July 4, 2022 Wayne Northey

Reflections on: How to Read Donald Trump

The Perennial Myths of July 4 and America The Beautiful

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July 3, 2022

image above and below: “If there was a single company that embodied the overarching influence of the U.S. — not just in Chile but in so many other lands then known as the Third World — it was the Walt Disney Corporation.”

WN: I listened to a sermon today, July 3–on the eve of the American celebration of its founding–by a favourite preacher, Michael Rudzena.1 For the first time in two years, I was disappointed–as fine as the excellent preaching and gifted insights otherwise and typically were. One must  read merely this one of several recent histories of the American Revolution for a profoundly different idea about the brutal violence of the “Americans” and British of that time, b: The American Revolution: A History of Violence. It discusses the book: Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, by Holger Hoock. We read:

Gangs prowl the streets, armed with improvised weapons, hunting political opponents, whom they often scourge, sometimes hang and occasionally burn. Captors shackle their prisoners in darkness, in underground chambers too small to allow them to stand. Soldiers plunder houses and rape wives and daughters, sometimes in front of their husbands and fathers, the violation of the women justified as a weapon of war, “a fortunate stroke … in mending the breed,” as one newspaper puts it.

Such images more readily conjure up scenes from Srebrenica or Kigali or Mosul than from the fledgling United States some two and a quarter centuries ago. As the runaway success of “Hamilton” amply demonstrates, American audiences prefer to imagine the nation’s birth pangs as a series of dexterous verbal battles played out more or less civilly, in the proverbial rooms where it happened. Holger Hoock will have none of it. As this revelatory and sometimes punishing study documents, the United States took shape not only in coffeehouses and on the pages of political pamphlets, but also on blood-soaked battlefields. “I have no relish for civil Wars & there is no such thing as being a looker on,” one New Yorker wrote in 1775. “Scars of Independence” makes lookers-on of us all, forcing readers to confront the visceral realities of a conflict too often bathed in warm, nostalgic light.

I have concluded long since that American patriotism is an infectious disease that has taken hold of the individual and body politic since its brutal founding. Even for those who should know better, think they get it and know better, well, July 4 is after all, July 4, the most celebrated Day of the Great American Whitewashing, bathing the celebrant indeed “in [illegitimate] warm, nostalgic light.”

For a reality check on American history, including and more than the original sins of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, please see this website’s look at Empire, of which the current United States of America is premier exemplar–to which the Gospel is Counter-Narrative, the site’s dedicated theme.

To be clear: Canada is fully caught up in that same kind of great whitewashing mythmaking–one at times sickeningly celebrated July 1–and very much a continuing part of the brutal history of European colonization.

Finally, this recent Gallup poll points to encouraging trend (read article for analysis): Record-Low 38% Extremely Proud to Be American. It’s not wrong to be proud of one’s country. But no family member is rightly proud of the Mafia . . .

excerpts:

The organizers of the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville last month knew just what they were doing when they decided to carry torches on their nocturnal march to protest the dethroning of a statue of Robert E. Lee. That brandishing of fire in the night was meant to evoke memories of terror, of past parades of hate and aggression by the Ku Klux Klan in the United States and Adolf Hitler’s Freikorps in Germany.

If there was a single company that embodied the overarching influence of the U.S. — not just in Chile but in so many other lands then known as the Third World — it was the Walt Disney Corporation.

The organizers wanted to issue a warning to those watching: that past violence, perpetrated in defense of the “blood and soil” of the white race, would once again be harnessed and deployed in Donald Trump’s America. Indeed, the very next day, that fatal August 12th, those nationalist fanatics unleashed an orgy of brutality that led to the deaths of three people and the injuring of many more.

Millions around America and the world were horrified and revolted by that parade of torches.  In my case, however, they also brought to mind deeply personal memories of other fires that had burned darkly so many decades before, far from the United States or Nazi Europe. As I watched footage of that rally, I couldn’t help remembering the bonfires that lit up my own country, Chile, in the aftermath of General Augusto Pinochet’s September 11th coup in 1973 — that

The military coup of 1973 led to savage repression against those who had dared to dream of an alternative existence: executions, torture, imprisonment, persecution, exile, and, yes, book burnings, too. Hundreds of thousands of volumes went up in flames.

