The Will to Believe and The Wizard of Oz: Pragmatism along the Yellow Brick Road.

The Will to Believe and The Wizard of Oz:

Pragmatism along the Yellow Brick Road.

 Burton Weltman

“Do you believe in the magic in a young girl’s heart?…

If you believe in magic, come along with me.”

The Lovin’ Spoonful.

The Conventional Misreading of the Wizard of Oz: A Paean to Individualism.

“Oz never gave nothing to the Tin Man

That he didn’t, didn’t already have before.


The Wizard of Oz has had a magical history.  The original version of the Wizard’s story, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), was a best-seller in its time, and L.Frank Baum, its author, subsequently wrote twelve other popular Oz books.  Baum also wrote a successful Broadway musical based on the story, and there have been several plays and movies based on it.  The movie The Wizard of Oz (1939) won two Academy Awards and continues to the present day to be the most watched movie of all time.  A second Broadway musical of the story, The Wiz (1978), was a hit, and it won a Tony Award as best musical of the year.  It was also made into a successful movie.  Many of the characters in the story, especially the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wizard, have continued over the years to appear in dozens of spinoff tales.[1]  What is it about the story of the Wizard of Oz that makes for its continuing popularity?

The conventional explanation for the story’s popularity is that it is a celebration of individualism, a characteristic upon which Americans ostensibly pride themselves.  “Is there any more prominent message of American individualism than this one?  We never get tired of hearing that we control our own outcomes.”[2]  In this view, the story is about ignoring what others think of you, and finding yourself in yourself.  So, for example, the Scarecrow was already smart before he met Dorothy, let alone got an ersatz brain from the Wizard.  He was just hanging on a pole, waiting for a chance to show off his intelligence.  His innate intelligence is demonstrated by the solutions he invented to the problems he and his comrades encountered en route to Emerald City.  The Scarecrow did not need any help to be smart.  He was already smart by himself.[3]

Likewise, the Tin Man was already innately compassionate.  He consistently demonstrated compassion from the start, even walking carefully so as not to step on ants.  The Lion was, in turn, already brave.  He repeatedly responded courageously to dangerous situations that the comrades faced on their way to Emerald City, and scared off threatening attackers.[4]  Dorothy’s colleagues were all already what they wanted to be before the story began, they just didn’t know it.  Once they were set in motion upon meeting up with Dorothy, however, they all realized their true natures as they responded to the crises they faced in the course of their adventures.

In this conventional view, the Wizard was merely a faker who, as the rock group America proclaims in the “Tin Man” song, contributed nothing to the wellbeing of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion.  They already had in themselves what they needed, without any help from the Wizard or anyone else.  In this view, the Wizard was useless.  He was such a humbug that he could not even control his balloon so as to take Dorothy home to Kansas.  Finally, in this view, Emerald City, over which the Wizard ruled, was merely an insignificant stage setting for the adventures of Dorothy and her companions.  It was not an important part of the story.

This conventional view places the story within the ideologically archconservative framework that was predominant in this country during the late nineteenth century, and that has been resurrected by rightwing ideologists in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.  As promoted then by such prominent figures as the sociologist William Graham Sumner and the Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, this ideology idealized laissez-faire capitalism and the supposedly self-made individuals, the Great Men, who ostensibly made possible everything worthwhile.[5]  In the conventional view of The Wizard of Oz, the United States was then, and is now, a land of self-made individualists, and the story promotes an ideology of individualism.  In this view, the success of the story, then and now, is based on its support for that ideology.  I don’t agree.[6]

Lost at See: Dorothy faces an Existential Crisis.

 “Existence precedes Essence.”

Jean Paul Sartre.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz opens with a commonly used narrative device that is designed to inform readers that strange things are going to be forthcoming.  The device is to situate a character alone in an unknown and potentially hostile environment, often as the result of an accident such as a shipwreck at sea, and then see how the character makes out.  Examples of this device include Ulysses shipwrecked and stranded among the Phaeacians in the Odyssey; Viola in Twelfth Night shipwrecked and alone in Illyria; Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on a deserted island in Robinson Crusoe; and, Oliver Twist orphaned and adrift in London in Oliver Twist.

