I first posted a piece by Ariel Dorfman at TomDispatch in October 2004 and began my introduction this way: “I met him in the spring of 1980 soon after he arrived in the United States. He had already been in exile from Pinochet’s Chile for seven years. I was an editor at Pantheon Books when one day he swept into my office, tall and exuberant, with his youngest son in a stroller. At the time, I knew his name only because it sat next to that of a man named Armand Mattelart on the cover of How to Read Donald Duck, an account — both Marxist and amusing — the two had written for the Allende government on the impact of Disney comics in the Third World. Soon after we began to talk, he launched into a critique of Babar, the French elephant whose adventures were chronicled for children by Jean de Brunhoff. I was particularly interested because de Brunhoff’s books had been icons of my childhood.”
And we’ve never stopped talking. But when he first walked into my office more than 40 years ago, despite his grim experiences in Chile, I doubt either of us could have imagined the world we now find ourselves in. Yes, he already had plenty to say about Donald Duck (and Walt Disney). But honestly, could we have dreamed of an America in which the other Donald — and you know just who I mean! — had already been this country’s president for four years and now stands a reasonable chance of returning to the White House in 2025 and turning the U.S. into a distinctly authoritarian-style state (with all too much help from various right-wing think tanks)? Only the other day, he stated quite clearly that, if president again, he wouldn’t hesitate to target anyone he considered an opponent with the full power of a transformed state. And given his attitude toward climate change and fossil fuels, he would undoubtedly play a grim role in the further transformation of this planet into a living hell.
In the context of Dorfman’s piece today about Donald Duck and our Disneyesque planet, think of that Donald of “ours” as the ultimate American quackpot.
And in the increasingly flaming world of fire and war we now live in, after you’ve read Dorfman’s article (while you’re at it, don’t miss his remarkable new novel The Suicide Museum), my one piece of advice is, as its title suggests: Duck! Tom
Walt Disney and Salvador Allende Are Still Fighting for Our Souls
This year marks the anniversaries of two drastically different events that loomed all too large in my life. The first occurred a century ago in Hollywood: on October 16, 1923, Walt Disney signed into being the corporation that bears his name. The second took place in Santiago, Chile, on September 11, 1973, when socialist President Salvador Allende died in a military coup that overthrew his democratically elected government.
Those two disparate occurrences got me thinking about how the anniversaries of a long-dead American who revolutionized popular culture globally and a slain Chilean leader whose inspiring political revolution failed might illuminate — and I hope you won’t find this too startling — the dilemma that apocalyptic climate change poses to humanity.
This isn’t, in fact, the first time those two men and what they represented affected my life. Fifty years ago, each of them helped determine my destiny — a time when I had not the slightest hint that global warming might someday leave them again juxtaposed in my life.
In mid-October 1973, as the Walt Disney Corporation was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding, I found myself in the Argentine embassy in Santiago, Chile, where I had sought refuge after the country’s military had destroyed its democracy and taken power. Like 1,000 other asylum seekers, I was forced to flee to those compressed premises — in my case, thanks in significant part to Walt Disney. To be more specific, what put me in peril was Para Leer al Pato Donald (How to Read Donald Duck), a bestselling book I had cowritten in 1971 with Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart that skewered Uncle Walt’s — as we then called it — “cultural imperialism.”
That book had been born out of Salvador Allende’s peaceful revolution, the first attempt in history to build socialism by democratic means rather than by conquering the state through armed insurrection. That Chilean road to socialism meant, however, leaving intact the economic, political, and media power of those who opposed our radical reforms.
One of our most urgent cultural tasks was contesting the dominant stories of the time, primarily those produced in the United States, imported to Chile (and so many other countries), and then ingested by millions of consumers. Among the most prevalent, pleasurable, and easily digestible of mass-media commodities were historietas (comic books), with those by Disney ruling the market. To create alternative versions of reality for the new, liberated Chile, Armand and I felt it was important to grasp the ideological magic that lurked in those oh-so-popular comics. After all, you can’t substitute for something if you don’t even know how it works.
Our goal was to defeat our capitalist adversary not with bullets but with ideas, images, and emotions of our own. So, the two of us set out to interpret hundreds of Donald Duck historietas to try to grasp just what made them so damn successful. In mid-1971, less than a year after Allende’s election victory and after 10 feverish days of collaboration, he and I felt we had grasped the way Walt’s supposedly harmless ducks and mice had subtly shaped the thinking of Chileans.
In the end, in a kind of frenzy, we wrote what John Berger (one of the great art critics of the twentieth century) would term “a handbook of decolonization,” a vision of what imperial America was selling the world as natural, everlasting, and presumably unalterable by anyone, including our President Allende. We did our best to lay out how Walt (and his workers) viewed family and sex, work and criminality, society and failure, and above all how his ducks and mice trapped Third World peoples in an exotic world of underdevelopment from which they could only emerge by eternally handing over their natural resources to foreigners and agreeing to imitate the American way of life.