The Chilean people had voted [Salvador Allende] in as their president three years earlier, launching an exceptional democratic experiment in peaceful social change. It would be an unprecedented attempt to build socialism through the ballot box, based on the promise that a revolution need not kill or silence its enemies in order to succeed. It was thrilling to be alive during the thousand days that Allende governed. In that brief period, a mobilized nation wrested control of its natural resources and telecommunication systems from multinational (primarily U.S.) corporations; large estates were redistributed to the peasants who had long farmed them in near servitude; and workers became the owners of the factories they labored in, while bank employees managed their nationalized institutions previously in the hands of rich conglomerates. 

As an entire country shook off the chains of yesteryear, intellectuals and artists were also challenged. We faced the task of finding the words for, the look of, a new reality. In that spirit, Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart and I wrote a booklet that we called Para Leer al Pato Donald (How to Read Donald Duck). It was meant to respond to a very practical need: the mass media stories Chileans had been consuming, that mentally colonized the way they lived and dreamed of their everyday circumstances, didn’t faintly match the extraordinary new situation in their country. Largely imported from the United States and available via outlets of every sort (comics, magazines, television, radio), they needed to be critiqued and the models and values they espoused, all the hidden messages of greed, domination, and prejudice they contained, exposed.

From exile, I would then witness how our country became a laboratory for the shock-therapy treatments of the Chicago boys, a group of economists mentored by Milton Friedman who were eager to apply the economic strategies of a brutal laissez-faire capitalism that would conquer England and the United States, too, in the Thatcher and Reagan eras.

If there was a single company that embodied the overarching influence of the U.S. — not just in Chile but in so many other lands then known as the Third World — it was the Walt Disney Corporation. Today, in addition to the many amusement parks that bear its name, the Disney brand conjures up a panoply of Pixar princesses, avatars of cars and planes, and tales of teen-age angst and Caribbean piracy. But in Chile, in the early 1970s, Disney’s influence was epitomized by a flood of inexpensive comic books available at every newsstand. So Armand and I decided to focus on them and in particular on the character who then seemed to us the most symbolic and popular of the denizens of the Disney universe. What better way to expose the nature of American cultural imperialism than to unmask the most innocent and wholesome of Walt Disney’s characters, to show what authoritarian tenets a duck’s smiling face could smuggle into Third World hearts and minds?

The military coup of 1973 led to savage repression against those who had dared to dream of an alternative existence: executions, torture, imprisonment, persecution, exile, and, yes, book burnings, too. Hundreds of thousands of volumes went up in flames.

Among them was our book. A few days after the neo-fascist takeover of Chile’s long-standing democracy, I was in hiding in a clandestine house when I happened to see a live TV transmission of a group of soldiers throwing books onto a pyre — and there was Para Leer al Pato Donald. I wasn’t entirely surprised by this inquisitorial blaze. The book had touched a nerve among Chilean right-wingers. Even in pre-coup times, I had barely avoided being run over by an irate motorist who shouted, “Viva el Pato Donald!” I was saved by a comrade from being beaten up by an anti-Semitic mob and the modest bungalow where my wife and I lived with our young son Rodrigo had been the object of protests.  The children of neighbors had held up placards denouncing my assault on their innocence, while their parents shattered our living-room windows with some well-placed rocks. [The enthralling film, by Costa-Gavras, was produced about the coup in 1982: Missing. It is based on the tragic true story: Missing: The Execution of Charles Horman, Hauser, Thomas: 9780671664329: Books – Amazon.ca.]

Bring to an end the erasure of, and recurring amnesia about, its past transgressions and violence (the enslavement of blacks, the extermination of natives, the massacres of striking workers, the persecution and deportation of aliens and rebels, all those imperial and military adventures, invasions, and annexations in foreign lands, and a never-ending complicity with dictatorships and autocracy globally), and the immaculate Disney worldview crumbles, opening space for quite another country to make an appearance.

