07 February 2012

Ain't about the Cha-Ching Cha-Ching (well, actually...)

Continuing on down our exegetical yellow brick road we arrive at the marvelous land of Oz. The most common explanation for the nomenclature of this mythical land is that author L. Frank Baum looked over his shoulder at the filing cabinet beside his desk, where he saw two drawers, one marked 'A-N' and the second marked 'O-Z'.

As the man behind the screen might say, "How wonderful".

However David Graeber, in his cheery little coffee-table book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years, posits a different origin for the land of Oz, and all its fantastical inhabitants. It's all about the money, specifically the conflict in the US at the dawn of the 20th century over the Gold Standard.

Without getting into too much detail (not wishing to repeat the mistakes of yesterday's biblical epic), once upon a time in a land far, far away, money was backed by an actual real thing, a physical tangible thing our ancestors used to call 'Gold'. When times got tough a Populist movement arose in the US calling for the Government to devalue the currency, believing that this would put more money in people's pockets and allow the state to spend more on job-creation programs. Since the Wicked Wizard of the West, "Tricky Dicky" Nixon took the US off the Gold Standard in 1971, the usual way to devalue a currency is to simply artificially peg its exchange rate against other currencies at a lower rate, however when the currency is pegged to a single external commodity with its own intrinsic value, this becomes a bit harder. The Populist Movement of the 1900's argued that the US dollar should be pegged to both Silver and Gold, and called for the rate of exchange between these two metals to be artificially set at a rate advantageous to Silver, increasing the value of Silver and thus increasing the domestic spending power of any holders of Sliver (including the US Government).

William Jennings Bryan ran for President twice (unsuccessfully) on this Free Silver platform and, according to Graeber, his tale was immortalized by Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:
"One of the main constituencies for the [Free Silver] movement was debtors: particularly, Midwestern farm families such as Dorothy's, who had been facing a massive wave of foreclosures during the severe recession of the 1890s. According to the populist reading, the Wicked Witches of the East and West represent the East and West Coast bankers (promotors of and benefactors from the tight money supply), the Scarecrow represented the farmers (who didn't have the brains to avoid the debt trap), the Tin Woodsman was the industrial proletariat (who didn't have the heart to act in solidarity with the farmers), the Cowardly Lion represented the political class (who didn't have the courage to intervene). The yellow brick road, silver slippers, emerald city, and hapless Wizard presumably speak for themselves. "Oz" is of course the standard abbreviation for "Ounce." As an attempt to create a new myth, Baum's story was remarkably effective. As political propaganda, less so. William Jennings Bryan failed in three attempts to win the presidency, the silver standard was never adopted, and few nowadays even remember what The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was originally supposed to be about."

- David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years, p52-53
The point here is that in less than 100 years the original intention of the author was completely forgotten in the popular consciousness. What would have been immediately obvious as biting political allegory to a contemporary reader became a soothing fairy tale to their children.

And if this can happen in a single generation, just think what could happen over two and a half thousand years.

(yup, that's right, all this while you thought you were reading a new post when in fact this is just a sneaky continuation of yesterday's piece. Never trust a Consulting Theologian on a mission to proselytize his godless atheism)

I'm not trying to reduce Deuteronomy to the level of a soothing fairy tale (there is far too much fire and brimstone in it for that ever to work), I just wanted to illustrate why I feel it is so important to try and understand what the original motivations of a text's author were, to place a text in its original context divorced of any current values placed upon it by our own contemporary society. That does not mean that these current values are without worth, just that they must be viewed independently from the original intent of the text.

Deuteronomy and the initial books of the bible were written to serve as the constitution and foundation myth of a 7th century BCE Judean state, to tie together different socio-economic, religious and ethnic groups under the leadership of a figurehead king and the wealthy elite that placed him on the throne. Deuteronomy and its associated books were the Fox News of the Judean 1%, a propaganda machine to protect and promote the interests of a tiny minority by rewriting history as the citizenry were still living it, and the thought that over two millennia later people would still be drawing on them as the basis for their faith would have flabbergasted their authors.

The 'why' of a text is often far more interesting than the 'what'.

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