Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Professors vs Rodent

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, companies, polemics

My family first visited Disneyland in Anaheim shortly after it opened in July, 1955. I was almost eight. I was an avid watcher of the Mickey Mouse Club show. As I recall, however, I've never had any Disney merchandise other than a set of plastic mouse ears bought at the park when we visited and a rabbit-fur "coon skin hat". Not so my contemporaries. Some had Mickey or Donald PJ's or even bed sheets, and some had themed lunch boxes or notebooks (the schools permitted that in the 1950s).

Somehow my family instilled in my brothers and me an almost total resistance to "theme products." I think I've visited the Anaheim park six or seven times, most recently in 1968 with my cousins. Then late in 2003 we took our 15-year-old son to Disney World in Florida for a few days. We know people who spend a few thousand a year on Disney parks and Disney merchandise.

In last Friday's post I recounted my struggles to properly read a book that is written in a difficult style. The "Fog Index" for four paragraphs selected at random ranged from 16 to 20, meaning one would need four to eight years of education beyond high school to be able to read the text without re-reading frequently to extract meaning. I have fourteen years of university education, but I found myself re-reading from time to time.

I did finish the book. It is The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence, the second edition, by Henry A. Giroux and Grace Pollock, professors at McMaster University. Given my difficulty reading the text, I find it hard to imagine there were sufficient sales to warrant a new edition ("Updated and Expanded"). However, there is no denying the authors have something worth saying. While I think they overstate their case, there is some validity to the image of a rapacious corporate giant (around $50 billion in sales in 2009) hiding behind a facade of innocence and childhood fantasy. The reach of Disney Co. is unmistakable. As stated on page 25,
"Like many other megacorporations, it focuses on popular culture and continually expands its reach to include not only theme parks but television networks, motion picture studios, music companies, radio stations, online entertainment, cruise lines, Broadway theater productions, publishing houses, and video game development studios."
In other words, like other megacorporations, they'll take over as much of the world as they can. Is anybody surprised? There is a major retailer about which this story is told: a customer, a U.S. citizen, purchased several major appliances on credit and installed them in his hacienda in Mexico. The appliances were purchased in the U.S. but trucked to Mexico by the buyer. Not a payment was made on the debt, and when the retailer sought legal redress, there was none available because the buyer was out of the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts. So the retailer hired mercenaries to bring the fellow back to the U.S. to stand trial, and avoided charges of kidnapping because he was nabbed not on U.S. soil! In their own way, the major corporations have more power than the governments under which they purportedly operate. And let's not forget Ross Perot's rescue of his employees from Iran a generation back.

Companies exist to produce or obtain goods at the lowest cost or price possible, and sell them for the highest price the market will bear. This is how capitalism works. That Disney operates in a capitalistic manner doesn't surprise or distress me. However, there is one area in which I agree that the company bears watching: their forays into the educational field. To name just a couple of instances, the company assumed total control of Celebration, FL, including its educational system; secondly it has contracted with a few school systems to provide educational services.

Given the Disney take on American history—were they to perform a similar lobotomy of German history, it would include denying the Holocaust—there is little useful that children can gain from a Disney-supplied education besides how to most efficiently consume and how to "feel like a princess." They fit kids only for life on "Main Street, USA," but the kids will have to find out elsewhere that it never existed; that small-town "Waltons"-style living was never known by more than a few, and they all white, upper-middle-class conservatives.

Now, I happen to be white, almost-upper-middle-class, and conservative, but I wasn't born yesterday. I may have had a few years growing up in a quiet, white suburb, but it was no more than three blocks from the 8x8 shack, still standing at the time, where our next-door neighbor had been born and raised to age seventeen (sometime in the past forty years, the shack was removed; I went back and looked a few years ago). I've lived in a variety of places in eight states, but even more, I've learned history not just by reading textbooks but by reading journals and letters, and talking to aged relatives. Looking back at my own memories with a critical eye, I realize that the golden days we all remember are largely fabricated. We skip over a lot, and why shouldn't we? It is hard to remain optimistic if one harbors all the bad memories.

I support education that helps youngsters see the world as it is. I also support the option to enjoy fantasy on occasion, as a healthy escape. Disney is criticized for "inane mottoes" taught to the "cast members" at its theme parks, such as, "We work so others can play." Well, whether I am at Disneyland, or on a Holland America cruise, or at a ski resort, or even at the local burger place, I am playing while others work. That's what it is about! When I worked at Cedar Point (run by Doc Lemmon, previously with Disney), I worked my butt off; then at quitting time, I changed clothes and became one of those playing! The next shift was working now. I am glad that Disney and others have become so good at having their workers ("cast") do so in a cheerful manner. Helps me be cheerful also.

Having struggled through the whole book, what have I learned? Primarily, that I am right to complain about the Bowdlerization of history seen in popular entertainment, and not just from Disney; that I was right to undertake a major portion of the education of our son, to be certain he learned even better than the public school could offer; and that thinking is such hard work that few people ever think unless faced with a disaster, and sometimes not even then, so that corporations that provide "edutainment", of which Disney is the first, go largely unwatched. But they do need to be watched!

The basic rule of practical politics is, "Where you stand depends on where you sit." I work for a major corporation. This reduces my inclination to investigate them. But it doesn't reduce my responsibility to do so. The same goes for the Rodent who is taking over the world. Of course Disney bears watching. It is salutary to be reminded of that.

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