The Talking Dog

December 26, 2010, Back to the future (or "meta-myths")

With his piece "Who killed the Disneyland dream?" the Grey Lady's Frank Rich reminds me of questions I've been wanting to ask for years about him... (1) what is it that first qualified him to be a theater critic in the first place? (and that's easy: he went to Harrrrvard), and (2) what qualifies the theater critic to be a general op-ed columnist for our so-called paper of record? (and that's easy too... he went to Harrrrvard). You see how easy this all is? Too easy... which is my point.

Anyway, the present column opens by noting three notable deaths this year: former JFK speech writer Ted Sorenson, diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and the wonderfully named Robbins Barstow, who died at age 91, and whose notable achievement (according to Mr. Rich) was the making of an amateur film in 1956 of a family trip from Connecticut to the then one-year-old Disneyland in Anaheim, California [a trip acquired, btw, because Barstow's then four year old son won a contest sponsored by the 3-M Corporation for a Scotch Tape slogan] of such note that it is in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Rich is within his area of expertise to note the film's brilliance as a period piece... he is, of course, out of his depth (as are most of our media's "experts" on just about anything) when we leave the realm of the superficial. Hence, Rich writes:

Many of America’s more sweeping changes since 1956 are for the better. You can’t spot a nonwhite face among the family’s neighbors back home or at Disneyland. Indeed, according to Neal Gabler’s epic biography of Disney, civil rights activists were still pressuring the park to hire black employees as late as 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” started upending the Wonder Bread homogeneity that suffuses the America of “Disneyland Dream.”

But, for all those inequities, economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class. (Michael Harrington’s exposé of American poverty, “The Other America,” would not rock this complacency until 1962.) The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates “Disneyland Dream” from start to finish.


The Barstows accept as a birthright an egalitarian American capitalism where everyone has a crack at “upper class” luxury if they strive for it (or are clever enough to win it). It’s an America where great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then. The Barstows are delighted to discover that the restrooms in Fantasyland are marked “Prince” and “Princess.” In America, anyone can be royalty, even in the john.


This month our own neo-Kennedy president — handed the torch by J.F.K.’s last brother and soon to face the first Congress without a Kennedy since 1947 — identified a new “Sputnik moment” for America. This time the jolt was provided by the mediocre performance of American high school students, who underperformed not just the Chinese but dozens of other countries in standardized tests of science, math and reading. In his speech on the subject, President Obama called for more spending on research and infrastructure, more educational reform and more clean energy technology. (All while reducing the deficit, mind you.) Worthy goals, but if you watch “Disneyland Dream,” you realize something more fundamental is missing from America now: the bedrock faith in the American way that J.F.K. could tap into during his era’s Sputnik moment.

How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.


In last week’s exultant preholiday press conference, Obama called for a “thriving, booming middle class, where everybody’s got a shot at the American dream.” But it will take much more than rhetorical Scotch tape to bring that back. The Barstows of 1956 could not have fathomed the outrageous gap between this country’s upper class and the rest of us. America can’t move forward until we once again believe, as they did, that everyone can enter Frontierland if they try hard enough, and that no one will be denied a dream because a private party has rented out Tomorrowland.

Oh boy.

We'll start with the most obvious things driving the world in 1956. At that time, most Americans lived in either unabashedly rural areas (and probably on farms), or more likely, they lived in cities-- large, industrial cities, and usually in the Northeast or Midwest. "The suburb" that seems to be the unspoken backdrop of the piece by selecting as its focal point a family from Connecticut, which now dominates the American ethos, was then in its proto-state, or infancy; suburban Rockland County, New York, the situs of my own upbringing, was still the realm of sleepy farms, as the Tappan Zee Bridge would not open until 1959, and the dramatic suburban development that followed it was still years away. [In other words... Rich's interprepretation of suburban bliss as a kind of default state, because of course, it was what was depicted on television, largely did not yet exist by 1956, at least, though one could certainly see it coming.]

And of course... there was still something fresh on people's minds called World War II (which Robbins Barstow's birth in 1919 or 1920 would have dumped him in prime position to serve in) or the Cold War [except for its most superficial comic book aspects Sputnik] and its components such as the Korean War, which seems to be missing from Rich's consciousness... but presumably not from the consciousness of those visiting Disneyland in 1956... the same year that the Soviets invaded Hungary.

