The Nation's Pulse

The Patriotic Lessons of Disneyland

Lost in a Fantasyland of their own, progressive commentators now accuse conservatives of hating America.

By 10.20.09

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Some progressive commentators now say that conservatives hate America.  Never mind why. The people saying such things could just ask conservatives they know whether that assertion is true. Sadly, many do not ask, they just assert. They do not realize that by tossing accusations of hate about so freely, they cast themselves as Vizzini in a bad (but not inconceivable) remake of The Princess Bride. They have a different favorite word than Vizzini did, but they are equally fond of misusing it.

Those Vizzinis, they can fuss; I think they like to scream at us.

This is what I mean: To the more vocal Obama supporters, any lack of enthusiasm for policies pushed by our president signifies ignorance or stubborn malice.

Have you read news stories or blog posts with the sinking feeling that the foreign policy of this administration unsettles allies and amuses antagonists? You must have forgotten that our Secretary of State now considers her "reset" button a tool of statecraft.

When a doctor writes that the Baucus bill ("America's Healthy Future Act of 2009") and its most prominent siblings in the House of Representatives stink, do you pay attention? By progressive standards, you and the doctor are stooges for health insurance companies.

Do you believe in American exceptionalism of any kind, or think Ronald Reagan was right to describe America as "a shining city on a hill"? Touchy critics assume you have a gap-toothed smile and a well-thumbed bible.

Other offenses could be added to that list, but going on about how special our country is really seems to upset progressives, not least because people who most embrace that view tend not to be swayed by appeals to the so-called "world community." As Neal Gabler explained recently in the Boston Globe, America has a lot to be proud of, but so does every other country, "and America has no more right to assume it is the greatest nation in the world than does France, Switzerland, China, or Russia."

Mexicans come to the United States, Gabler concedes, but Turks go to Germany and Arabs go to France. Moreover, "our home ownership rate trails that of the citizens of Canada, Belgium, Spain, Norway, and even Portugal."

I don't remember Neil Armstrong planting a French flag on the moon, Portugal tipping the scales on multiple fronts in a world war, or China sending humanitarian aid around the globe whenever disaster strikes, but Gabler enjoys putting Bozo shoes on received wisdom. Last year, he claimed that the modern conservative movement owed more to Joe McCarthy than to Barry Goldwater. In true Vizzini fashion, it could be said of Gabler that probably he means no harm, though he's really very short on charm.

These days, Gabler and his liberal cohort sneer at patriotism because they think we're better than that, or because it seems to be different in degree but not in kind from primitive tribalism. In other words, either we're enlightened enough to have outgrown emotional attachments to the local sod, or Tarzan with table manners is still the lord of the jungle. That false choice makes no room for quiet patriotism; it assumes that anyone who thinks his country is best has the same grip on reality that Alice did when she charged down a rabbit hole into Wonderland.

Progressive critics deny American exceptionalism on principle, and also because they have not absorbed the lessons of classic nonfiction books like Homer Hickam's Rocket Boys, Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, and Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia. Hickam and Hillenbrand tell "underdog makes good" stories that depend on a social mobility unknown to other countries. Bowen writes about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the groundbreaking work that delegates did there. But the rocket story, the horse story, and the founding story do not matter to people who damn this country with faint praise after having accused conservatives of doing that or worse.

When a frontal attack on American exceptionalism won't do, progressives sometimes try to redefine exceptionalism (and every other civic good) as a fruit of "diversity." That effort usually downplays the need for compromise or exalts early steps in consensus-building at the expense of later steps, but people to whom the diversity pitch is made seldom question it. I wish they would spend more time at Disneyland, which still has a few things to teach people who think that multiculturalism scares conservatives.

Disneyland has sometimes been criticized for implying that if you sanitize American life, you get the happiest place on earth, but it welcomes people of all shapes, creeds, colors, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Some of what you see is hokey, but more often than not, the innocence there shames the cynicism of the company's own film division and remains a bow to what Lincoln once called the "better angels of our nature." Almost 55 years after its founding, and together with "Disney's California Adventure," the magic kingdom remains a better-than-average snapshot of American culture (singular, not plural). One small but representative example: A plaza modeled on those in Mexico lies a stone's throw from a store where you can buy imitation coonskin caps that pay homage to the Scots-Irish frontiersmen who carved Texas out of Mexico, yet descendents of people on both sides of that fight mingle peaceably. Walt Disney and his "imagineers" were saying "yes we can" long before a junior senator from Illinois appropriated that phrase to run for president.

If you book passage on the same "Jungle Cruise" that I did, your Asian-American helmsman will talk about how "zebras at Disneyland always sleep lying sideways at the feet of lions," and steer his boat toward the dock in silence after announcing "one final joke for all you psychics out there." I also met a tattooed biker who spent most of his time trading commemorative pins with cast members. Two miles down the road, a black man working the snack counter at an IMAX theater where the early-days version of Star Trek was in re-release told me he had been a Disney cast member for a year. He quit because the "cult-like devotion to Brother Walt" among some cast members was not for him, but he still recognized the power of the Disney brand.

That kind of organic diversity is far preferable to the kind of artificial diversity that progressives too often impose on the rest of us, via quotas of one kind or another.

Happily, you don't have to go to Disneyland to find diversity as it should be. Between planes on the way home, I stopped to buy a mocha from Dazbog, a Russian coffee franchise with a store in the Denver airport. In the seats outside the coffee shop, a man playing bluegrass-style mandolin jammed with a friend who was cradling not a guitar or a banjo but a ukulele in his hands. Imagine that, I thought: Lexington, Honolulu, and Leningrad are dancing with each other on the steps of the Front Range.

One friend claims that America is becoming more tolerant, sophisticated, and international. He may be right about that, although we differ sharply on whether it is honorable to fight a rear-guard action in defense of Judeo-Christian values (I say yes, while he is more inclined to think of Judeo-Christian values as problematic). Beyond that, he does not seem to know that conservatives usually have more babies than progressives do, and so he thinks that demographic trends scare people like me. Wrong. Is this a great country that Barack Obama is trying to bankrupt, or what?

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.