Historians Must Avoid Arrogance in Challenging Disney

By Safire, William | THE JOURNAL RECORD, May 27, 1994 | Go to article overview

Historians Must Avoid Arrogance in Challenging Disney


Safire, William, THE JOURNAL RECORD


WASHINGTON _ When word reached the nation's capital that the first major battle of the Civil War was to be fought at Bull Run, a little stream near Manassas, Va., all of social Washington packed luncheon baskets and turned out in buggies to witness it.

Hours later, they streamed back in panic. The rebels had won; the capital itself was in danger. That first battle of Bull Run, as well as Second Manassas later, sent a frisson of fear into the heart of the Union.

Fast-forward 13 decades.

A little band of well-credentialed historians, litigating greens, liberal columnists and self-protective landowners have drawn together in paternalistic protection, rendering the principle of artistic expression weak and contemptible.

Wait; sometimes iconoclasm goes too far. Artistic expression? It's a commercial Disney theme park, a magnet for hot-dog stands and exhaust-belching traffic, ripping off the public for $163 million in road-building costs just three miles from the hallowed ground where an Alabama officer shouted to his troops: "There stands Jackson like a stone wall _ rally behind the Virginians!"

Yop. If Bull Run III is to be merely a battle between history-minded preservationists and profit-minded land developers, that's fine; environmental impact will compete with the benefit of thousands of new jobs and will result in a compromise balancing property rights with zoning powers.

But if it is to be a clash of cultures, with armies of elitists drawn up in vast array against the multitudes of average families that Lyndon Johnson used to call "the pee-pul," then we have a war of taste worthy of the field near which it will be fought.

A theme park is a fantasy; no matter how frightening its plastic dinosaurs or appealing its Cinderellas, the park is an idealized world. The critics say that's OK when you're marketing Mickey Mouse, but wrong _ worse than wrong, vulgar _ when dealing with anything as sacrosanct as American history.

My colleague Russell Baker satirized the growing success of theme parks with his "theme family" living artificial lives in a theme town, all nice and fake. …

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