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Disney Steps In To Fill The Void In America’s Soul

Last fall, the Walt Disney Co. did something rare. It conceded defeat in its fight to build a history theme park in northern Virginia. The park was going to be called Disney’s America.

By now, some people may be wondering if Disney lost the battle but won the war.

These days, it seems we’re all living in Disney’s America.

With its purchase of ABC last week, the company founded by Walter Elias Disney in 1923 deepened its claim on the American psyche, from Main Street to Tomorrowland. It would be hard to name another company that ever has exercised such influence on American culture. It would be hard to find another company so widely admired - even loved - by Americans.

As a nation, we flock to Disney films and then replay them - over and over and over - on Disney videotapes. We read Disney books to our Disney-pajama-clad children. We watch Disney shows on Disney TV. We make pilgrimages to Disneyland and Disney World, where we stay in Disney hotels and eat Disney food. We buy Disney products at Disney stores, and listen to Disney records of Disney songs.

By next year, we will be able to send our children to a Disney school (near Orlando, Fla.) and educate ourselves at the Disney Institute, an adult-education resort in Florida where, The Wall Street Journal observed, “Goofy can get in touch with his inner self.”

The world of Disney is becoming anything but a small, small world.

All of this is making some people more than a little grumpy. Listen to Harold Bloom, professor of humanities at Yale University and author of “The Western Canon,” an analysis of the cultural legacy of Western civilization (hint: there is no index listing for Mouse, Mickey):

“At the end of this road lies cultural homogenization of the most ghastly kind,” Bloom told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week, after the Disney-ABC deal was announced. “It’s a disaster.”

This is an increasingly common view in academia, which has never particularly cottoned to a world view that encompasses the Lost Boys of Peter Pan, who don’t want to grow up and certainly don’t want to go to school.

“The taste of the Disney products,” said Paul Fussell, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, “has always seemed to me gravely sub-adult.”

Critics of Disney, and there are many, see its films and spinoff products as rife with sexism, racism, and a dumbed-down, cheered-up vision of American history and folklore.

“There’s a kind of … anesthesia at work here,” said Henry Giroux, a professor of secondary education at Penn State University. Like all Disney critics, he can cite chapter and verse of Disney’s crimes against culture; he gets particularly incensed about the treatment of American Indians in “Pocahontas.”

“I mean, the entire history of what happened to the Indians, which some people would call genocide … is sort of played out as a love story.”

Giroux believes that Disney has become a primary educator of America’s children, most of whom will be able to recite the complete script of “The Lion King” long before they ever learn the Gettysburg Address.

“My argument about Disney is that it’s not a matter of whether Disney is good or bad for your kids - that’s really, to me, too simplistic a question. The issue is how do we begin to look at Disney so as to take them seriously as a teaching machine, and not merely as a source of entertainment.”

To others, Disney is more than a teacher - it is a religion.

In her book, “The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills,” Judith Adams argues that Disney World has become a spiritual shrine on par with Mecca, Canterbury and Lourdes. “The perfect world of Disney has replaced the biblical Garden of Eden as the American vision of paradise,” she writes.

And Len Sweet, dean of Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, N.J., argues that Disney has become central to the “civic religion” of America - the secular values that once were the domain of Lincoln, Jefferson and Fourth of July parades.

“What has happened is that Disney has taken this over,” he said. “What’s happening is that we’re all being dragged down to this infantile level.”

Of course, even the critics are quick to note that Disney embodies many positive values - optimism, good-hearted fun, a tradition of artistic quality - that help explain its success. And critical or not, most are Disney consumers.

“I think a lot of people do maybe know that what Disney is telling is ultimately a lie, but it’s a lie they can’t live without,” observed Robert Thompson, associate professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University.

“I know a lot of my most critical and cynical academic friends - nevertheless, you walk into their house, and if they’ve got kids, sure enough, ‘The Lion King,’ ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Bambi,’ ‘Pinocchio’ - the videotapes they choose to own tend to be the same ones everybody else owns.”

Disney, Thompson said, has created “the myths that we’ve decided to define ourselves with.”

How much further this can go is anybody’s guess. Among its many other projects, Disney is now taking aim at the one place in America that would seem to be the most Disney-resistant - New York City.

Soon, a Disney store will open on Fifth Avenue. Disney recently announced plans to renovate the Amsterdam Theater in Times Square, where the marquee - “New York Welcomes Disney” - now faces out on one of the tawdriest landscapes in America, where one of Mickey’s new neighbors is currently advertising a sale on bestiality films, presumably not a reference to “Beauty and the Beast.”

There also are rumors that Disney may be trying to buy Rockefeller Center, putting it in the odd position of being NBC’s landlord as well as ABC’s owner.

Too much? Probably not to most Americans. Certainly not to the people shopping at a Disney store in a mall a few miles west of New York, a store where the sales clerks wear cheerleaders’ outfits (the letter “M” stands for you-know-who) and the merchandise ranges from $2 Winnie-the-Pooh key rings to $2,000-plus animation cels from “Snow White.”

Here, Anthony Fonzo has just walked out with a Minnie Mouse blouse and dress and a complete Dumbo outfit for his 7-month-old niece. He is 42, a systems analyst for the Army and a lifelong Disney fan.

When he thinks of Disney, Fonzo said, “I think of entertainment that’s been with me my entire life.” Good, clean entertainment that, far from outgrowing, he has grown to love more with each passing year.

Too much? He shakes his head.

“I don’t think so.”

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