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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.
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 12, 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 11 coup in 1973—that “first 9/11,” which, with the active support of Washington and the CIA, had overthrown the popularly elected government of Salvador Allende.
The Chilean people had voted 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 US) 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.
If there was a single company that embodied the overarching influence of the United States—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 teenage 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?
We would soon discover what an attack on Disney would be met with—and it wasn’t smiles.
Roast Author, Not Duck
Para Leer al Pato Donald, published in Chile in 1971, quickly became a runaway bestseller. Less than two years later, however, it suffered the fate of the revolution and of the people who had sustained that revolution.
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.
Seeing your own book being burned on television was, however, another matter. I had mistakenly assumed—an assumption I still find hard to dislodge, even in Donald Trump’s America—that after the infamous Nazi bonfires of May 1933 in which tons of volumes deemed subversive and “un-German” had been consigned to the flames, such acts would be considered too reprehensible to be done in public. Instead, four decades after those Nazi pyres, the Chilean military was broadcasting their fury and bigotry in the most flagrant way imaginable. And, of course, it brought home to me in an alarming fashion a simple fact of that moment: Given the public fate of my book, the perpetrators would have no compunctions about acting with the same virulence against its author. The experience undoubtedly helped persuade me, a month later, to reluctantly accept orders from the underground Chilean resistance to leave the country to assist in the campaign against General Pinochet from abroad.
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 adviser, 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.
It soon became apparent, however, that Disney, too, was more powerful than we had anticipated. No publisher in the United States was willing to risk bringing out our book because we had reproduced—obviously without authorization—a series of images from Disney’s comics to prove our points, and Walt’s company was (and still is) notorious for defending its copyright material and characters with an armada of lawyers and threats.
Indeed, thanks to the Disney Corporation, when 4,000 copies of How to Read Donald Duck, printed in London, were imported into the United States in July 1975, the whole shipment was impounded by the Treasury Department. The US Customs Service’s Import Compliance Branch labeled the book an act of “piratical copying” and proceeded to “detain,” “seize,” and “hold [it] in custody” under the provisions of the Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. 106). The parties involved in the dispute were then invited to submit briefs regarding a final determination of the book’s fate.
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 9, 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 19th 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.
Duck, It’s Another Donald!
More than four decades have since passed, and only now, eerily enough in this Trumpian moment, is the text of How To Read Donald Duck finally being published in the land of Disney. It is part of a catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles.
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.
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.”
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.
There is, however, an aspect of How to Read Donald Duck that might offer a contribution of another sort to the quest upon which so many patriots in the United States are now embarked. 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.
It is that joy in liberation, that alegría, that spirit of resistance that I would love to share with Americans via the book Pinochet’s soldiers could not liquidate or Disney’s lawyers ban from this country. Now, it finally finds its way into the very land that invented both Donald Duck and Donald Trump. At a terrible moment, I hope it’s a modest reminder that we really don’t have to leave this world as it was when we were born. If I could, I might retitle it though. What about: How to Read Donald Trump?