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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

L. Frank Baum’s 1912 fantasy novel Sky Island is one of the themes of the Winkie Convention taking place in California later this month. In that book, Baum continued his pattern of cheekily examining how nations organize themselves politically. As usual, he presented the governors of those nations as monarchs, simplifying the world to match how most children experience it. But he discarded the west’s traditional hereditary way of choosing rulers.

On the blue side of the island, the Boolooroo is supposed to rule for only 300 years, and is further be term-limited by the 600-year ceiling on his life. And on the pink side of the island:
The Queen gazed upon our friends with evident interest. She smiled—a little sadly—at Trot, seemed to approve Button-Bright’s open, frank face, and was quite surprised because Cap’n Bill was so much bigger than her own people. “Are you a giant?” she asked the sailor in a soft, sweet voice.

“No, your Majesty,” he replied, “I’m only—“

“Majesty!” she exclaimed, flushing a deeper pink. “Are you addressing that word to me?”

“O’ course, ma’am,” answered Cap’n Bill. “I’m told that’s the proper way to speak to a Queen.”

“Perhaps you are trying to ridicule me,” she continued, regarding the sailor’s face closely. “There is nothing majestic about me, as you know very well. Coralie, do you consider ‘majesty’ a proper word to use when addressing a Queen?” she added, appealing to the Pinky woman.

“By no means,” was the prompt reply.

“What shall I call her, then?” inquired Cap’n Bill.

“Just Tourmaline. That is her name, and it is sufficient,” said the woman.

“The Ruler of a country ought to be treated with great respec’,” declared Trot a little indignantly, for she thought the pretty little queen was not being properly deferred to.

“Why?” asked Tourmaline curiously.

“Because the Ruler is the mos’ ’risticratic person in any land,” explained the little girl. “Even in America ever’body bows low to our President, an’ the Blueskins are so ’fraid o’ their Boolooroo that they tremble whenever they go near him.”

“But surely that is all wrong,” said Tourmaline gravely. “The Ruler is appointed to protect and serve the people, and here in the Pink Country I have the full power to carry out the laws. I even decree death when such a punishment is merited. Therefore I am a mere agent to direct the laws, which are the Will of the People, and am only a public servant obliged constantly to guard the welfare of my subjects.”

“In that case,” said Button-Bright, “you’re entitled to the best there is to pay for your trouble. A powerful ruler ought to be rich and to live in a splendid palace. Your folks ought to treat you with great respect, as Trot says.”

“Oh no,” responded Tourmaline quickly. “That would indeed be very wrong. Too much should never be given to anyone. If, with my great power, conferred upon me by the people, I also possessed great wealth, I might be tempted to be cruel and overbearing. In that case my subjects would justly grow envious of my superior station. If I lived as luxuriously as my people do and had servants and costly gowns, the good Pinkies would say that their Queen had more than they themselves, and it would be true. No, our way is best. The Ruler, be it king or queen, has absolute power to rule, but no riches, no high station, no false adulation. The people have the wealth and honor, for it is their due. The Queen has nothing but the power to execute the laws, to adjust grievances and to compel order.”

“What pays you, then, for all your bother?” asked Trot.

“I have one great privilege. After my death a pink marble statue of me will be set up in the Grand Court, with the statues of the other Kings and Queens who have ruled this land, and all the Pinkies in ages to come will then honor me as having been a just and upright queen. That is my reward.”

“I’m sorry for you, ma’am,“ said Cap’n Bill. “Your pay for bein’ a queen is sort o’ like a life-insurance. If don't come due till after you’re dead, an’ then you can’t get much fun out o’ it."
Ironically, the Americans—particularly the little girl Trot—want to treat Queen Tourmaline with more deference than her own society accords her.

American society in Baum’s lifetime had struggled with the Pinkies’ problem of how to motivate government employees to work for the good of the people, resisting the temptation to work for themselves. The solution—the federal civil service system—was instituted in 1871. It promised protection from political shifts in exchange for salaries less volatile than in the private sector, pensions to reduce the motivation to amass money, and respect.

Currently a lot of American governments are cutting back on compensation and breaking contracts to public workers. I fear we’ve forgotten the original reasoning behind that social compact. Civil service systems aren’t perfect and can be exploited, but they’re one of those flawed arrangements that’s nonetheless better than anything else we’ve come up with. As Baum went on to explore, the Pinkies’ solution of an impoverished ruler with no respect until death had its own problems.

COMING UP: Choosing the Queen of the Pink Country.

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