All of these characters were wrenched out of the contexts in which they had lived, and were then faced with questions of how to see themselves and survive in their new environments.  They ask themselves: Where am I?  What am I doing here?  Who am I in this place?  What do I do now?  They are put into a predicament that is analogous to what is often called the existential situation of humankind.  We are all born into times and places not of our choosing, asking ourselves who we are and what we are doing here, and faced with the need to make something of ourselves and make our ways in the face of perplexity and adversity.

This is the situation of the main characters in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, not only Dorothy, but also the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Wizard.[7]  All of them have been displaced physically and psychologically, and have found themselves, through no fault of their own, stranded and alone in Oz.  Dorothy was the victim of a tornado.  The Scarecrow was stuck on a pole in a field by a farmer.  The Tin Man had rusted in an unexpected rain storm.  The Lion was chased out of the forest by the other animals.  And the Wizard was the victim of a wayward balloon in a storm.  The book is the story of five people, each facing an existential crisis, and struggling with the help of others to make a way in the world.  Each successfully makes it because of their belief in each other, and their support of each other.  That, I contend, is the moral of the story.  Rather than a conservative paean to individualism, and an admonition to believe in merely oneself, the story is a progressive testament to cooperation and the will to believe in each other.

Seeing the Wizard through Progressive Eyes: An Emerald City Manager.

 “If ever, oh ever a Wiz there was,

The Wizard of Oz is one becoz,…

Of the wonderful things he does.”

Lyrics by Yip Harburg.

Sung by Judy Garland & Ray Bolger.

In the progressive view of the story that I am suggesting, the Wizard was not intended by Baum to be dismissed as a marginal character or a mere faker.  The Wizard is a central and sympathetic figure in the story, even a hero of sorts.  And I think audiences feel this.  The book, after all, is named The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It is named after the Wizard, as are the movie and musical versions of the story.  It is not named after Dorothy or any of the other characters in the story, as are some of Baum’s later Oz books.  The Wizard is also merely called the Wizard.  He is given no other name, and this seems to attest to his special status in the story.  He is, in turn, called the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, not the Charlatan Wizard of Oz.

Significantly, when it becomes clear that the Wizard cannot perform the magic that Dorothy and her comrades expect, and Dorothy tells him “I think you are a very bad man,” he replies “Oh, no my dear; I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard.”  When the Scarecrow, in turn, accusatorily says “You’re a humbug,” the Wizard calmly replies “Exactly so,” and admits, with seemingly some relief, that “I’m just a common man.”[8]  That is a telling statement from the Wizard.  The phrase “common man” resonated deeply and positively with Americans during the twentieth century, most of whom thought of themselves as common people.  I think that audiences over the years have identified and sympathized with the Wizard, even if he was a humbug.  We are all, after all, humbugs in some ways and to some extent.

The Wizard justifies his pretending to be a wizard by pointing to what he has done in building and maintaining Emerald City, the city that he founded and administers.  The book was written at a time when progressives were starting to promote city managers as a supplement to the politics of governing cities.  City managers would provide expert administration as an alternative to the corruption of the political machines and the dominance of rich businessmen in city governance.  The Wizard claims that Emerald City abounds with “every good thing that is needed to make one happy,” and he contends that “I have been good to the people and they like me.”  I think that readers of the book and viewers of the movies agree with him, and feel that Emerald City is a wonderful, if somewhat weird, place.  I think that they also naturally empathize with the Wizard’s position, and feel that he, in fact, did wonderful things for Emerald City.

It is also the case that, contrary to the “Tin Man” song, the Wizard did give something to the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion.  The trinkets he gave them as surrogates for a brain, a heart, and courage were a confirmation to them of their most cherished qualities.  And they each felt much better for the confirmation.  They did not disparage the gewgaws or reject the Wizard for giving them mere trinkets.  The trinkets were proof that others believed in them, so that they could believe in themselves.  Baum seemed to be saying with this reaction that we are not self-made individualists.  We are social beings who need support from others, even in the form of symbolic placebos of no inherent value in themselves.

The Wizard was a faker but he was also a man of good faith.  When he asks Dorothy why he should help her, she replies “Because you are strong and I am weak.”  So, like Dr. Seuss’ elephant Horton, who says “I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they” when he hears the tiny Whos calling for help, the Wizard does help her.[9]  Pace the conventional view of the story, the Wizard did, in fact, fulfill his promises to each of the four comrades.  He gave symbolic but satisfactory trinkets to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, and he was willing and capable of returning Dorothy to Kansas in his balloon.  It was not the Wizard’s fault that when his balloon began to ascend, Dorothy went chasing after her dog and, thereby, missed her ride.  Although the Wizard was just a common man, he did, on the whole, do good and wonderful things.

