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Red threat: Socialist secrets of 'Mary Poppins'

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Mary Poppins and friends

The Fraser Institute's Jonathan Fortier is up in arms. In an article in The Fraser Forum entitled "Mary Poppins -- song, dance and latent socialism," Fortier maintains himself to have been "struck by the film's latent socialist ideas and its implied attack on bankers and investment." Say what? Mary Poppins?

What could possibly have put Fortier's knickers into such a twist?


Fidelity Fiduciary Bank

For those who may have forgotten the narrative of the film -- or for those who may not have seen it -- George Banks (David Tomlinson), a banker (subtle pun, that) in London's financial district in 1910, is a remote and distant man.

He is consumed by the fiduciary concerns of his job, impervious to his wife Winnifred's (Glynis Johns) vibrant feminism -- she who stands "shoulder to shoulder" with the extraordinary Emmeline Pankhurst -- and largely absent as a father from the lives of his children, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber).

Nanny Mary Poppins (played by the sparkling and golden-voiced Julie Andrews), and chimney sweep Bert (played with great élan by Dick Van Dyke) serve as agents of change, shattering Banks' absorption in the world of commerce and bringing him back into the fold of his family as engaged husband and father.

On one level, it's a straightforward moral parable on how there is more to life than money and how its monomaniacal pursuit can destroy family and all that is authentically pleasurable.

However, Fortier's ire is particularly raised by the lyrics of the song Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (penned by Richard and Robert Sherman, children of Russian Jewish immigrants who fled Cossack pogroms) -- a satire of the arid pleasures of investing, phlegmatically delivered by the tottering and enervated bank director, Mr. Dawes Sr. (also played by Van Dyke) -- to the two Banks' children:

Fidelity Fiduciary Bank

If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank; safe and sound,
Soon that tuppence safely invested in the bank, will compound,
And you'll achieve that sense of conquest as your affluence expands,
In the hands of the directors, who invest as propriety demands.

And continues:

You'll be part of railways through Africa,
Dams across the Nile, fleets of ocean Greyhounds,
Majestic, self-amortizing canals,
Plantations of ripening tea

You can purchase first and second trust deeds,
Think of the foreclosures!
Bonds, Chattels, Dividends, Shares,
Bankruptcies, Debtor sales, Opportunities, 

All manner of private enterprise,
Shipyards, the mercantile, collieries, tanneries,
Incorporations, amalgamations, banks ….

Such a capitalist cornucopia simply leaves one breathless! However, what Fortier laments, is that rather than wishing to use his tuppence to start a journey into investment banking, little Michael would rather buy crumbs to "feed the birds," as Julie Andrews famously sang:

Come feed the little birds, show them you care,
And you'll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry, their nests are so bare,
All it takes is tuppence from you.

Feed the Birds

"If presented appropriately," laments Fortier, such capitalist fantasies "should fire the imagination of a six-year-old boy more than a clutch of dirty pigeons." Really? What, then, are these dreams?

Cecil Rhodes as the Colossus of RhodesRailways through Africa refers to a 19th century imperialist scheme promulgated by Cecil Rhodes, a white supremacist who believed in the greatness of the Anglo-Saxon race and is credited by some as the architect of apartheid. It was conceived as a transportation corridor linking British imperial possession in Africa, in part to thwart rival French and Portuguese schemes.

• Dams across the Nile refers to a fin de siècle (1898–1902) British imperial project, the Aswan Dam [later (1954–1959) continued by Egyptian King Farouk]. Although the dam has undoubtedly generated revenue from the production of electricity, and has helped regulate annual flooding, it also displaced some 120,000 people, contributed to coastline erosion and the decline of the sardine fishery in the Mediterranean, impacted crop yields as a result of soil waterlogging and increased salinity, decreased water quality in the Nile, and contributed to the decline of the mud-based brick industry.

