© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Being Toto

The Wizard of Oz is a secular humanist parable.

I’m not the first to suggest this possibility. But the eye roll I got from my 17-year-old son when I said it at dinner the other night could have cleared the dishes from the table. He’s currently soldiering through an AP Lit class in which the teacher earnestly insists that no cigar is ever, ever just a cigar. When one of the short stories they read described a red ovarian cyst in a jar, the teacher looked searchingly at the ceiling. “Red,” she said, drawing out the syllable and shaping her next thought with her hands. “Passion.”

“OR,” said my boy in the exasperated retelling, “red — the color of an ovarian cyst!!”

So I knew I was in for it when I claimed that The Wizard of Oz isn’t just a story about a girl and her weird dream.

But it isn’t.

Frank Baum (who wrote the book) was a religious skeptic and Ethical Culturist. Yip Harburg (who wrote the screenplay and songs) was an atheist. That doesn’t mean a thing by itself, of course. But it takes very little ceiling-gazing and hand-gesturing to see the Oz story as a direct reflection of a humanistic worldview.

Dorothy and her friends have deep, yearning human needs — for home, knowledge, heart and courage. When they express these needs, they’re told that only the omnipotent Wizard of Oz can fulfill them. They seek an audience with the Wizard, tremble in fear and awe, then are unexpectedly ordered to do battle with Sata… sorry, the Witch, who turns out pretty feeble in the end. (Water, seriously?)

When they return, having confronted their fears, the Wizard dissembles, and Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a mere human behind all the smoke and holograms — at which point they learn that all the brains, courage, heart, and home they sought from the Wizard had always been right in their own hands.

It’s really not much of a stretch to see the whole thing as a direct debunk of religion and a celebration of humanistic self-reliance. And as a bonus, Connor actually granted me the point.

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This was written on Saturday, 01. December 2012 at 09:19 and was filed under critical thinking, fear, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. This is great, Dale.

    Also, ummm, I’d like to meet your son’s teacher… ; )

    Comment: Brad – 02. December 2012 @ 8:28 am

  2. Btw, I think I’ll copy your post here into a small forum, “A Christian and an Atheist.” Of course, I’ll put a link and attribution up front.
    If you have any objection to my doing that, reply here and I’ll delete the forum entry.

    Comment: Brad – 02. December 2012 @ 8:32 am

  3. Wowzers.
    So I pasted your post (hope that was OK) in the forum, and got this remarkable reply from a person with the nom de plume Spectrox War:

    Actually The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an allegory for the 1890s political and economic situation.

    It was the era of bimetallism when some people wanted money to be based on silver as well as gold because they felt it would be more difficult for the banks to control the quantity of money through the scarce resource that is gold. Recessions appeared to be induced by banks at will and they could seize properties at pennies on the dollar.

    Interestingly, in the original 1899 book by L. Frank Baum, Dorothy is wearing silver slippers that keep her safe on the Yellow Brock Road (the Gold standard) – it was changed to ruby for the 1939 film for technicolor reasons. Oz is short for ounces, the way in which gold and silver were measured.
    Dorothy = average joe, Toto = Teetotal movement who supported the free silver movement, Scarecrow = farmers who couldn’t work out why they were losing their properties (if only they had the brains to work it out), Tin Woodsman = industrialists who had seized up due to lack of liquidity, Cowardly Lion = politicians who lack the courage to stand up to the money lenders and big business (specifically William Jennings Bryan who deserted the free silver movement for political gain), Emerald City = Washington DC, Wizard of Oz = President of the USA, who people think is magical and powerful but is just some ordinary man behind a curtain, Wicked Witch of the West = Mid-West bankers and big business (Rockefeller) who want the silver (ruby) slippers so they can control the money supply.

    In the book, Dorothy runs along 7 passages and up 3 flights of stairs, which must be a nod to the 1873 Silver Coinage Act (when silver was demonetized).

    It could all be rubbish though but i think there are too many coincidences.


    And to that I replied thusly, FWIW:
    Wow! 😯
    Actually, both interpretations seem entirely plausible, and its even possible that both are true. Though I wouldn’t necessarily bet the farm, so to speak, on either interpretation without more evidence. In fact, without more direct evidence of the intentions of the writers and film makers, these interpretations share a certain form or fragrance of backward reasoning that is common in religion and with conspiracy theorists. Of course, we’re not using our speculations to form our worldviews, either.

    If I didn’t need to be off the interwebs and doing real work thirty minutes ago, I’d try to research the deeper meaning of Oz per its originators. Maybe someone else will do this?

    Comment: Brad – 02. December 2012 @ 4:03 pm

  4. @Brad: Yes, this is also known as the Littlefield interpretation, which was introduced in the early 60s, garnered lots of enthusiasm from social historians, then was pretty soundly debunked. Even Littlefield eventually admitted it didn’t hold up to close examination. Here’s a nice writeup about it.

    Comment: Dale – 02. December 2012 @ 8:24 pm

  5. Thanks, Dale,
    FWIW, I continued this unusual two web site colloquy at the forum, here:

    When I first read of the economic / populist interpretation in the other fellow’s post, it reminded me of the claims of some of my Christian friends and relatives regarding Hebrew Bible prophecies – especially those involving numerical sequences and calculations. The article you linked reminded me even more strongly of that parallel, so I riffed on that, along with some comments about post-hoc assumptions about the intentions of deceased authors generally, in my last forum post, and in my customary tortured prose.

    Here is the gist of that post, sparing you at least some of it:

    The article points out that there is no factual basis for the populist / economic theory of Oz. But most important by far is the last line of the article, which points out that the story “ is so rich it can be, like the book’s title character, anything we want it to be…”

    So what we have here, both with the idea that Oz is a secular humanist parable and the idea that it one way or another is allegorical commentary on Gilded Age economics, are examples of post-hoc reasoning that, while quite useful, ought not lean too far into assumptions of motivations held by authors who never made such motivations explicit and who are long dead.

    The economic interpretation particularly, by the way, reminds me a lot of things I’ve heard and read from some Christians. These believers go to ridiculous extremes (sometimes involving sequences of numbers) as they extrapolate Hebrew Bible passages into great certainties that Jesus was the “prophesied” Jewish Messiah, and also into calculations of the date of the “Second Coming.”
    To a non-believer like me, it just looks like they have confirmation bias on steroids – or maybe ecstasy.

    Bottom line: Beware of post-hoc explanations and rationalizations and always be alert to the trap of confirmation bias.

    Comment: Brad – 03. December 2012 @ 9:48 am

  6. Well put Brad, and a really sound caution. As with anything I ever say, I could indeed be wrong about this. My confidence is bolstered by the fact that (unlike bimetallism) this interpretation fits snugly with Baum’s worldview, and Harburg’s, not just my own, and requires fewer symbolic assumptions. Still, there’s room for doubt.

    Comment: Dale – 03. December 2012 @ 9:07 pm

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