We live in a bizarre time in America, with competing memes duking it out. The billionaire-financed Conserva-God types are pushing a tea party America down our throats, trying to re-create a country that never existed except in their fever dreams. The Randians are living in a fantasy where they are the heros who don't save the world - they're just waiting for it to self-destruct so they can be the winning cockroaches on top of the wreckage. (Except the collapse isn't happening fast enough, so they're giving it a helping hand.)
Then you have the villagers, the hermetically sealed elites of the chattering classes. They're SO worried about standards and maintaining bipartisanshipiness because, don't you know, they're magically in touch what what ordinary Americans feel and think, and are so concerned those darn hippies will ruin everything again. And their brothers and sisters in the ruling political class are busy making sure business is happy and America is safe for bankers and corporations, although the really out of control marxist-socialists do occasionally throw a crumb to the parasite class of people who aren't corporate CEOs or think-tank intellectuals every now and then. (But to be fair, they do try to atone for it.)
Real people trying to survive amid all this, despite the concentration of wealth, downward mobility, permanent unemployment, climate change, peak oil...whatever are you talking about?
Well, once in a while reality manages to break through. Lurking in the New York Times magazine is what may be one of the more subversive articles to get into print in a long time, A Rough Guide to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan - You Blow My Mind. Hey Mickey!
It's more than fitting that a man with Jeremiah for a middle name should write something like this, if you know your Old Testament at all - except Sullivan seems to be past the stage of sounding a warning to the deliberately deaf, and is instead trying to snatch what small pleasures he can amid the maelstrom. While it's something of a cliche, it can't be denied that A) Disney World was created to be an ideal version of an America (and the world), intended to educate as well as entertain, B) show what things could be like/were inevitably going to be like, and C) make a hell of a lot of money for the Disney family and their corporate empire.
So how are things working out decades later? It's not like the U.S. lacks for utopian visions after all; setting Wall Street free to innovate, shrinking government down to where it can be drowned in a bathtub, making America a Christian nation once again, and so on. For some, these are consuming passions - with the emphasis on consume at several meanings of the word. You begin to get a hint of how things are going south - and I don't just mean Florida - when Sullivan begins his epic:
Something you learn rearing kids in this young millennium is that the word “Disney” works as a verb. As in, “Do you Disney?” Or, “Are we Disneying this year?” Technically a person could use the terms in speaking about the original Disneyland, in California, but this would be an anomalous usage. One goes to Disneyland and has a great time there, probably — I’ve never been — but one Disneys at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. There’s an implication of surrender to something enormous.
He's not going this alone, of course. It's an experience for the whole family. (And does anyone ever Disney alone? It seems like a perversion somehow.) To make it even more of an experience, an old friend is getting sucked into the vortex along with he and his. Said friend, who has Disneyed before, brings his own insight into the experience:
He talked about how challenging it would be the next day, and during the next days and nights, in the park, not being able to smoke. That wasn’t high on my list of concerns — in fact, I was foolish enough to think that the fact of Disney, that we would be spending our time in the heavily surveilled park, might banish the very notion of smoking weed, easing Trevor’s miniwithdrawals and making my life easier, too, in that I wouldn’t spend too much time stoned, only a few puffs at night like this, it would be a nonissue in terms of domestic harmony. Trevor wasn’t trying to hear that at all. He was definitely stressed. “I’m gonna lose my mind in there,” he said. “Have you ever been in there?”
I had once, when I was 11. I didn’t remember much. It bounced off.
“Well, we go every year,” Trevor said. “And every year I feel like my skull’s about to split open.”
Ever feel like the only way someone can be happy and relaxed in America these days is to be stoned out of one's mind on something? The greatest country on earth? The light to the world? I'll admit to finding Sullivan's tale a little hard to get started - but it sucked me in the more I read. If you want to think about the absurdities of what America is becoming, the microcosm of Disney World through Sullivan's eyes is like a window into a dark future where things are almost what we thought they were going to be. Almost....