As a common man who achieved wonderful things, the Wizard is a source of inspiration and support to those of us who see ourselves as common people.  When Dorothy lands in Oz, she is astonished at being hailed as a heroine and a witch, both because she had not done anything extraordinary and because there were no such things as witches in Kansas.  In the book, the Good Witch of the North[10] explains to Dorothy that there are witches and wizards in Oz because “the Land of Oz has never been civilized.”  There are none in Kansas because it is civilized.

Baum seems to be saying here that with civilization comes what we would today call cultural disillusionment, that is, no longer seeing the world as full of spirits and spirituality.  By the turn of the twentieth century, when Baum wrote the book, the scientific explanation of things had largely replaced explanations based on magic or religion.  The supernatural had been naturalized, and the wonder taken out of wonderful things.  This is what the philosopher Nietzsche meant when he said at the time that “God is dead.”  Baum, who eschewed conventional religion and was a member of the Ethical Culture Society, supported this secular and scientific trend.

The implication of the Good Witch’s explanation seems to be that in an uncivilized society such as Oz, the Wizard had to pretend that he had magic as a means of gaining the status he needed to build and rule over the Emerald City.  But, and this is the key, he was able to build and administer the city without magic, because he actually had no magical abilities.  The conclusion that Baum seems to want us to reach is that common people can do this same sort of thing in Kansas and elsewhere in our mundane world.  They can build wonderful cities full of good things for all and sundry, even for immigrant scarecrows and tin men.  Baum was personally a political supporter of first Populism and then Progressivism.  He was a democrat and a social reformer.  He believed in the power of ordinary people to do good and great things.

The book exemplifies this belief.  Ordinary people in the book achieve extraordinary results through ordinary means.  Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the East, something the Good Witch of the North admitted she was not powerful enough to do, by accidentally falling on her in a house.  Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West by accidentally spilling a bucket of water on her.  And the Wizard supervises the mundane construction and operation of a wonderful city.

In a civilized society, Baum seemed to be saying, there are no witches or wizards with supernatural powers, and no “Great Men” of the sort nineteenth century conservatives such as Thomas Carlyle and William Graham Sumner claimed had made society and make history.  Baum was saying that ordinary people are obliged to make society and history by caring for each other.  This is what Dorothy and her friends did in combatting the Wicked Witch.  This is also what the Wizard had essentially done with the citizens of Emerald City in making their society.  He did not actually have any magic powers other than his caring for the people.  The city has been built through the cooperative efforts of the citizens, with the Wizard acting merely as city manager.  And that, according to Baum, is civilization at its highest.

Seeing Emerald City through a Utopian Lens.

“I once asked the Wizard of Oz

For the secret of his land.

He said ‘Just take a look around here.

Seven dwarves and Little Boy Blue,

Uncle Remus and Snow White, too.

(Now, just between us.

That’s what is known as integration.)’”

Chuck Mangione.


If the Wizard is the center of the story, then Emerald City is the centerpiece of the book.  Emerald City is described as an ideal society, almost a utopian cooperative community.  Baum was politically what we would call a liberal.  In his writings as a journalist and in his stage plays, he frequently criticized powerful capitalists and conservative politicians.  Although The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does not include any specific political references, it has been seen as a populist allegory (see Footnote #6 above) and, more importantly, it includes a progressive vision of society in the form of Emerald City.  It was a vision in line with other reformers in his time.

The period of the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century was an age of reform.  The country seemed to recoil from the crassness of the previous decades of rampant corruption and cutthroat capitalism, the so-called Gilded Age (Mark Twain) or Brown Decades (Lewis Mumford).  It was also an age of reaction against the right-wing Social Darwinian ideology that had been promoted by the business elites of the time. Social Darwinism, a misnomer and misuse of the theory of evolution that was rejected by Darwin, promoted the dominance of the fittest in society, with fitness mainly defined in terms of wealth.  Developed in England by Herbert Spencer and in the United States by William Graham Sumner, this theory idealized laissez-faire competitive capitalism in which winners, meaning the wealthy, should deservedly thrive, and losers, meaning the poor, should deservedly die off.[11]

