Who's Afraid of Virginia's Mouse?
by Charles Krauthammer (Time, 6/6/94)
Opposition to Disney’s America, the "historical theme park" to be built about five miles from the Manassas National Battlefield in northern Virginia, is heating up. There are two categories of opponent: those who object to building any large enterprise in this bucolic area of the Virginia Piedmont and those who object to building this enterprise.
The former are just antidevelopment. They would object to any mini city with all its attendant pollution and traffic implanted far beyond the nearest suburb in pristine country. But, as Frank Rich points out in the New York Times, that is not the reason for the great Disney debate.
Rich, who bitterly opposes the Disney park, admits that "the issues of money, urban sprawl and environmental disruption that attend the park are between the Virginia voters and their consciences." (Their consciences appear clear: the Virginia legislature has overwhelmingly approved the idea.) But "the esthetic issues dramatized by Disney's America concern everyone." Why? Because "the battle over Disney's America is part of a much larger struggle between theme park America and authentic America."
So the issue is not urban sprawl. This is bigger stuff: a battle of cultures, a struggle between authentic and inauthentic America. Or as David McCullough, co-founder of the anti Disney Protect Historic America committee, insists, a case of "synthetic history... destroying real history."
The heart of the case against Disney is not the fact of development but the content. Were the site slated for a new research campus for the Harvard School of Public Health with housing for several thousand (as Disney proposes), I doubt that McCullough and the other intellectuals on the committee would be in such a tizzy.
What they loathe above all is the meaning of Disney. William Styron denounces the still hypothetical park for "its inevitable vulgarization of our heritage." Barbara J. Fields waxes poetic about the value of the past, then declaims boldly that "such things cannot be consumed as entertainment, experienced by carnival rides, pictured on mugs or T shirts, or simulated by animated wax figures." Shelby Foote expresses "fear that the Disney people will do to American history what they have already done to the animal kingdom—sentimentalize it out of recognition."
My, my. We're talking about an amusement park here, not Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. Disney builds playgrounds for children—loud, clangy, vulgar, kitschy playgrounds. One might as well denounce comic books for not being literature. Or Davy Crockett movies for vulgarizing Tennessee history—and sentimentalizing bears. How many adult couples do you know who dress up, hire a sitter and head out for an evening at an amusement park? For that matter, how many adults do you know who frequent restaurants where teenagers, dressed in giant mouse outfits, snuggle up to them and offer a kiss for the camera?
That's Disneyland and Disney World and Disney everything. I know. I am an expert on Disney. I've done Catastrophe Canyon five times and can recall every diorama of the Great Movie Ride in order. I've seen it all in the company of my son, age 9, who loved every innocent, campy, vulgar bit of it.
Look. It is one thing for snobbish European intellectuals to take American trivia seriously. Disneyana is the favorite mirror of America - succeeding Luigi Barzini's insufficiently satiric suggestion of baseball - for every European thinker from Umberto Eco on down. It was Eco who in his 1975 essay "Travels in Hyperreality" gave a deep and dark and ironic account of Pirates of the Caribbean as "more real than reality." Heavy implications followed.
I do not know if Michael Crichton reads Eco, but he had the perfect riposte in Jurassic Park, when its creator dismisses the marauding dinosaurs and general chaos with "When they opened Disneyland, nothing worked." To which the wise guy mathematician responds, "But when the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists."
That is because they are not real, let alone "more real than reality." And yes, Mickey is an inauthentic mouse. One expects Europeans to wax heavy about that. But one expects a bit more sense from American historians.
Foote is right. Disney's America will idealize and sentimentalize history the way Disney's movies have idealized and sentimentalized nature. So what? Bambi and Dumbo are delightful, enduring children's treasures. They are not meant to be PBS documentaries.
So with the theme parks. Walt Disney's genius was to drain the boardwalk midway of its anarchy and menace. He smoothed and creamed and pureed it into a shamelessly sweet, hopelessly inauthentic 3 D movie set he called a theme park. His movies are Hans Christian Andersen pasteurized. His parks are Coney Island homogenized. In both he created the perfect entertainment for children.
Those who fear that a children's entertainment will destroy real history have little faith in history. Disney's America is an amusement for kids who bring their parents along for the ride. The issue of urban sprawl is serious. The suggestion of cultural desecration is not. As the kids would say, "Lighten up, guys."