Above all, of course, since the values embedded in Disney comics were wildly individualistic and competitive, they proved to be paeans to unbridled consumerism — the absolute opposite, you won’t be surprised to learn, of the communal vision of Allende and his followers as they tried to build a country where solidarity and the common good would be paramount.
The Empire Strikes Back!
Miraculously enough, our book hit a raw nerve in Chilean society. In a country where everything was being questioned by insurgent, upstart masses, including power and property relations, here were two lunatics stating that nothing was sacred — not even children’s comics! Nobody, we insisted, could truly claim to be innocent or untainted, certainly not Uncle Walt and his crew. To build a different world, Chileans would have to dramatically question who we thought we were and how we dreamt about one another and our future, while exploring the sources of our deepest desires.
If our call for transgression had been written in academic prose destined for obscure scholarly journals, we would surely have been ignored. But the style we chose for Para Leer al Pato Donald was as insolent, raucous, and carnivalesque as the Chilean revolution itself. We tried to write so that any mildly literate person would be able to understand us.
Still, don’t imagine for a second that we weren’t surprised when the reaction to our book proved explosive. Assaults in the opposition press and media were to be expected, but assaults on my family and me were another matter. I was almost run over by a furious driver, screaming “Leave the Duck alone!” Our house was pelted with stones, while Chileans outside it cheered Donald Duck. Ominous phone calls promised worse. By mid-1973, my wife Angélica, our young son Rodrigo, and I had moved — temporarily, we hoped — to my parents’ house, which was where the military coup of September 11th found us.
Salvador Allende died at the Presidential Palace that day, a death that foretold the death of democracy and of so many thousands of his followers. Among the victims of that military putsch were a number of books, including Para Leer Al Pato Donald, which I saw — on television, no less — being burnt by soldiers. A few days later, the editor of the book told me that its third printing had been dumped into the bay of Valparaíso by Navy personnel.
I had resisted, post-coup, going into exile, but the mistreatment of my book convinced me that, if I wanted to avoid being added to the inquisitorial pyre, I would have to seek the safety of some embassy until I could get permission to leave the country.
It was a sobering experience for the man who had brazenly barbecued the Duck to find himself huddling in a foreign embassy on the very day the corporation that had created those comics was celebrating its 50th anniversary. Consider that a sign of how completely Uncle Walt had won that battle, though he himself had, by then, been dead for seven years. Very much alive, however, were his buddies, those voracious fans of Disneyland — then-American President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, masterminds of the conspiracy that had destabilized and sabotaged the Allende revolution, which they saw as inimical to American global hegemony. Indeed, the coup had been carried out in the name of saving capitalism from hordes of unwashed, unruly revolutionaries, while punishing any country in the hemisphere whose leadership dared reject Washington’s influence.
Nor would it take long before the dictatorship that replaced Allende began enthusiastically applying economic shock therapy to the country, accompanied by electric shocks to the genitals of anyone who dared protest the extreme form of capitalism that came to be known as neoliberalism. That deregulatory free-market style of capitalism with its whittling down of the welfare state would, in the years to come, dominate so many other countries as well.
Fifty years after the coup that destroyed Allende’s attempt to replace it with a socialism that would respect its adversaries and their rights, such a revolutionary change hardly seems achievable anymore, even in today’s left-wing regimes in Latin America. Instead, capitalism in its various Disneyesque forms remains dominant across the planet.
Nor should it be surprising that, in all these years, the corporation Walt Disney founded a century ago has grown ever more ascendant, becoming one of the planet’s major entertainment and media conglomerates (though it, too, now finds itself in a more difficult world). Admittedly, with that preeminence has come changes that even an obdurate critic like me must hail. How could I fail to admire the Disney corporation’s stances on racial equality and gay rights, or its opposition to Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. How could I not note the ways in which its films have come to recognize the culture and aspirations of countries and communities it caricatured in the comics I read in Chile so long ago? And yet, the smiling, friendly form of capitalism it now presents — the very fact that it doesn’t wish to shock or alienate its customers — may, in the end, prove even more dangerous to our ultimate well-being than was true half a century ago.
True, I would no longer write our book the way Armand and I did all those decades ago. Like any document forged in the heat of a revolutionary moment eager to dismantle an oppressive system, imbued with a messianic belief in our ability to change consciousness, and tending to imagine our readers as empty vessels into which ducks and mice (or something far better) could be poured, we lacked a certain subtlety. It was hard for us to imagine Chilean comic-book readers as human beings who could creatively appropriate images and stories fed to them and forge a new significance all their own.
And yet, our essay’s central message is still a buoyant, rebellious reminder that there could be other roads to a better world than those created by rampant capitalism.
