The wizard, the objectivist and the power of the individual.

April 18, 2016

Children view the world in black and white. Through a prism of optimism. Unclouded by cynicism. Doubt. Negativity. With age, experience and empirical insight, adults begin to reason their way through the world's complexities. Eventually, we understand that not everything is as it seems.
Human beings -- investors in particular -- are well served by such knowledge.
My first recollection of this dates back to first grade. A rainy Sunday afternoon. Little to do but click on the television.
Elvis. Westerns. World's Strongest Man competition. And then...

Mom's eyes lit up as the picture gave way to The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film hailed as one of the most influential ever. In 1989, the Library of Congress ranked it as history's most-viewed film, further recognizing it as being one of the nation's most "culturally, technologically and aesthetically significant" movies.
Yet, these accolades meant little to me. I saw a fairy tale wrought in mythic proportions. Layers of archetypes conjunctively revealing complex, conspiratorial lessons hidden below the surface.
The Wizard of Oz was a revelation. One providing wisdom that only experience and empirical feedback could confirm.
Yet, on that Sunday, there was only the suggestion of a light at the far end of a tunnel. Revealing critical themes that would forever accompany my worldview. Realizations as to the inner workings of an adult world. One to which I was not privy. But, of which I was becoming aware.
The story, that of young Dorothy from Kansas, left an indelible impression.
Oz provides a study as to why individuals should not confer blind faith and unlimited power upon those in authority. Individuals should question motivations and desires -- our own and those around us. Because, we alone should be the ultimate arbiters of our lives, our dreams, successes and failures.
Dorothy lived on a small farm in Kansas with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Her beloved dog, Toto, had bitten the cruel neighbor, Miss Gulch. The sheriff concludes that Toto must be put down, but the dog escapes. Dorothy joins Toto, running away from home and the evil Miss Gulch.
They soon come upon a conniving fortune teller, Professor Marvel, who realizes that Dorothy has run away. Marvel uses his crystal ball to manipulate her into believing that Aunt Em is ill. Upon returning home, Dorothy is greeted by a huge tornado from which she seeks refuge in her room, only to be knocked unconscious by debris.
She awakens to realize that the home has been blown aloft. Gazing from the window, she sees that Miss Gulch has also been swept up by the tornado. Dorothy watches, horrified, as Gulch morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West, broomstick and all.
Eventually, the farm house lands in the world of Oz. Dorothy receives a hero's welcome because her home landed atop the Wicked Witch of the East. But, the Wicked Witch of the West soon appears, laying claim to her sister's ruby slippers. To her chagrin, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, affixes the shoes to Dorothy's feet. Leaving the surviving Witch to swear revenge.
Dorothy, wishing to return home, entrusts the instructions of The Good Witch Glinda to follow the yellow-brick road to the Emerald City. There, the Wizard of Oz might help her return home.
Already, we see Dorothy's paradigm being projected into this new world. Where she is all too willing to place all faith in the "good witch" who instructs her to seek out The Wizard, an all-powerful mystic capable of miraculous deeds.
Dorothy embarks upon her journey. One in which a child will become the hero. And many archetypes would prove incorrect, ignorant and deceitful.
Along the way, Dorothy befriends a cast of characters constrained by insecurities. The brainless Scarecrow. The heartless Tin Man. And the cowardly Lion. Eventually, they confront the Wizard, who offers his patronage -- at a price. They must bring him the Witch of the West's broom.
Dorothy and crew are initially thwarted by the Witch's goon squad of flying monkeys. Though eventually these malevolent beasts will be liberated from the tyranny under which they live and revealed as decent people who fell under the witch's spell. They are freed when Dorothy and her crew succeed in killing the Witch with a well-placed bucket of water.
Dorothy's return to the Emerald City only to have the Wizard renege on his promise. He refuses to grant their wishes. Invoking the image of so many politicians who, having promised the world when campaigning, fail to deliver once elected.
Moreover, consider the plight of the Witch's flying monkeys. So committed to her agenda, they fail to consider the idea that they've betrayed their true selves. Succumbing to the charismatic witch. Her empty promises. Her self-centered agenda. One cannot help but analogize their circumstances to that of community electorates across the nation. Where constituents -- urban and rural -- have aligned themselves with powerful local figureheads. Only to realize, eventually, that these officials fail to benefit anyone beyond themselves. Always strengthening their fiefdoms without enhancing the lives of those who put them in power. Even as their communities crumble around them.
Both Wizard and Witch, and their relationships with those around them, serve to reveal the nature of politics. Figure heads. Naïve constituents.
Can one really denigrate the existence of bizarre fraternities, religious orders, cults and other well-organized social associations without questioning the political parties that exercise absolute control upon the societies we inhabit? Political parties that demagogue as much that we disagree with as that which we support? Whose spells we fall under, only to eventually realize their consistent failure to deliver anything beyond slogans and fund raisers?
Consider the Witch, seducing good people into a wayward cause. Who degraded themselves in the support of her unjust crusades. Unable to break her spell, even as their actions brought harm to others.
Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, we find the Wizard, willing to lie and make empty promises in order to attain his rival's broom. The source of her power. In return for the Witch's broom, he pledges to grant Dorothy and her colleagues' wishes. That is, until Dorothy returns with the broom, and the Wizard is exposed as a fraud. A caricature. No more powerful than any of the Emerald City's denizens. Just more manipulative. Using his platform to create powerful and persuasive imagery. That of the great and powerful Oz.
No real experience in Wizardry. No background to suggest otherwise. Just an apparatus capable of creating a mythology. A cult of personality. One need not be a student of politics to recognize the story lines.
Finally, the exposed, newly diminutive Oz manages to grant their wishes, though not as hoped. Essentially conveying the idea that the objects of their desire were within them all along. Courage. Heart. Brains. And the power to return home. Accepting him at his word, Dorothy clicks her heels and wakens on the family farm.
First glance? Great story involving the triumph of good over evil. Yet, those willing to peel the onion find so many hidden themes and ideas.
First, consider the relationships that Dorothy has with most of the story's adults and authority figures. Miss Gulch, having been deservedly bit by the dog, secures permission from an unaware sheriff to destroy Toto. Dorothy seeks help from her aunt, uncle and a handful of farm hands, all of whom are too busy to listen. Dorothy and Toto go on the lam to save the dog's life.
Serving to convey the idea that all authority figures, public officials, societal institutions, even family members, are capable of getting lost within the daily grind of their positions, roles and responsibilities. Nobody is infallible. Immune to the failure of discerning key events and injustices occurring within their midst.
Dorothy, realizing the injustice against Toto, trusts in the principle of Universal Law. Seeing that the sheriff has unknowingly permitted the unjust whims of Miss Gulch without benefit of all the facts, Dorothy rebels. Takes the tact of universal righteousness. Even though the legal authority, the sheriff, had concluded the opposite.
From the outset, Oz communicates the idea that not all rules and beliefs are infallible. Like man, some are imperfect. Capable of being manipulated by those of ill will. Further, even upon proof of such injustice, the system can be too constrained to rectify it.
Consider the institutions and systems into which we are born. Political. Legal. Educational. Among others. The myriad man-made organizations, policies and procedures that govern our daily lives. Each representing the best efforts of man. Each capable of falling short of intended objectives.
Hope placed within the calloused hands of any institution will only wither and die. For all institutions, like the flawed men who create them, will eventually stray from their original intent. Become vicious, even dangerous, as the once-empowering hope dissipates, and the institution struggles for relevance.
Henry David Thoreau realized as much, saying, "Wherever a man goes, men will pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society."
Societies that blindly place their faith in every institution, assuming the infallibility of each, end up harboring countless sinecures. Individuals comprising entire societal groups who benefit by the ease of each and every path laid out before them. Requiring little by way of real effort and imagination. Devoid of the advantages intrinsic to an ongoing quest for achievement, creation or production.
The bureaucracies we build lend convenience and efficiency to our existences. But, without the ability to question, prod and challenge, we are doomed to run and hide when they ultimately fail us.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that moral requirements are based on a rational standard. Kant dubbed that standard the "categorical imperative." Acts of immorality are those that violate this categorical imperative, which makes them irrational.
Rational individuals, acting of their own free will, will conduct all activities under a conception of reason. That reason provides a self-governing, rational, moral frame work for all decision making. One that enables man to make informed, forward-looking decisions without being a "slave to his passions."
So does Dorothy determine that the proper decision was not that reached by the authority figures. Toto does not deserve to die. So setting upon a course of her own moral reasoning.
Oz not only deals with the framework by which societal institutions make decisions, but the impact on the individuals within those frameworks. Their psyches. Senses of self. Confidence. And so the very means by which they lead their lives. Create. Build. Contribute.
Consider those Dorothy meets along her journey. Much like today's electorate, or one's community, people often perceive a deficiency in those qualities required to fully lead their lives. Having been raised in environments that foster the collective above the individual. Believing that individuals are not capable of achieving a noble existence of their own volition. Without the greater good, the individual is left -- like the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion -- lacking the essential traits of a noble existence. Due to ancestry, socioeconomic backgrounds, education levels, network, or any of a multitude of excuses upon which we rely. To which we ascribe our failures.
So, a community's members may integrate themselves deeper into the community's layers. Escaping the need to act as an individual. Further, we may seek to overcome our deficiencies by dent of society's prescriptions. Booze. Drugs. Pharmaceuticals. Reality television. Whatever it takes to conform to society's standards. While deferring the pain of our individualism.
Dorothy, by virtue of rational thought and proactive behavior, brings her companions to realize that they are complete and noble individuals. Possessing all the virtues required of a noble existence. Be that within the framework of a group, a society, or as individuals.
In the end, Dorothy's companions, and the salvation of their egos, were in need only of small symbolic tokens. Similar to the expensive, often unused degrees granted to so many students by our universities and colleges. Symbolic tokens often more reminiscent of the time spent, the road traveled, the expenses incurred, than any knowledge or skills to be utilized. Suggesting that they possessed the qualities of courage, brains and heart all along. Moreover, it was not their lack of attributes but their insecurities that so inhibited them.
