novel’s sweeping popularity nor its lasting impact.
‘Wizard of Oz’ — most influential Western film ever
A year after its publication in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was the fastest selling children’s book in America. By 1956, total sales eclipsed 5 million copies.
Meanwhile, sequels, Broadway shows and its famous film adaptation, The Wizard of Oz, embedded the story into the cultural fabric of American life, according to media scholar Matthew Freeman. It left an indelible mark on the public. And not just in America.
During World War Two, lyrics from The Wizard of Oz rang across the deserts of North Africa as Australian brigades sang “We’re Off to See the Wizard” while marching into the Battle of Bardia.
Soon, the song spread to England. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill remarked that the tune always reminded him of those “buoyant days.”
Today, the book has been translated into more than 40 languages. In 2018, The Wizard of Oz was ranked the most influential Western film of all time in the journal of Applied Network Science.
“It’s unlikely anything will ever touch the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz,” said Jane Albright, a board member of the International Wizard of Oz club, in an interview with National Public Radio in the United States. “It’s so ingrained in our consciousness, and it is so beloved.”
Today, ‘Wizard of Oz’ represents political deceit.
This lasting imprint on the public’s consciousness has helped transform fictional fantasy into a reflection of reality.
In 1964, the American historian Henry Littlefield argued that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a parable for the 1890s Populist movement — a campaign by disenfranchised farmers and factory workers to seize power from the business elite.
According to Littlefield, Dorothy’s silver slippers in the book (ruby red in the movie) represented the Populists’ belief that minting silver money would re-invigorate the economy, the story’s main characters symbolized the downtrodden and the Emerald City represented the U.S. capital, Washington.
Since Littlefield’s ground-breaking work, new narratives continue to draw connections between The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and social and political shifts. Today, the Wizard’s art of deception stands center stage.
Secluded among the Emerald City’s glittering spires, the Wizard granted citizens’ deepest wishes — or so it appeared. Using a projection screen, the Wizard created the illusion of an all-powerful being. But the Wizard was merely a con man, a master of deceit hidden behind a curtain.
Critics of Donald Trump have compared the U.S. president to the Wizard, pointing to his efforts to distort reality and his penchant for tall tales. During the coronavirus crisis, Trump has inflated his own authority to end state lockdowns and touted a “miracle” cure that does not exist.
“This pandemic has fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea so many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing,” former U.S. President Barack Obama said in recent criticism of the Trump administration.
China sought a ‘safety valve’ during COVID-19.
Still, the United States is not the only country that faces a discrepancy between reality and the perception of reality. Autocratic regimes around the world are touting more liberal policies, but all is not as it appears.
Take China’s handling of COVID-19.
After the death of Dr. Li Wenliag, the persecuted whistleblower who raised the alarm about pneumonia-like cases in China months ago, citizens vented their anger on social media. The central government then took the rare step of allowing limited online protests.
But New Yorker journalist and author Evan Osnos said the policy change did not amount to real reform.
The Communist Party, according to Osnos, “didn’t want to clamp down entirely. They needed to maintain some kind of safety valve. Allow this outpouring of grief and rage to spill out in the relative confines of the internet. Otherwise it was going to end up in the streets.”
‘Wizard of Oz’ puts fantasy and reality side-by-side.
Now, consider moves by Arab governments.
In 2003, Daniel Brumberg, a journalist and professor at Georgetown University, noted the emergence of new types of government in the Arab World, which he called liberal autocracies.
“They are liberal in the sense that their leaders not only tolerate but promote a measure of political openness in civil society, in the press and even in the electoral system of their country,” Brumberg wrote. “But they are autocratic in that their rulers always retain the upper hand.”
Just as Osnos characterized China’s policy change as a “safety valve” for public dissent, Brumberg compared the Arab autocracies’ limited liberalization to a steam valve.
“The goal of state-managed liberalization is to give opposition groups a way to blow off steam,” he wrote. “The steam valve must meet opponents’ minimal expectations for political openness and participation but prevent them from undermining the regime’s ultimate control.”
Autocratic governments appear to grant citizens’ wishes for reform, but if you pull back the curtain, little has changed.
At first glance, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a whimsical story far removed from our day-to-day lives, but as Littlefield said, Baum’s book “conceals an unsuspected depth.”
Rather than separating reality from fantasy, the book “leaves the two worlds standing side by side,” English scholar Stuart Culver observed.
In so doing, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is both a parable on class conflict and a narrative about deceit.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- According to Henry Littlefield, how did The Wonderful Wizard of Oz symbolize elements of the 1890s Populist Movement?
- Daniel Brumberg used the term “steam valve” to describe liberal autocracies’ policies in the Arab World. What did he mean by this?
- Should a government ever conceal its actions from the public? Why or why not?
Hannah Pell is from a suburb outside of Chicago, Illinois. She studies International Relations at American University in Washington D.C., where she enjoys learning about world politics and hopes to achieve a certificate in Spanish translation. In her free time, Hannah loves to write poetry and read dystopian fiction.