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If It Looks Like a Duck

A 1971 critique of Disney reverberates in 2018

In the early 1970s, the United States engineered an economic crisis in Chile to destabilize Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government. Allende had nationalized the copper industry and was steering the country toward socialism. Washington’s plan, in the words of President Nixon, was to “make the economy scream.” Loans from the Inter-American Development Bank stalled, spare parts for industrial machinery from U.S. companies did not arrive, and the CIA financed a huge strike of truck drivers. During this “invisible blockade,” some foreign commodities did continue to enter Chile: materiel for the golpistas in the army, of course, but also mass culture—TV shows, advertisements, and magazines, including the comic book adventures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

The Disney comics reportedly claimed over a million readers in a country of nearly ten million people. For the Chilean intellectual Ariel Dorfman and Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart, such cultural hegemony needed to be countered. And so they wrote How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. Its claim, delivered with rigor and irreverence, is that Mickey and Donald’s harmless fun is suffused with counter-revolutionary thought. Para Leer al Pato Donald was published in 1971 by Chile’s newly established state-run publisher Quimantú (“Sunshine of knowledge” in the language of the indigenous Mapuche people). It became a bestseller and was translated into over a dozen languages. John Berger called it a “handbook of decolonization.”

This is a Marxist analysis forged from ‘68: social relations are recognized as more than the wage-labor relationship.

Dorfman and Mattelart do not impute conspiratorial motives onto Walt Disney. How to Read Donald Duck is a work of ideological criticism: it tells you what his comics do not realize they are saying. The absence of fathers and mothers in the Disney universe—there are only uncles, aunts, nephews, and nieces—serves to naturalize forms of authority, because the nephew cannot challenge his uncle as the child can their parent. The pursuit of money determines many of Donald’s misadventures, but Dorfman and Mattelart observe that there are no working-class occupations in Duckburg, where Donald lives, so “wealth is made to appear as if society creates it by means of the spirit” rather than by the exploitation of labor. Channelling Adorno and Horkheimer on the culture industry, they argue that the problem with Disney’s fantasy world is that it falsely reconciles antagonisms between child and parent, capital and labor: “All the conflicts of the real word, the nerve centers of bourgeois society, are purified in the imagination in order to be absorbed and co-opted into the world of entertainment.”

Another contradiction papered over by Donald Duck is that between colonizer and colonized. Forty-seven percent of the comics that the authors studied depict confrontations with “noble savages” in countries like Unsteadystan and Aztecland. More sinister is what actually goes on when they arrive. Having chased away crooks disguised as Spanish conquistadors, Mickey and the gang are awarded ranks within an indigenous tribe; in return, Mickey rewards the tribe with “the freedom to sell their goods on the foreign market.” He seems to take his marching orders from post-war U.S. foreign policy, which was at the time concerned with accelerating the decline of European powers in favor of a U.S.-dominated system of free markets. Another strip features a gang of Fidel Castro-like revolutionaries who kidnap our heroes. Donald longs for the “good old navy, symbol of law and order” to save them! The analytic framework here is prescient: Donald’s benevolent treatment of his infantilized friends in the Third World is a “matter of convincing them that not all ducks (white men) are evil,” the authors argue, in a line that could have been written yesterday. This is a Marxist analysis forged from ’68: social relations are recognized as more than the wage-labor relationship: family, gender, and race swirl under the surface of things.

What How to Read Donald Duck does not see, however, is that the products of capitalist culture can contain within them the seeds of self-critique. Donald’s Uncle Scrooge, a miserly capitalist, is a vehicle for entrepreneurial values—but he is also lonely and risible. He describes himself as “rich with money but poor at having fun,” a psychological split redolent of Marx’s observation that capitalism deprives the capitalist of his humanity too. And it is hard not to see satire when Uncle Scrooge invades a country in a tank flying a dollar-sign flag. Donald, meanwhile, is a victim of labor-market forces: always getting fired from jobs, chasing a phantom paycheck to keep up with television-set repayments. “Bah! Brains, fame, and fortune aren’t everything,” he knowingly tells his nephews. But when they ask for examples of what he’s talking about, Donald is comically lost for words. Dorfman and Mattelart take this as an endorsement of the ideological-social order—a “there is no alternative” avant la lettre—but it could also be interpreted as demonstrating its poverty. Donald knows that there should be other sources of value out there, but he just can’t express what they may be. The book praises the creative virtues of children but fails to confer on them the independence of mind to read Disney against the grain.

But criticism is ultimately a matter of generosity, and there was no reason to be generous at the time. On September 11, 1973, Allende died during a coup as the CIA-backed military stormed the presidential palace and installed a military regime. A few days later, Dorfman was in hiding when he saw a live broadcast of soldiers burning degenerate books on television, Para Leer al Pato Donald among them. (The third edition was dumped into the ocean by the navy, a tactic also used to disappear the bodies of dissidents.) Parents of rich kids threw rocks at Dorfman’s family’s home and a motorist tried to run him over, shouting, “Viva el Pato Donald!” A U.S. Customs official seized a shipment of four thousand copies from the United Kingdom in 1975, considering it an act of “piratical copying.” In other words, their critique was “no academic exercise,” as Dorfman and Mattelart wrote from exile. The book was written to disclose a truth about a particular cultural product, but also to strengthen resolve, to protect Latin American people from seeing themselves as the imperialists do: through a “channel of distorted self-knowledge” that, when internalized, contributes to “weakening the international solidarity of the oppressed.” That is to say, it was designed to bolster the Third World, that political project of national self-determination that united people from Latin America to Asia and would later collapse under debt, discord, and IMF-prescribed austerity.

Criticism is ultimately a matter of generosity, and there was no reason to be generous at the time.

How to Read Donald Duck has just been published in the United States for the first time. In the updated preface, Dorfman delights that it has arrived in the metropole in time for “another Donald,” whose presidency springs from the “uncomplicated America that Disney archetypically imagined as eternal and pristine.” Dorfman wants to share the book’s “spirit of resistance” with us today. But it is not clear what role culture, and critique, should play in this senseless age. Some thought that Trump’s ascendancy and Brexit in the UK would occasion a return to countercultural traditions of the 1970s, like punk. What they forgot is that fifty years of financialization and welfare cuts mean working class people can no longer afford to waste time making art in major metropolitan centers—and the culture has stalled as a result. Meanwhile, the president parodies himself. The Walt Disney Company is still here, swallowing bloated rivals as it moves toward monopoly status. But its content is less flagrantly objectionable. Sometimes it is even worthwhile: take the opening shot of Disney-Pixar’s Wall-E (2008), which pans across a post-human landscape that is littered with eco-friendly wind turbines—a powerful statement about the insufficiency of climate change action.

The function of cultural criticism is also disputed. There is too much concern today, apparently, with the moral rightness of pop culture at the expense of its aesthetic characteristics, like form and craft. “Wokeness” is said to designate a posture as much as a politics. Whether this is true or not, what How to Read Donald Duck signals, from that lost future of the Allende years, is the strange and seductive idea that cultural criticism can be deployed in the service of political struggle. That propaganda need not be a dirty word.

Today, a tide of far-right revanchism sweeps over Latin America again. The Venezuelan military plots with the Trump administration; Wall Street lusts over Jair Bolsonaro’s plans to “cleanse” Brazil; John Bolton tilts at the windmills of “troika of tyranny” in his backyard. A lot has changed since 1973. How to Read Donald Duck reminds us of what hasn’t.