One need only consider the plight of the college athlete who stands to make a fortune, simply by declaring his intention to transition into the professional ranks. Often against the cacophony of his detractors. Those demanding that he "remain in school long enough to get a degree." Regardless of how useless any degree might be to that individual. For it is always the society, and its institutions, most capable of determining what is best for each and every member.
Individualism, the moral and philosophical ideology developed by the likes of John Stuart Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, emphasizes the moral worth of the individual. Promotes the achievement of one's goals and desires. Values independence and self reliance by advocating the interests of the individual over those of the state, or any specific social group. Opposing any interference in one's own interests by societal organizations, governments or groups.
Individualism was among the philosophical underpinnings responsible for the advent of the United States. Underscored throughout the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Oz illustrates the benefits of individualism, yet one that provides utility in the communities we inhabit. By portraying the journey taken by Dorothy and her friends. Against insurmountable odds, plagued by the self-doubt projected upon each of them by their communities, a child (a young girl, no less -- this was the 1930s!), a brainless scarecrow, a heartless tin man, and a cowardly lion band together and destroy the source of evil plaguing the sophisticated Emerald City. They reveal the Wizard for the fraud he is. They free the brainwashed constituents of the Wicked Witch. They even reveal the ignorance of Glenda, the Good Witch, who mistakenly believed in the Wizard.
Which leads to a final, equally important idea. That of the role of government, the value of figure heads and the often undeserved trust -- and the power that conveys -- vested in both.
It may interest some to know that, while the book preceded her, the screen play and movie production for Oz were both done in the mid-1930s. At which time, Ayn Rand, the Russian émigré cum novelist, philosopher and playwright was shoving her way upon America's cultural scene.
Rand's creation and promotion of Objectivism, an individualistic, capitalistic, hero-driven philosophy would soon become an American cultural phenomena. One that would take center stage in her best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
Rand championed the heroic individualist. He, or she, who personified the striving, creative, ambitious achiever. Not those faux A-type personalities that so many superciliously strive to be in today's perception-as-everything world.
Rand's heroes, those built up to Olympic levels of romanticism in her books, were not politicians, administrators and others who might live off of the system. Her mythic protagonists embodied Objectivism's concept of the ideal individual. The creators. Producers. And builders. These were the individuals who conceived of, designed and built our world. Who relied upon their talents, intellects and grit. They were responsible for creating opportunities. Not tethering them to some arbitrary standard that leveled the playing field for everyone.
Rand's heroes, as portrayed in her novels, were architects, builders, industrialists, artists, musicians and poets. Her anti-heroes were the politicians, professors and administrators who endeavored to cage her hero's dreams. Usually for the good of the collective, which was never comfortable with heroic achievements. As they force everyone to take the occasional and uncomfortable glance in the mirror.
In an essay on the men and women behind the Apollo 11 mission -- that quintessentially American project -- Rand gave light to her ideal.
"That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt -- this was the cause of the event's attraction and of the stunned, numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being -- and achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality."
So was Rand's enthusiasm for the romantic notion of the self-made creator. Stalwart in the storm. Striving to produce and bring to fruition his creative vision, if only for the pleasure of seeing it done. Accountable only to himself, his vision, and his stringent ethical code.
Having made a heroine of a Kansas farm girl, Oz proceeds in a means straight from a Rand novel. As Dorothy saves the munchkins, their collective "Lollipop Guild," and the denizens of the Emerald City from that which neither they, nor the hapless figure head of a Wizard, could defeat by their own, collective efforts. The evil embodied by the Wicked Witches, East and West.
In so doing, Dorothy reveals to everyone the inherent powers within each of them. Shows them what they are capable of achieving -- together, and as individuals.
Moreover, Dorothy and Toto expose the fraudulent Wizard of Oz. A character embodying all of the qualities of today's seekers of higher office. Much like in today's political arena, the sophisticates of The Emerald City allocate overt amounts of respect to the Wizard, while expecting little in return from this larger-than-life autocrat.
Accordingly, Oz, like most figure heads, spends a lot of time verbally addressing the issues plaguing society, but lacks solutions. In the end, it is Dorothy and her emboldened group of strivers who destroy the witches and their minions.
Noted historian Will Durant said, "The problem with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than their minds."
Occasionally, despite the rhetoric and slogans stating otherwise, a problem requires the talent, effort and grit proffered by the heroic, forward-looking and determined individual. One man, or woman, thinking not of politics, public sentiment or talking points, but of solving the problem before him. Solely for the satisfaction of doing so. Like Washington. Vanderbilt. Carnegie. Rockefeller. Ford. Buffett. Gates. And Jobs.
Despite all of the bellicosity, pomp and circumstance behind the Wizard, the munchkins and their Lollipop Guild, it took a young girl from Kansas to free them from their shackles. Saving them from themselves so that, perhaps, they could lead the lives they were capable of leading.

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