Disney Deserves a Shot at History

Article excerpt

In the latest battle of Manassas - the great and fierce debate over whether the Walt Disney Co. should build a theme park on a patch of Northern Virginia drenched in history (and the weekend homes of affluent Washingtonians) - I have remained splendidly neutral.

On one side is a phalanx of some of my favorite historians while, on the other, are arrayed the crass forces of commerce and yahoo boosterism. It has taken William Styron to decide the matter for me. I am enlisting in Disney's legions.

Styron is a writer I deeply respect. Over the years, he has bravely taken on two of the great themes of our times - slavery, in "The Confessions of Nat Turner," and the Holocaust in "Sophie's Choice." He cites his experience both as the writer of "Nat Turner" and his Southern roots to admonish Disney: Its stated attempt to reconstruct the experience of slavery is both misguided and in very bad taste. It is to history what pornography is to love.

Writing in The New York Times, Styron quotes Disney's Robert Weis: "We want to make you feel what it was like to be a slave and what it was like to escape through the Underground Railroad." Weis, Styron writes, promised an exhibition that would be "painful, disturbing and agonizing." To this, Styron all but says nonsense. The exhibition would "mock a theme as momentous as slavery" and would "cheaply romanticize suffering." Maybe.

On the other hand, maybe not. I write this as someone humbled by Washington's Holocaust museum, which I thought would draw about as many people as the textile museum. I was wrong. Eschewing kitsch and sentimentality, the exhibition is as tough a three (or four or five) hours as you can imagine. I toured it before it opened with a group of German journalists. How interesting, I thought. I would study their reactions. As for myself, I had been to the camps - to Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau, to Treblinka and Buchenwald - and read widely in the literature of the Holocaust. I expected to keep my journalistic cool.

I did not - and neither did my German colleagues. We drew away from one another - them from me, they from each other. At one point, when I walked through the railroad car used to transport Jews to their deaths, I felt asphyxiated, as if the air had been sucked from the place. …