Wondering what America looks like to the rest of the world? The fountain of freedom, prosperity, and democracy? Here's a sample:
When I taught for a year at a school in Lima, Peru, there was no greater hero among the students than the kid who had just returned from Orlando. They didn’t want to hear about California or New York. I had one student, called Lucho. He came back from his trip with a thick stack of photos, in one of those paper wallets. He wanted to pass them around. And kill 30 minutes of class? Ah, you twisted my arm, Lucho. Unfortunately the pictures were entirely of women’s bottoms. It wasn’t “nice” or shapely bottoms that Lucho had been after, but gigantically obese ones. They’ve never seen people who look like us, most places in the world. I confiscated the pictures and stood red-faced, flip-booking through them in front of the class. Shot after zoomed shot of enormous, complexly dimpled bottoms shrink-wrapped into the most outrageously tight and revealing spandex. Young Lucho had found enough of these to fire through an entire roll. It was hard to come down on a student who showed such thoroughness of observation. I thought about him every time I saw one of these Americans go pounding by.
Want a metaphor for corporate-government partnership and the trade-offs?
From one point of view, the state had deliberately deceived its citizens in order to help a corporation seize a massive chunk of its territory; from another, they were safeguarding a deal that would do more for Florida’s economy than anything since oranges. People still argue over how smart a deal it was. Disney World has made a lot of money, but it’s not clear whether Florida has received a fair share. A lot of this has to do with unique and highly irregular tax arrangements Disney was able to arrange (or demand, to use the term Walt’s brother Roy accidentally let slip at that first press conference). These have only increased over the years. Today there’s even a sort of “Disney visa,” negotiated between the corporation and the U.S. government, in order to make it possible for Disney to fill its foreign-accent needs at Epcot.
And what about that brave new world we're building? You know, EPCOT, where corporations were invited to come in and show how an environmentally sustainable community could be developed? A place where people could live in a working prototype of consumer innovation harnessed to make a better tomorrow? Democracy and free enterprise working together?
The reality, as Foglesong shows, is that Disney never really meant for people to live permanently at Epcot. In the Disney archives, Foglesong turned up a memo, the Helliwell memo, drafted by one of Disney’s lawyers and annotated in the margins by Walt himself, and it makes this point quite plain. Disney crossed out every mention of “permanent residents.” The denizens of Epcot would be passing through, longer-term tourists, staying for a few months at the longest. How could Disney have it otherwise? If your town has residents, then those people are citizens of some local government of the United States — yours. They can vote. They can vote against you. That hardly made sense as part of a corporate development strategy. But without municipality status, Disney wouldn’t be able to secure the legislative fief it ended up getting, with ludicrous tax advantages, unprecedented oversight of land and water usage, of building codes, etc. For that you needed inhabitants. So Disney fibbed and said he wanted them. Foglesong’s point is that these maneuvers leave Disney World in an ambiguous category of legitimacy. It receives the breaks that an autonomous political settlement would have enjoyed (and then some), but it never has had any settlers. Strictly speaking Disney World shouldn’t exist.
I'm going to stop stealing from the article here - there's much more to be found in the whole piece. If you want to think of Disney World as a metaphor for the future of America (and W.E.D. certainly did), then looking at the reality experienced by Sullivan - drugged, exhausted, stressed in what is supposed to be the biggest family-friendly experience going ought to be taken as a cautionary tale. What's the phrase? "A nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."
I hope Sullivan retains the movie rights for this article. It could easily become the screenplay for an incredibly black comedy, a satiric look at the American Dream turned into nightmare. We're well on the way there.
Think of Disney World as the American Capitalist - Free Enterprise system's counterpart to Mecca, and the ritual trekking of American families to Orlando as some kind of surreal pilgrimage. They beggar themselves, scrimping and saving for a taste of paradise, undergo trials of the flesh, and return to their miserable mundane lives poorer but infused with an idyllic vision increasingly divorced from reality. They don't have jobs, they don't have decent schools or hope for their kids future, their local government doesn't work any more, and don't even think about healthcare or retirement - but by God! At least they've been to the Promised Land.
2:25 PM PT: Update: The Mouse Strikes Back! Checking this diary, what do I find above the comments but an ad for a free Disney trip planner DVD!?!! Surreal...
6:24 PM PT: Update again: The comments on the Sullivan article over at the NY Times are worth a look. He seems to have made an impact.