The theory also promoted what we would today call a zero-sum approach to society.  It held that there is only a limited amount of wealth and well-being in the world, and one person’s gain is another person’s loss.  Social relations are invariably invidious because my success inevitably results in your failure, and vice versa.  If I win, you lose.  If you win, I lose.  We cannot both succeed.  The theory, thereby, promoted a Hobbesian war of each against all, and a Malthusian rejection of cooperation and compassion.  Social Darwinism was influential among the political and economic elites of the late nineteenth century, and was virtually written into the Constitution by a right-wing majority on the Supreme Court.[12]

Populism in the late nineteenth century and Progressivism in the early twentieth century emerged as political and social movements against the Social Darwinian political and social conditions of the time.  As part of this reform wave, there was a flood of utopian proposals, both theoretical and experimental.  Many of these proposals were in the form of novels.  Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward (1886) was the most popular book of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other than the Bible.  Utopian novels were also written by William Dean Howells, the dean of American literature, Ignatius Donnelly, the Populist leader, and many other important writers.

There was also an upsurge in utopian community experiments.  These included the Equality Colony in Washington, founded in 1900, and the Fairhope Community in Alabama, founded in 1894 and still in existence.[13]  Many of these communities were racially and ethnically integrated, and were based on gender equality.  Many were made up of recent immigrants to America.

In his portrayal of Emerald City, Baum played into a genre of utopian literature with which readers in his time were very familiar.  It is significant that the citizens of Emerald City greeted and cared for Dorothy and her odd assortment of companions – a walking, talking scarecrow, tin man and lion; how weird must that have seemed – as though they were ordinary people and good friends. The story is infused with examples of immigration and cultural pluralism, with people and creatures of all sorts living together in the same community or in contiguous communities.

Dorothy and her companions were themselves all immigrants – strangers in this strange land – as was even the Wizard.  Their differentness was accepted in Oz, and even welcomed.  The citizens of Emerald City, in turn, had no problem with the Scarecrow becoming the head of their government when the Wizard left.  It is a vision of a cooperative and inclusive society to which I think readers of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and viewers of the movies based on the book, have responded positively from Baum’s time to ours.

Believing is Seeing: William James as the Wizard.

“Fairy tales can come true,

It can happen to you,

If you’re young at heart.”

Lyrics by Johnny Richards.

Sung by Frank Sinatra.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written as a kids’ book for the young and the young at heart.  My father used to say that the key to staying young at heart was to avoid hardening of the arteries and hardening of the categories.  Hardening of the arteries results from a buildup of plaque in your blood vessels which blocks the flow of blood in your body, and can lead to heart attack.  Hardening of the categories results from a buildup of prejudice in your opinions which blocks the flow of new ideas in your mind, and can lead to heartlessness.  Hardening of the arteries can usually be avoided with proper diet and exercise.  Hardening of the categories can be avoided by keeping one’s mind open to new ideas and new people.  Closed-minded rigidity of any sort, whether ideological, philosophical, cultural, racial, religious, or otherwise, can lead to the hardening of one’s ethical categories, and to heartlessness.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a book intended to keep the mind open and the heart healthy.

Baum said in his introduction to the book that he wrote it as “a modern fairy tale in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”  Traditional children’s stories were full of horrible things happening to children, sometimes because they did not obey the rules that their elders had laid upon them, other times because they were merely curious or adventurous, still other times just because they innocently happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Most important, the stories often punished trustfulness.  Wicked witches, goblins, and other deceptively foul creatures were portrayed as everywhere out there seducing children to their doom.  “Want a nice piece of candy or bite of apple, dearie?”  That sort of thing.  These stories were intended to scare kids straight, and put them in fear of painful consequences if they did not follow the straight and narrow path laid out for them by their elders.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a different sort of story.  There are plenty of evils to be avoided in the book, but curiosity and adventurous behavior are rewarded and, most important, the story rewards trustfulness.  Dorothy believes in other people, no matter how strange they may appear.  She trusts them, and she helps them to believe in themselves.  Other people, in turn, believe in her, so that she is able to believe in herself.  It is a virtuous circle, and it is the same with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and the Wizard.  Others believe in them, they believe in others, and they believe in themselves.  They have the will to believe in each other, and that belief is fulfilled.  Help and be helped is the moral of the story.  And caring is the best magic.

This moral of Baum’s story ran directly counter to the precepts of the Social Darwinian and zero-sum thinking of the business elites, and to the conventional educational practices of the time which largely reflected that thinking.  Baum’s intentions were, however, directly in line with the progressive educational practices and pragmatic philosophical theories being developed at the turn of the twentieth century, especially those of William James and John Dewey.