From exile, I would then witness how our country became a laboratory for the shock-therapy treatments of the Chicago boys, a group of economists mentored by Milton Friedman who were eager to apply the economic strategies of a brutal laissez-faire capitalism that would conquer England and the United States, too, in the Thatcher and Reagan eras. They still, of course, reign supreme among conservatives everywhere, especially the plutocrats around Donald Trump. Indeed, many of the policies instituted and attitudes displayed in post-coup Chile would prove models for the Trump era: extreme nationalism, an absolute reverence for law and order, the savage deregulation of business and industry, callousness regarding worker safety, the opening of state lands to unfettered resource extraction and exploitation, the proliferation of charter schools, and the militarization of society. To all this must be added one more crucial trait: a raging anti-intellectualism and hatred of “elites” that, in the case of Chile in 1973, led to the burning of books like ours.

I carried into exile that image of our book in flames. We had intended to roast Disney and the Duck. Instead, like Chile itself, the book was consumed in a conflagration that seemed to know no end. That the military conspirators and their oligarchic civilian masters had been financed and aided by the American government and the CIA, that President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger had worked to destabilize and bring down the whole Allende experiment, only added a bitter scent of defeat to the suppression of our book (and so of our critique of their country and its ideology). We had been so sure that our words — and the marching workers who had stimulated them — were stronger than the empire and its acolytes.  Now, the empire had struck back and we were the ones being roasted.

And yet, though so many copies of Para Leer al Pato Donald were obliterated — the entire third edition of the book was thrown into Valparaíso Bay by Chilean navy sailors — as with the Nazis, as with the Inquisition, books are hard things to truly destroy.  Ours was, in fact, being translated and published abroad at the very moment it was being burned in Chile. As a result, Armand and I nursed the hope that even if How to Read Donald Duck could no longer circulate in the country that had given it birth, the version translated by art critic David Kunzle might, at least, penetrate the country that had birthed Walt Disney.

Post-coup Chile would prove models for the Trump era: extreme nationalism, an absolute reverence for law and order, the savage deregulation of business and industry, callousness regarding worker safety, the opening of state lands to unfettered resource extraction and exploitation, the proliferation of charter schools, and the militarization of society. To all this must be added one more crucial trait: a raging anti-intellectualism and hatred of “elites” that, in the case of Chile in 1973, led to the burning of books like ours.

The Center for Constitutional Rights took up our defense and, incredibly enough, under the leadership of Peter Weiss, beat the serried ranks of Disney barristers. On June 9th, 1976, Eleanor Suske, head of the Imports Compliance Board, wrote that “the books do not constitute piratical copies of any Walt Disney copyright recorded with Customs.” As philosopher John Shelton Lawrence pointed out in his account of the incident in Fair Use and Free Inquiry, there was, however, a catch to this “victory,” a “serious snag in the final determination of the Customs Department.” Alluding to an arcane law from the late nineteenth century as justification, it allowed only 1,500 copies of the book into the country. The rest of the shipment was prohibited, blocking many American readers from becoming acquainted with the text and turning the few copies that made it to these shores into collector’s items.

I would hardly deny that, so many years later, I find satisfaction in the continuing life of a book once consigned to the flames, no less that its “birth” in this country is taking place not so far from Disneyland or, for that matter, from the grave at Forest Lawn Cemetery where the cremated remains of Walt himself lie. (No, he was not frozen cryogenically, as urban legend has it.) No less important to me, our scorched book has snuck into the United States at the very moment when its citizens, animated by the sort of nativism and xenophobia I remember from my own Chile when General Pinochet reigned, have elected to the presidency another Donald — albeit one more akin to Uncle Scrooge McDuck than his once well-known nephew — based on his vow to “build the wall” and “make America great again.” We are clearly in a moment when a yearning to regress to the supposedly uncomplicated, spotless, and innocent America of those Disney cartoons, the sort of America that Walt once imagined as eternal, fills Trump and so many of his followers with an inchoate nostalgia.

