The President of Oz

This year's elections are an occasion for very mild celebration on at least one level. We've been mercifully spared much of the race-baiting and fearmongering and innuendoes about patriotism or integrity that have soiled the last few national contests. On the other hand, the plebiscite also looms like a twister on the plains -- a natural disaster wreaking havoc with no redeeming purpose.

In the eye of this storm, many nonpartisan observers don't see a spit's worth of difference between the platitudinous pair who are waffling for president. And hereabouts, the mayor and his machine have either co-opted so many candidacies or amassed so much centralized authority that our choices can feel choiceless. In California, we continue to subvert our own representative democracy by hiring a bunch of politicians -- and then doing their work for them via an initiative process that allows far too many propositions to qualify. This year counts 15 measures statewide and another 10 here in S.F. We're not even voting for U.S. senators or state constitutional offices, yet we'll still be punching at least three dozen holes on our eye-glazing ballots.

The sound and fury seem to signify so much less than usual that turnout is expected to reach an all-time low. But perhaps the absurdity of the politico-industrial cyclone shrouds deeper meanings, like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. It's not widely known that -- long before Judy Garland set her ruby-slippered foot on the yellow brick road -- Oz author L. Frank Baum had very consciously constructed an allegory of the Populist movement that was barnstorming the American landscape in 1900 when the book appeared.

The editor of a rural weekly paper in South Dakota, Baum had become a bit jaded about the cornfed homilies that were dominating the discourse of his day. He felt the voter was being taken for a ride. His Scarecrow stood for the farmer, his Tinman for the urban industrial worker, and the Cowardly Lion satirized 1896 Democratic-Populist nominee William Jennings Bryan (known for an empty roar). Dorothy, the naif, brought the innocence of the common man and so saw through the bluster. However, like the others, she was carried down the yellow brick road (the gold standard), which goes nowhere. (One can only hope that our own Kansan of the moment never seriously entertained his running mate's idolatry of that false god.) Indeed, "Oz" was the abbreviation for ounce, the standard measure of gold, which is why its wizard (the president) was the subject of so much petition. Threatening everyone were the Wicked Witch of the East, the banks, who kept the Munchkins in perpetual bondage, and the Wicked Witch of the West, the large industrial corporations.

Baum believed that ignorance made the people vulnerable to manipulation and deception. But he also believed in the collective wisdom of an educated populace. That's you and me -- informing ourselves about issues and candidates, then deciding for ourselves. A recent editorial by another Bay Area weekly (I won't ruin the parable here) suggested that only four supervisorial candidates were worthy of endorsement. On the rest, the scribe suggested that you "vote your conscience." If you'd prefer to exercise that prerogative with all your votes, the following pages put together by our staff may prove useful.

Don't surrender to cynicism or to cant. Turn the page. Read up. Get informed. Then click your heels together three times and vote.

--Dirk Olin

 
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