Conventional teaching was based largely on rote memorization, harsh discipline, competitive testing, and student rankings.  Some students were, thereby, categorized and characterized as winners, with others as losers.  It was Social Darwinism in practice.  These zero-sum practices were being challenged by educators, such as James and Dewey, who wanted students to learn how to think critically and act creatively, and who emphasized learning through doing, rather than rote memorization.[14]  James and Dewey argued that the way people learn best, whether they be elite scientists or common people, is through experimenting, that is, through developing hypotheses and then testing them.  It is also, they claimed, the way people live best, that is, by deciding to believe in something, and then seeing if it works.

James and Dewey incorporated this progressive educational theory in a broader philosophy called pragmatism.  Both started as psychologists before turning to philosophy and education, and pragmatism was, in turns, an epistemology, an ontology, and a moral philosophy.  James was world-famous as the psychologist who originated of the “stream of consciousness” theory of thinking, before pivoting into theories of learning, education, and moral philosophy.  In 1896, he wrote an influential essay called “The Will to Believe.”  I have no idea whether Baum read the essay, but the essay reflected currents of thought with which Baum would have been familiar, and I think the themes of the essay are nicely reflected in the story of the Wizard of Oz.[15]

James outlines three key elements of pragmatism in “The Will to Believe” that are reflected in The Wizard of Oz and the actions of the Wizard.  These are that life is a participant experiment, that beliefs can be self-fulfilling, and that truth is established collectively.  First, life is a participant experiment.  In trying to resolve the problems with which we are faced, we are invariably faced with options from which to choose, and for which we never have sufficient evidence to make obvious what is the right choice.  So, we are obliged to martial the best available evidence about our options, develop a plausible hypothesis as to what might the best choice, and then make a leap of faith into the future.[16]

Second, the fact that we believe in something – with the emphasis on “we,” not merely “I” – can help make it so.  “Faith in a fact can help create the fact,” James claimed.[17]  He was not talking about miracles, or about a blind faith that eschews contrary facts, as some critics of James’ essay have claimed.  He was talking about acting in a way that can help create the facts that support our hypotheses.  Like “The Little Engine that Could,” if we believe we can, maybe we can.

Third, and most important, the verification of a hypothesis is a collective action, not an individual act.  It is not the case, as some critics have contended, that pragmatists hold that if something works for you, it is true for you, regardless of what others think.  Pragmatism is a collectivist and cooperative philosophy.  It holds that a person cannot know anything about himself or herself, or even that he or she is a self, without verification from other people.  In turn, a person cannot verify the validity of the choices that he or she has made without the supportive opinions of others.  “Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith,” James contended.[18]  There is no truth for oneself alone, only collective conclusions.  And the more extensive the collectivity that supports a conclusion, the more reliable the conclusion.

I think that pragmatism best describes the way that Dorothy and her companions made their way in the land of Oz, making choices, taking chances, and believing in each other and each other’s beliefs.  It is different than the philosophy reflected in conventional interpretations of The Wizard of Oz.  The conventional interpretations generally reflect a world view that can be characterized as “foundationalist” and “essentialist,” and that is “absolutist.”   In this world view, truth is something that is found.  That is, it already exists and has always existed, even if we don’t know it.  Each person and thing also has an essence, that already exists and has always existed.  And whatever is true, has always and absolutely been true, and always will be.

In this view, you are what you are, and that is that.  While you may find that you are different than the way you mistakenly thought you were, for example, the Scarecrow thinking he was stupid, you cannot change who or what you are.  The Scarecrow found that he was smart, the Tin Man found that he was compassionate, and the Lion found that he was brave.  But they already were those things, albeit they hadn’t realized it.  This essentialist and absolutist view dominated most philosophical and scientific thinking during the nineteenth century.

Pragmatism, in contrast, is a “constructionist” and “existentialist” philosophy, and is “relativist.”  That is, truth is something that is made, including truths about oneself.  In this view, the Scarecrow made himself smart with the help of Dorothy and the others.  Having been rescued by Dorothy from being stuck on a pole, he began to experiment with his intelligence, developing it in practice.  Significantly, some of his early hypotheses did not pan out, as when he walked into a big hole, and had to be rescued by the Tin Man.  Asked why he had not walked around the hole, the Scarecrow claimed that he did not know any better because he did not have any brains.  But very soon, he was figuring out clever ways for the comrades to get over big ditches, without falling in, and solving all sorts of other problems that they faced.  He was learning through experience, and making himself smart.[19]  The Scarecrow, and the other comrades as well, exemplified pragmatic philosophy and progressive education in action.