It intrigues me that our ideas, forged in the heat and hope of the Chilean revolution, have finally arrived here just as some Americans are picking up torches like the ones that once consumed our book, while millions of others are asking themselves about the conditions that put Donald Trump in the Oval Office where he could fan the flames of hatred. I wonder whether there’s anything those who are now my fellow citizens could learn from our ancient assessment of this country’s deep ideology. Can we today read a second Donald into How to Read Donald Duck?

Certainly, many of the values we impaled in that book — greed, ultra-competitiveness, the subjection of darker races, a deep-seated suspicion and derision of foreigners (Mexicans, Arabs, Asians), all enwreathed in a credo of unattainable happiness — animate many of Trump’s enthusiasts (and not merely them). But such targets are now the obvious ones. Perhaps more crucial today is the cardinal, still largely unexamined, all-American sin at the heart of those Disney comics: a belief in an essential American innocence, in the utter exceptionality, the ethical singularity and manifest destiny of the United States.

We are clearly in a moment when a yearning to regress to the supposedly uncomplicated, spotless, and innocent America of those Disney cartoons, the sort of America that Walt once imagined as eternal, fills Trump and so many of his followers with an inchoate nostalgia.

Back then, this meant (as it still largely does today) the inability of the country Walt was exporting in such a pristine state to recognize its own history. Bring to an end the erasure of, and recurring amnesia about, its past transgressions and violence (the enslavement of blacks, the extermination of natives, the massacres of striking workers, the persecution and deportation of aliens and rebels, all those imperial and military adventures, invasions, and annexations in foreign lands, and a never-ending complicity with dictatorships and autocracy globally), and the immaculate Disney worldview crumbles, opening space for quite another country to make an appearance.

Though we chose Walt Disney and his cartoons as our foil, this deep-seated belief in American innocence was hardly his property alone.  Consider, for instance, the recent decision by the generally admirable Ken Burns, that quintessential chronicler of the depths and surfaces of Americana, to launch his new documentary on the Vietnam War, a disastrous and near-genocidal intervention in a faraway land, by insisting that it “was begun in good faith by decent people” and was a “failure,” not a “defeat.”

Perhaps [then of the] crucial values we impaled, today is the cardinal, still largely unexamined, all-American sin at the heart of those Disney comics: a belief in an essential American innocence, in the utter exceptionality, the ethical singularity and manifest destiny of the United States.

Take that as just one small indication of how difficult it will be to get rid of the deeply ingrained idea that the United States, despite its flaws, is an unquestionable force for good in the world. Only an America that continues to bathe in this mythology of innocence, of a God-given exceptionalism and virtue destined to rule the Earth, could have produced a Trump victory. Only a recognition of how malevolent and blinding that innocence is could begin to open the way to a fuller understanding of the causes of Trump’s ascendancy and his almost mesmerizing hold upon those now referred to as “his base.” My small hope: that our book, once reduced to ashes thanks to an anything-but-innocent CIA-backed coup, might in some small way participate in the renewal of America as its better angels search the mirror of history for the reasons that led to the current debacle.

What stirs me as I reread that document of ours today is its tone — the insolence, outrage, and humor that flow through every page. It’s a book that makes fun of itself even as it mocks Donald, his nephews, and his pals.  It pushes the envelope of language and, behind its language, I can still hear the chants of a pueblo on the march.  It brings back to me the imaginative enormity that every true demand for radical change insists upon.  It catches a missing feeling of our age: the belief that alternative worlds are possible, that they are within reach if we’re courageous enough, and smart enough, and daring enough to take control of our own lives. Para Leer Al Pato Donald was and still is a celebration of such imaginative joy that was its own best reward and that could never be turned into ashes in Santiago or drowned in the bay of Valparaíso or anywhere else.

Please click on: Donald Duck and Donald Trump: Twin Tyrants

 

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Footnotes
  1. You may view the as always superb worship service, and the disappointing sermon here:

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Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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