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Tomgram: Ariel Dorfman, A Tale of Two Donalds

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

In 1985, at age 41, I visited Disney World for the first time. I remember the experience for two things: the endless lines so cleverly organized that you never knew how long they truly were and the Hawaiian Luau dinner I attended. Yes, a genuine Hawaiian feast that reminded me of American Chinese food circa 1953 and the unforgettable "entertainment" offered by "native" Hawaiian dancers with spears who smacked their weapons on the ground and rhythmically advanced on the diners glowering fiercely. Whoever those dancers were, they were quite skilled at playing "primitives" from elsewhere, also circa 1953, objects of fear, wonder, and scorn. (Oh yes, and Disney World was the place that first taught me this country had an obesity problem -- along with some of the most fattening food on the planet.)

I must admit that my grown-up's eye view of Walt Disney's fantasy universe left me a little shocked at the time, but I shouldn't have been. After all, a decade or so earlier I had absorbed How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Matellart, an unforgettable expose' of the true nature of Disney-style American "innocence." It was a document that had emerged from the democratic Chilean revolution of Salvador Allende, just one of the governing experiments of the twentieth century that the U.S. helped do in. (In fact, I still have my copy of that British-produced book from the mid-1970s, which, in its Spanish version, had quite literally been consigned to the flames and later in English was impounded by U.S. Customs. It was a work that no American publisher would put out at the time and so my well-worn copy has become a remarkably valuable collector's item, as Dorfman points out in today's post.)

Keep in mind that I had been a typical Disney kid of the 1950s. I read Walt's comics and raptly watched Walt Disney's Disneyland on our black-and-white TV. That weekly extravaganza included such gems as "Our Friend the Atom," a paean of praise to the all-American power source that, only a decade or so earlier, had obliterated two Japanese cities. Above all, though, the show was a living ad for the wonders of -- you guessed it -- Disneyland, which was partially constructed with money ABC paid to air it. ("Each week, as you enter this timeless land, one of these many worlds will open to you: Frontierland, tall tales and true from the legendary past! Tomorrowland, promise of things to come! Adventureland, the wonder world of nature's own realm! Fantasyland, the happiest kingdom of them all!") I can still remember yearning to visit Disneyland and see the guide on its "African" river at Adventureland shoot his pistol directly into the voracious maw of a hippopotamus. Of course, Uncle Walt's showcase had been built in distant California at a moment when air travel wasn't the commonplace of today and the farthest west I had ever been was Albany, New York.

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Still, I do have something to thank Walt for. In the spring of 1980, in exile from his native Chile (then in the hands of its military), Ariel Dorfman walked unannounced into my office at Pantheon Books in New York City. Fortunately, thanks to Disney's favorite duck, I already knew his work well and so was prepped to become the editor of his first two books in English. Now, another set of decades down the line, he completes the circle of our lives as he looks back by torchlight (so to speak) on his own experiences with Walt Disney and what they mean in the age of Donald Trump. Tom

How to Read Donald Trump
On Burning Books But Not Ideas
By Ariel Dorfman

The organizers of the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville last month knew just what they were doing when they decided to carry torches on their nocturnal march to protest the dethroning of a statue of Robert E. Lee. That brandishing of fire in the night was meant to evoke memories of terror, of past parades of hate and aggression by the Ku Klux Klan in the United States and Adolf Hitler's Freikorps in Germany.

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The organizers wanted to issue a warning to those watching: that past violence, perpetrated in defense of the "blood and soil" of the white race, would once again be harnessed and deployed in Donald Trump's America. Indeed, the very next day, that fatal August 12th, those nationalist fanatics unleashed an orgy of brutality that led to the deaths of three people and the injuring of many more.

Millions around America and the world were horrified and revolted by that parade of torches. In my case, however, they also brought to mind deeply personal memories of other fires that had burned darkly so many decades before, far from the United States or Nazi Europe. As I watched footage of that rally, I couldn't help remembering the bonfires that lit up my own country, Chile, in the aftermath of General Augusto Pinochet's September 11th coup in 1973 -- that "first 9/11," which, with the active support of Washington and the CIA, had overthrown the popularly elected government of Salvador Allende.

The Chilean people had voted Allende in as their president three years earlier, launching an exceptional democratic experiment in peaceful social change. It would be an unprecedented attempt to build socialism through the ballot box, based on the promise that a revolution need not kill or silence its enemies in order to succeed. It was thrilling to be alive during the thousand days that Allende governed. In that brief period, a mobilized nation wrested control of its natural resources and telecommunication systems from multinational (primarily U.S.) corporations; large estates were redistributed to the peasants who had long farmed them in near servitude; and workers became the owners of the factories they labored in, while bank employees managed their nationalized institutions previously in the hands of rich conglomerates.

As an entire country shook off the chains of yesteryear, intellectuals and artists were also challenged. We faced the task of finding the words for, the look of, a new reality. In that spirit, Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart and I wrote a booklet that we called Para Leer al Pato Donald (How to Read Donald Duck). It was meant to respond to a very practical need: the mass media stories Chileans had been consuming, that mentally colonized the way they lived and dreamed of their everyday circumstances, didn't faintly match the extraordinary new situation in their country. Largely imported from the United States and available via outlets of every sort (comics, magazines, television, radio), they needed to be critiqued and the models and values they espoused, all the hidden messages of greed, domination, and prejudice they contained, exposed.

If there was a single company that embodied the overarching influence of the U.S. -- not just in Chile but in so many other lands then known as the Third World -- it was the Walt Disney Corporation. Today, in addition to the many amusement parks that bear its name, the Disney brand conjures up a panoply of Pixar princesses, avatars of cars and planes, and tales of teen-age angst and Caribbean piracy. But in Chile, in the early 1970s, Disney's influence was epitomized by a flood of inexpensive comic books available at every newsstand. So Armand and I decided to focus on them and in particular on the character who then seemed to us the most symbolic and popular of the denizens of the Disney universe. What better way to expose the nature of American cultural imperialism than to unmask the most innocent and wholesome of Walt Disney's characters, to show what authoritarian tenets a duck's smiling face could smuggle into Third World hearts and minds?

We would soon discover what an attack on Disney would be met with -- and it wasn't smiles.

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Roast Author, Not Duck

Para Leer al Pato Donald, published in Chile in 1971, quickly became a runaway bestseller. Less than two years later, however, it suffered the fate of the revolution and of the people who had sustained that revolution.

The military coup of 1973 led to savage repression against those who had dared to dream of an alternative existence: executions, torture, imprisonment, persecution, exile, and, yes, book burnings, too. Hundreds of thousands of volumes went up in flames.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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