Pragmatism has been called America’s philosophy, both because it is the only major philosophical school made in America, and because it seems to reflect the way in which Americans have generally approached things when they are not afraid and are not reacting defensively.  Pragmatism is a flexible and tolerant way of thinking about things.  It is a philosophy of hope and hopefulness.  Fear can drive people to defensive absolutisms, and fear most often trumps/Trumps hope.  When Americans heed their better angels, they think and act positively and pragmatically.  When Americans are demagogued and frightened into following their darker angels, they think and act negatively and arbitrarily.  The Wizard of Oz is an invocation of tolerance, flexibility, hopefulness, and pragmatism.

Bringing Oz to Kansas: Pragmatism in Practice.

 “There’s no place like home.”

Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz opens with Dorothy’s description of her home in Kansas.  Everything she sees is gray and grim.  The landscape is gray and sparsely vegetated.  The buildings and furnishings are gray and dilapidated.  Her Aunt and Uncle are gray-faced and grim, worn and oppressed by efforts to keep their farm going.  Dorothy complains that they never smile or laugh, and that they are all completely isolated from their neighbors.  Dorothy has no one to cheer her up, except her dog.[20]

When Dorothy gets to Oz, she finds that, despite the Bad Witches, there is dancing, singing, laughing, and lots of color.  After Dorothy meets the Scarecrow and describes Kansas to him, the Scarecrow cannot understand why anyone would want to live in Kansas, and why Dorothy would not want to stay in Oz, which is beautiful and filled with interesting people.  When she answers that “There is no place like home,” the Scarecrow replies facetiously, and with false modesty, “Of course I cannot understand it.  If your heads were stuffed with straw, like mine, you would probably all live in the beautiful places, and your Kansas would have no people in it at all.”[21]  That is, he facetiously claims, only brainless people like him would want to live in beautiful places.  Brainy Kansans like Dorothy would naturally choose to live in desolation.  This is a telling remark that almost certainly hits its mark with readers, and maybe with Dorothy as well.

Almost the first thing Dorothy says, when the Munchkins are celebrating her as a hero for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, is that she wants to go home because her aunt and uncle might be worrying about her.[22]  She cares deeply about her family.  An unanswered question in the story is what will Dorothy do when she gets back to Kansas.  Having seen Oz and Emerald City will she be content to leave things in Kansas as they are, with her gray-faced Aunt and Uncle slaving away so hard for so little, with her gray surroundings, and with her boring life?

Dorothy is like a student who has gone away to college, or a soldier who has gone off to other lands, and then comes back to see home in a new and critical light.  Having returned for the sake of her family, what might Dorothy do further for their sake?  There’s no place like home, but what should that home be like?  Most readers, I think, hope Dorothy will do something to improve her home and the society in which she lives.

The World in Our Minds: A Zero-Sum Game or a Mutual Aid Society.

“Come on legs keep movin’

Don’t you lose no ground

You just keep on keepin’ on

On the road that you choose.”

Lyrics by Charlie Smalls.

Sung by Diana Ross & Michael Jackson.

Why do some people feel threatened by immigrants, seeing them as competitors who will take their jobs and impoverish them, while others welcome immigrants as resources who will help enrich everyone?  Why are some people threatened by cultural pluralism as a dilution of their native culture, while others welcome diversity as a cultural enrichment?  Why do some people picture the world as a zero-sum game in which your advancement is inevitably at my expense, whereas other people see the world as a mutual-aid society in which the success of each is the basis for the advancement of all?  Why is the apt proverb for some people that a rising tide sustains some but drowns others, whereas for others it is that a rising tide raises all?

How we feel towards others must come, at least in part, from what we read, see and listen to, that is, the books, videos and songs from which we draw our picture of the world, and react to phenomena such as immigration and enculturation.  Some books, videos and songs portray aliens as inherently dangerous and cultural change as disastrous.  Many of the violent stories, songs and video games that appeal to adolescents have those themes.  They portray life as a zero-sum game, with every person for him/herself.

