By MICHAEL DAVIDOW, Radio Free New Hampshire
Judy Garland’s blue and white checkered dress from The Wizard of Oz is coming up for auction again. There were apparently a handful of these dresses, so this seems to happen periodically. The last time, it went for more than a million dollars.
Originally, of course, that dress was nothing more than a cheerful and wholesome and pretty bit of cloth; the American equivalent of Alice’s pinafore, that John Tenniel drew for Lewis Carroll. What we value about it is no longer what made it special, though. We don’t value the sweetness it was meant to evoke anymore, we don’t value the people who used to wear such things anymore, we don’t even buy or sell such items anymore. We value that dress now because it comes in quotes; it’s a collectible, it’s a relic. And our culture is so fractured that we can’t even agree on what it represents. For some of us it’s a joke, while for others it’s practically sacred.
Now I suppose that whoever buys it will leave it in its box, or perhaps display it in a museum. Anything else would be unseemly, like wearing Nixon’s wingtips or Abraham Lincoln’s hat. If it were Dorothy’s ruby slippers, though, I bet the buyer would be tempted. Maybe those things still have some magic in them. Maybe those things can still send us home again.
Home for the United States wouldn’t be the thirties, or the fifties, or the seventies, or any one date in the past at all. Home for the United States has always been a dream; it has always been the future. We were founded quite literally as a work in progress. The means was our government, the end was a more perfect union.
Compare that to most every other country in the world, and you’ll see how unique it is. Most countries already are. They have a history, they have a culture, they have gone through any number of governmental frameworks. France is on its Fifth Republic. Republics come and go, but France remains. Whereas if and when our system of government falls, it takes our country right with it.
You’d think that would make us hold onto it more tightly. Not these days, though. We are presently busy questioning whether representational democracy is anything more than a game we play, a game in which the strong prevail, the weak suffer, and violence is allowed the final say.
And I doubt if politics alone can pull us from this trap, either, because when we think of our more perfect union, what draws us together has never been our politics, but rather our broader culture. Historically speaking, calamities have pulled us together too: Pearl Harbor served as quite the invitation to care about your neighbor again.
But again, our culture these days is fragmented, and our present calamities don’t seem to be helping either. We have the calamity of our climate, we have the calamity of huge economic inequality, we have the calamity of that recent attack on our Capitol—three calamities, each one rooted in a fundamental disregard for truth, each one a mortal threat to our system of government, and each one presently insoluble because we are too immersed in our game of politics.
Now nicely enough, there are any number of theories about what L. Frank Baum was after when he wrote his Oz books, and many of them argue that he too had a political axe to grind. Dorothy was from the Midwest and she represented the plain folk. She had friends like a scarecrow and a tin man, working types. Emerald City, of course, represented the powerful influence of the big cities; that yellow brick road had to do with gold.
You can spin it out as much as you want, but when it comes to that movie, most people just liked the songs and the patter, to the point where Judy Garland’s dress is worth over a million dollars today. Though my favorite character in that movie is Toto. He’s a bit of black fluff who trots along with a serious mien and gives the business to everyone he meets. Toto was a tough little customer and so was his spitting image, Fala, who belonged to FDR. FDR used to get called “that Jew in the White House” (or alternatively, “that cripple”) by the charming right wingers of the nineteen-thirties, not all of them on the fringe.
Our hatreds have a way of lasting in this country. Just like our dreams.
He is the author of Gate City, Split Thirty, and The Rocketdyne Commission, three novels about politics and advertising which, taken together, form The Henry Bell Project, The Book of Order, and his most recent one, The Hunter of Talyashevka . They are available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.