Gongol.com Archives: August 2021

Brian Gongol

August 3, 2021

The United States of America Respect for what culture?

Only a couple of months ago, one man was so aggrieved by Disney World's efforts to keep up with contemporary community standards that he issued a full-length op-ed to the Orlando Sentinel, which they dutifully published -- including these words: "The more Disney moves away from the values and vision of Walt Disney, the less Disney World means to me." These values, says the writer, are incorporated into rides like Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Jungle Cruise. ■ It is of no use to publicly flay the author; everyone is entitled to hold preferences and beliefs about culture, including ones widely rejected by others. As the Latin phrase goes, "de gustibus non est disputandum": There is no disputing about taste. ■ But there is use in examining what, exactly, are the values transmitted by Disney's cultural iconography. Objectively stated, Mickey Mouse is a rodent who has been stringing along his girlfriend for the past 93 years, and his best friend is a duck who refuses to wear pants. But that's not fair, is it? They are meant to be lighthearted characters, not to be taken too seriously (lest someone figure out why Goofy talks but Pluto doesn't). ■ Yet even lighthearted characters can transmit the wrong ideas. One doesn't have to think there was specific malice involved in displaying a shrunken-head salesman character on a ride long ago, but coming to terms with what was (at best) a gross cultural insensitivity in the past means it probably makes sense to remove the offending image in the present. ■ Part of celebrating American culture means cheering for incremental steps towards "a more perfect union". That process can be additive -- like creating new stories that make female characters the stars and not just damsels-in-distress (as in "Brave", "Moana", and "The Princess and the Frog"). It can also be subtractive -- like removing songs and other references to old content with racist connotations from the present-day experience. ■ Choosing what to emphasize or to de-emphasize doesn't erase the past, but it does reflect how we want to address the present and the future. James Madison himself wrote that ""[T]he purest of human blessings must have a portion of alloy in them; that the choice must always be made, if not of the lesser evil, at least of the greater, not the perfect, good". Correcting what past Americans got wrong isn't dishonoring them -- it's honoring a common fidelity to getting things as right as we can in the time we are living. Invariably that will be an imperfect process, and sometimes jarring, but it's the only road worth traveling.

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