Oh... one more thing not mentioned by Mr. Rich: Robbins Barstow's formative years would have been during the Great Depression, which would have been the overarching reason the family preferred picnic meals to over-priced commercial fare. Rich's post hac observation, "The Barstows accept as a birthright an egalitarian American capitalism where everyone has a crack at “upper class” luxury if they strive for it (or are clever enough to win it)" would doubtless have surprised the Barstows at the time, who would doubtless have appreciated the economic vibrancy of the post-war era, but who would have understood-- apparently far more than our public intellectuals of the present-- the fragile nature of its rewards, because of circumstances of the times, rather than because of supposed "birthrights." Indeed, it has only been since the 1970's-- when the last liberals [Ford and Nixon] to occupy the White House tried to use government to help the little guy-- that the myth of American exceptionalism and entitlement to a bourgeois lifestyle-- have really taken hold. Precisely, as Rich correctly observes, when broad trends toward egalitarianism reversed toward the income and wealth disparities we face today (the kind that would make Argentina gag).

In other words: the good old days-- the "Leave it to Beaver" supposed optimism of the 1950's, a time when Rich correctly notes that a Disneyland was homogenously White, as race and gender issues were in a less enlightened state than they are now... wasn't quite as stable as Rich pretends. "Ozzie and Harriet-world" had a number of underlying draw-backs... race/gender issues, which plague us in some form to this day notwithstanding our prep-school educated Black President (who also went to Harrrrvard... another story we'll talk about in a minute),.. the 50's dark-side included McCarthyism (substitute "Muslim" for "Communist"... lather, rinse, repeat) and the unspoken threat of instantaneous nuclear annihilation looming over everything... Oh... the purported "economic security" that Rich fantasizes about being provided by big corporations was understood to be meaningful only because of governmental backstops such as New Deal measures unemployment and bank depositary insurance, social security and government regulation of market excesses. In '56, every American would have told you that capitalism FAILED in the 1930's. Repeat after me: CAPITALISM FAILED. And only government-- BIG, HUGE GOVERNMENT-- of the kind wielded by FDR and the New Deal-- is the ONLY THING that saved it. A universal lesson seemingly lost to us these days.

To paraphrase both Santayana and Mr. Kotter... those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it... or something. But you have to learn the correct lessons from your history in the first place, and try to understand things from the context of the time at issue. Even purported progressives like Frank Rich seem to buy into the notion that there was ever blind faith in capitalism in our recent past. Bollocks, says I (whose own parents were, much like himself, at various times, entrepreneurs and employees of the welfare state). The blind faith in capitalism is extraordinarily recent-- when St. Ronald Reagan, a man much like Rich himself, whose own reality was based upon the unreality of movies and theater, took over the national consciousness, defeating the dower peanut farmer who insisted that we had to eat our vegetables... and we never really looked back.

Until, arguably the present, when the Great Recession and the financial meltdown and the double-digit unemployment and all, one would think, would finally kick-start some sense into some people... maybe hey, this capitalism thing (and those mighty corporations)... just ain't delivering. And so, Rich hearkens to the lone conservative President the nation suffered between 1933 and 1977 (that would be JFK) for his fast-forward to the present, noting that our current President "called for more spending on research and infrastructure, more educational reform and more clean energy technology. (All while reducing the deficit, mind you.)"

All of which is good as far as it goes, except, of course, "educational reform" means "reform" for the non-elites (note that President Obama himself nd his own childdren have been educated at exclusive private schools)... you know... us fools who are, by choice [or usually by necessity], relegated to sending our children to the public schools... [which are an after-thought to the Clintons and Bushes and Obamas of the world, who have no stake in them ] And infrastructure and "clean energy technology," which could be accomplished much more expeditiously and cost-effectively by government programs such as a new Works Progress Administration. You see, my college classmate the President, and "progressives" (at least of the public intellectual variety, such as Frank Rich), are still operating from assumptions-- the premise that obvious falsities of the present, such as that "great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then," were accepted as Gospel truths even in the day. Because they weren't.

"Optimism" among White middle class people in the 1950's was certainly going to be their public face. The reality was much more complex and dare I say "nuanced" than anyone cares to admit. The fact that the "amusement park" of the 1950's hearkened back to its own highly fictionalized version of good old days... the turn of the 20th century of Walt Disney's own [imagined!] youth... should make us take these trips down memory lane with full consciousness. In fact... we should try to live our whole lives in full consciousness... the efforts of the Walt Disneys of the world to bamboozle us with fantasy-spectacle and unreality notwithstanding. Cause "the good old days" never really were... And if we mistake the lessons they actually have to teach us... we'll be even that much more worse off.

Just saying.


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