Warnings from the Fish
Indeed, our probe of the inner workings of a system that preys on our desires while trying to turn us into endlessly consuming machines is particularly important on a planet imperiled by global warming in ways we couldn’t even imagine then.
Take a scene I came across as I scanned the book just this week. Huey, Dewey, and Louie rush into their house with a bucket. “Look, Unca Donald,” they say, in sheer delight, “at the strange fish we caught in the bay.” Donald grabs the specimen as dollar signs ignite around his head and responds: “Strange fish!… Money!… The aquarium buys strange fish.”
In 1971, we chose that bit of Disney to illustrate how its comics then eradicated history, sweat, and social class. “There is a great round of buying, selling, and consuming,” we wrote, “but to all appearances, none of the products involved has required any effort whatsoever to make. Nature is the great labor force, producing objects of human and social utility as if they were natural.”
What concerned us then was the way workers were being elided from history and their exploitation made to magically disappear. We certainly noted the existence of nature and its exploitation for profit, but reading that passage more than 50 years later what jumps out at me isn’t the dollarization of everything or how Donald instantly turns a fish into merchandise but another burning ecological question: Why is that fish in that bucket and not the sea? Why did the kids feel they could go to the bay, scoop out one of its inhabitants, and bring it home to show Unca Donald, a displacement of nature that Armand and I didn’t even think to highlight then?
Today, that environmental perspective, that sense of how we humans continue to despoil our planet in an ever more fossil-fuelized and dangerous fashion, is simply inescapable. It stares me in the face as we now eternally break heat records planetwide.
Perhaps that fictitious fish and its castoff fate from half a century ago resonate so deeply in me today because I recently included a similar creature in my new novel, The Suicide Museum. In it, Joseph Hortha, a billionaire (of which there are so many more than in 1971), snags a yellow-fin tuna off the coast of Santa Catalina, California, a bay like the one where those three young ducks netted their fish. But Hortha, already rich beyond imagining, doesn’t see dollar signs in his catch. When he guts that king of the sea, bits of plastic spill obscenely out of its innards, the very plastic that made his fortune. Visually, in other words, that tuna levels an instant accusation at him for polluting the oceans and this planet with his products.
To atone, he will eventually make delirious plans to build a gigantic “Suicide Museum,” meant to alert humanity to the dangerous abyss towards which we’re indeed heading. In other words, to halt our suicidal rush towards Anthropocene oblivion, we need to change our lifestyles drastically. “The only way to save ourselves is to undo civilization,” Hortha explains, “unfound our cities, question the paradigm of modernity that has dominated our existence for centuries.” He imagines “a Copernican swerve in how we interact with nature,” one in which we come to imagine ourselves not as nature’s masters or stewards, but once again as part of its patterns and rhythms.
And if just imagining a world without plastic is daunting, how much more difficult will it be to implement policies that effectively limit the way our lives are organized around a petro-universe now blistering the planet? You have to wonder (and Uncle Walt won’t help on this): Is there any chance of stunning the global upper and middle classes into abandoning their ingrained privileges, the conveniences that define all our harried existences?
Walt Disney and Salvador Allende Are Still Duking (or Do I mean Ducking?) It Out
On this increasingly desperate planet, I suspect the critique of Disney that Armand and I laid out so long ago still has a certain potency. The values symbolized in those now-ancient comic books continue to underwrite the social order (or do I mean disorder?) that’s moving us towards ultimate self-destruction globally.
Such a collective cataclysm won’t be averted unless we’re finally ready to deal with the most basic aspects of contemporary existence: unabashed competition, untrammeled consumerism, an extractive attitude towards the Earth (not to speak of a deeply militarized urge to kill one another), and a stupefying faith that a Tomorrowland filled with happiness is just a monorail ride away.
To put it bluntly, our species can’t afford another century of the principles fostered by the Disney emporium.
And what of Salvador Allende, dead this half-century that’s seen Uncle Walt’s values expand and invade every corner of our souls? What of his vision of a just society that seems so much farther away today, as would-be autocrats and hard-core authoritarians rise up everywhere in a world in which The Donald is anything but a duck?
President Allende rarely spoke of the environment in his speeches, but he did want us to live in a very different world. While he was no eco-prophet, he distinctly had something to say about the catastrophic predicament now facing us.
Today, we should value his life-long certainty, reiterated in that last stand in defense of democracy and dignity in Chile’s Presidential Palace 50 years ago, that history is made by unexceptional men and women who, when they dare imagine an alternative future, can accomplish exceptional things.
As the symbolic battle between Walt Disney and Salvador Allende for the hearts and minds of humanity continues, the last word doesn’t, in fact, belong to either of them, but to the rest of us. It’s we who must decide if there will even be generations, a century from now, to look back on our follies, no less thank us for subversively saving our planet for them.
Copyright 2023 Ariel Dorfman