Most stories, songs and movies that appeal to younger and older audiences take a different tack, and portray change and diversity as constructive and cooperative.  The stories of Charles Dickens and the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling have that theme.  There is plenty of violence and there are evil characters in their books, but the emphasis is on the overriding value of trust and cooperation, rather than mistrust and conflict.  The Wizard of Oz is similar.  The contrast between most children’s literature and most adolescent media is stark and alarming.   

One of the reasons we read books and watch movies, and then reread and re-watch them, is because we feel comfortable in the worlds they portray.  Some people seem to feel more comfortable in imaginary worlds that are scary and reflect violent zero-sum societies.  Others seem more comfortable in mutual aid worlds such as that constructed by Dickens and Rowling.  How and why this is the case is a mystery to me.

This essay is being written on November 14, 2016 in the immediate aftermath of a recent presidential election in which the American people seem to be sharply divided between supporters of Donald Trump and his zero-sum view of the world, and supporters of Hillary Clinton and her mutual aid view.  Much to my regret, fear trumped and Trumped in this election.  She got the most popular votes, but he got the most electoral votes.  Supporters of Clinton are currently in despair at how to bridge the cultural gap between them and Trump’s supporters.  It may be that the continuing popularity among all segments of our population of The Wizard of Oz is an indication that we may have more in common, and that there may be a mutual aid ethic that underlies our differences and may provide a basis for future amity and agreement.

[1] The Wonderful Wizard of Oz   Wikipedia.  Accessed 11/14/16.

[2] Ilan Shira. “Why ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is the most popular film of all time.”  Psychology Today.  6/4/10.

[3] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.50, 54, 57, 139.

[4] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.50-51, 57-58, 63, 72.

[5] William Graham Sumner. Social Darwinism.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1963.

[6] There is a collateral interpretation of the story that it is a Populist allegory.  The Populists were a late nineteenth century reform movement of small farmers and workers against the big capitalists who were ostensibly oppressing them.  Baum supported the Populists.  In this interpretation, the witches represent the capitalists, the Scarecrow is the farmers, the Tin Man is the workers, and the Lion is William Jennings Bryan, who was called The Lion of the West and who coopted the Populists in his failed Presidential campaign of 1896.  I have no problem with this Populist interpretation.  It might help explain the story’s popularity in the early 1900’s, albeit, it does not explain its ongoing popularity.  I would object, however, to including in it, as some critics do, a picture of the Populists as individualistic small farmers, a picture that would lend support to the idea that the story promotes individualism.  I reject both the picture of Populism as individualistic and the idea that the story promotes individualism.

[7] Citations in this essay will be to the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but they refer as well to the movie The Wizard of Oz with which readers may be more familiar and which essentially follows the book.

[8] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.142-143, 147.

[9] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. p.96.

[10] In the book, there is a Good Witch of the North who greets Dorothy at the beginning of the story and sets her on her way to see the Wizard, and a Good Witch of the South who meets her at the end and sets her on her way home.  The North Witch puts the magic shoes on Dorothy, but tells Dorothy that she does not know how they work.  It is only the South Witch who seems to know how they work, and only she who can explain it to Dorothy when Dorothy finally meets up with her at the end of the story.  In the Judy Garland movie, the director merged the two witches into one witch, for some unknown reason, and it creates an unnecessary question of why the witch didn’t tell Dorothy how to use the shoes when she first met her.  She put Dorothy to a lot of unnecessary trouble, which was not a nice thing for a good witch to do.

[11] Richard Hofstadter. Social Darwinism in American Thought.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

[12] Robert McCloskey. American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise, 1865-1910. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.

[13] Robert Sutton. Communal Utopias and the American Experience: Secular Communities, 1824-2000.  

Westport, CN: Praeger, 2004.  “List of American Utopian Communities.” Wikipedia. Accessed 11/14/16.

[14] William James.  Talks to Teachers on Psychology. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001.

John Dewey. The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1956.

[15] William James. “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. New York: World Publishing Co., 1962.


[16] William James. “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. New York: World Publishing Co., 1962.


[17] William James. “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. New York: World Publishing Co., 1962.


[18] William James. “The Will to Believe.” Essays on Faith and Morals. New York: World Publishing Co., 1962.


[19] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.39, 54-58.

[20] In the book, there are no farmhands for company and diversion.

[21] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. pp.28-29.

[22] L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz. Aladdin Classics: New York, 1999. p.13.