• Self-amortizing loans? First-trust deeds? Foreclosures? Bonds, chattels, dividends, and shares? Bankruptcies and debtor sales? Incorporations and amalgamations? Can anyone serious expect that such financial instruments would "fire the imagination" of any child? Would that be a desirable state of affairs? Surely childhood should be a time when young minds cast their attentions to other less capitalist pursuits such as skipping rope, riding a bicycle, flying a kite, playing with a dog, or skipping a stone -- should it not?

Mary PoppinsWhat Fortier celebrates, and the lyrics of the Sherman brothers satirize are, what were recognized -- even in 1964 when Mary Poppins (the film) was released -- as the sterile, inhuman, imperialist, racist, legacy of 19th century industrial capitalism. What is remarkable is not that Fortier has discovered a "commitment to collectivism" in Mary Poppins, but rather that he should conclude that it represents, "a political ideology that has created more human suffering than any other." Really? More than imperialism, racism, white supremacy, deregulated corporate capitalism, and environmental degradation?

There is no doubt that the Soviet foray into communism was an unmitigated disaster -- not least for the Russian people and the many nationalities in their penumbra who were unwittingly swept up in the Stalinist nightmare.

However, the political legacy of 19th-century capitalism and imperialism is no better. While Bolshevism has long departed the political stage, neoliberalism, the illegitimate child of capitalism and imperialism, is alive and well and living, anxiously devouring the world's resources, destroying its environment and degrading the lives of 99.9 per cent of the planet's inhabitants.

While Fortier would like to frighten people, shaking the long-dead bones of Comintern infiltration and arguing that:

"The criticism of the bankers and the celebration of the dancing chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins should be seen against this ideological background. Unfortunately, many in Hollywood still suffer from a delusional commitment to collectivism."

This is a ludicrous distraction, characteristic of the Fraser Institute that still holds fast to the extractivist, austerity, fossil-fuel, de-regulated-capital playbook that has pushed our planet, its people, and our environment to the precipice.

Any reasonable viewing of Mary Poppins shows it to be an exceedingly mild warning that the single-minded pursuit of money risks human and familial values -- a basic lesson in humanity. It is set in 1910 when women were still struggling for emancipation and suffrage, and the worst features of imperialism, colonialism, and 19th century industrial capitalism blighted the planet. That the Fraser Institute feels it has to seek out the purported demons of "collectivism" and "socialism" in this children's fable, and defend the indefensible, illustrates just how far down the rabbit-hole of neoliberalism it has descended.

A Biographical Sidebar: P.L. Travers

P.L. TraversSuch themes are hardly unexpected, given that the story of Mary Poppins emerged from the pen of Helen Lyndon Goff an Australian transplant to Great Britain who was born in Queensland and wrote under the nom de plume of Pamela Lyndon Travers (P.L. Travers). She was herself the daughter of an unsuccessful bank manager, Travers Goff, demoted to bank clerk as a result of his chronic alcoholism, who died at the age of 43. Young Helen, became a very remarkable actress, author, mystic, and traveller -- a thoroughly emancipated woman who travelled the world by herself studying religion, folklore, mysticism, and politics. 

P.L TraversHer first book of non-fiction was Moscow Excursion published in 1934, the literary fruit of an excursion to the Soviet Union in 1932. Although such pilgrimages were then much in vogue amongst Fabians and other leftists trying to discern a revolutionary spirit in the country that was then sliding into the Orwellian nightmare of Stalinism, Travers, was no doe-eyed fellow-traveller.

As documented by University of Queensland academic John McNair [Mary Poppins and the Soviet Pilgrimage: P. L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (1934)], Travers appropriated the conventions and clichés of the travel-writing genre in a book which exposes the "sinister underside of Soviet life" -- the dilapidated collective farms, the dreary architecture, the food queues, worthless meat coupons (there is no meat), the surveillance, the poverty of street urchins, and the many other obvious contradictions to the propaganda of the workers paradise that was so successfully hawked by the Stalinist regime of the 1930's.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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