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Athwart

Willful Belief

by James Lileks

Oz the Great and Powerful which is neither, has a Braveheart moment where the Wizard addresses the fine, diverse folk ruled by Glinda the Good Witch. They are in trouble because evil stalks the land, and Glinda’s powers seem to consist of flying around in a bubble and making people feel good about themselves. But enough about Michelle Obama. The Good Witch’s queendom is under assault from evil witches, who have Deadly Green Lightning and shock-’n’-awe fireballs on their side, as well as tall lumpy-faced mercenaries with halberds and long coats that inhibit running. However will the Good Witch’s people defeat these forces? They can sew, and they’re handy with tools, but no one has any guns.

Naturally they win. Why? Because they believe. The Wizard gives them a speech and says they have to believe, and everyone cheers because they believe, and they also believe in believing. Later he specifically instructs some underlings to believe, in case they had entertained disbelief in the last few minutes and found the flavor and texture to be pleasing. While the underlings do indeed believe, they are confused about the plans to defeat the boundless necromancy of the Witch sisters, and have no idea what they are supposed to do. The Wizard does not tell them, but leaves them alone, appearing later in a remote location from which he uses smoke, mirrors, amplified threats, and a few fireballs from the sky to scatter his opposition.

But enough about President Obama. No, not really. It would be a parody of the conservative mindset to see the movie in political terms. Paranoid cultural warriors see liberal messages in everything the mass media do, right? Let one Teletubby carry a purse and some people think toddlers will hold up Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls and ask you why they’re reinforcing the normative standards of non-fluid gender identity. Sometimes we overthink these things.

Of course, it’s insightful and provocative to see the original Oz tale as a critique of late-19th-century monetary policy, or to regard the Michael Jackson/Diana Ross The Wiz as a marker of Hollywood’s shifting attitudes on race. If you said the most recent Oz movie’s message that community matters more than wealth was a reflection of the nation’s electoral rebuke to Mitt Romney, you’d get 1,206 fawning comments on the Huffington Post.

But: Point out that Hollywood always likes the ragtag band of fighters who fit the Viet Cong model, and that the Wizard heals a little girl whose village was destroyed by helicopters — er, winged monkeys — and then you’re flying with the wacky-bird flock.

Note: I do not believe that Oz the Great and Powerful is a Vietnam parable. Or a parable of anything, except modern Hollywood’s ability to use a gilded melon-ball scooper to extract and discard the human essence of its greatest properties. If the Wizard had distributed the golden riches of the Emerald City vaults to the people and said “Sometimes you gotta spread the wealth around,” I wouldn’t have cared, if the movie had been any good. At least it would have been an argument for precious metals.

A sequel is certain. Hard to say what’s left to tell. Maybe the Wizard fights the Joker. Guaranteed he has a crisis of confidence in the second act, then rallies to save the Emerald City in a sequence that will be repeated in a thrill ride with a four-hour wait and a gift shop at the exit, where you can buy wands and stuffed winged monkeys and drinking mugs emblazoned with the movie’s overarching moral ethos: Believe.

Believe! It’s the essence of childhood, no? Faith in something magical! But no child really believes past toddlerhood. Belief in childhood fairy tales is a magazine subscription your parents take out in your name. Kids gravitate quickly to the Pixar model, which is Hope, and requires action to fulfill. Believe means you gaze at the star upon which a crooning cricket instructs you to wish and trust a distant nuclear furnace to pay the rent or strike a tyrant dead.

Never works. But that’s modern politics. Believe! Paper money has intrinsic value that cannot be shaken. Believe! A doubling of the food-stamp-participation rate is proof that society has properly ordered itself to value compassion over rude economic vigor. Believe! The gender-studies college degree that’ll take 20 years to pay off will impress employers, who ache to free themselves of practical dullards and boost the bottom line with the wisdom that comes only from studying gonad paradigms of the 15th century.

Believe! A law that bans guns within 200 yards of a school is like the bubble barrier of Glinda’s realm, able to repel those with evil in their hearts. Believe! At least 200 million people associate Marco Rubio with excessive water consumption, so he’s toast. Iran is the definition of the phrase “Cooler heads prevailed,” if you just look deep in your heart. The president is a muscular advocate of American security when he deploys missile-defense systems he voted against. Believe!

Does it matter what you believe in? Of course not! Magic, following your heart, whatever, as long as it’s a nonspecific self-improvement agenda. But if you’re the new pope, and you believe in retrograde ideas that do not conform with morals invented ten minutes ago, then “believe” becomes a “position.” Maybe even a “hardened position.”

Don’t worry. People who hold such retrograde positions can be overcome, if you just believe. Also, if you use the power of the state to enforce conformity. The throwbacks may think this violates the intentions of the Founders, but let them. Those aren’t beliefs. They’re superstitions.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.