Thoughts on Walt Disney and Parenthood

If Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination were about anyone else, it probably wouldn't have been as fascinating a read as it was. (If it were about anyone else, it would also have a pretty misleading title.) But Disney is such a compelling person, his story so unlikely and extraordinary and American that every little morsel of information about him somehow becomes hyper-interesting. In the end, of course, one feels like the reporter trying to figure out Charles Foster Kane: it's impossible, and the more you learn about Disney, the more enigmatic he becomes. On that point, I greatly admire his serious biographers for the sheer will that must be necessary to peel back the steel layers of "Uncle Walt" forged by the Walt Disney Company, and tease out a fallible human being inside. That can't be easy, and it can't be fun. (On that point, an aside: Of late, Apple seems eager to borrow the Disney mold, and shamelessly rewrite Steve Jobs into a kind of sagacious, enlightened Uncle Steve. The most visible, laughable example I can think of involves the covers of Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography: Before and after. Meanwhile, poor Isaacson has been pilloried for what is very likely an accurate depiction of Jobs—one that's consistent with every other pre-cancer biography out there. Jobs was a horrible man who happened also to be a visionary. He could be monstrous to those under his employ, and was profoundly selfish with his personal fortune. He wasn't Yoda, and he sure as hell wasn't Walt Disney, who was a genuinely good person. That doesn't mean Jobs wasn't a great businessman or genius, but let's not pretend he was anything other than what he was: a powerful, miserly asshole.)

I think a lot about Walt Disney and how he might fare today. Lately, I think about what his childhood would be like in 2016. Disney wasn't a great student, and dropped out of high school in order to join the Navy during World War I. (The Navy turned him away because he was 16, and so he lied about his age and managed to get into the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. He would eventually drive ambulances in France.) Today, I suspect that Disney would have been given a prescription for Concerta at a young age, and would have gone on to earn an MFA in studio art. I doubt he would have forged his birthday to go to Afghanistan. He would have listened to his father, and I believe he would have gone on to be the best foreman at the O-Zell jelly factory.

It raises the question of how important were the wrinkles in Walt Disney's character. Had Elias succeeded in ironing them out, would Walt have conformed thoroughly? Or beneath the surface of any young person, is there something more durable than that, and consequently, is it a parent's job simply to get out of the way? (This makes psychoactive drugs an even more terrifying enterprise: if I make some catastrophic parenting decision, I might create a problem but I won't likely rewrite my child's makeup. But medicine acts at a chemical level—it is changing someone's brain, and by design. So which are the defects and which are the blessings in disguise? Choose wisely and good luck!)

Elias wasn't exactly Ward Cleaver, and he certainly wasn't trying to create Walt Disney the Entertainment Colossus. So is it all dumb luck, genes, and disposition? As a parent, I wonder which is the more unsettling prospect: that I'm invaluable, or that I'm irrelevant? Am I one bad decision away from quashing the next Walt Disney, or was the die cast at childbirth? Alternatively, is it going to come down to how the wheels align, and either they do or they don't?

After 100,000 years, how has our species not yet determined the proper and foolproof rearing of children? How have we not at least answered the big questions? (E.g.: If you do this your child will become a drug addict.) Parenting on some level is an almost laughable endeavor—"After 100,000 years, I've figured it out." As a father, I operate under the assumption that I should give my daughter enough guidance for her to find her own path, and that I should help correct her worse impulses, but not all of them, because some friction with society is essential if she's going to move ahead. A strong work ethic is imperative, and instilling that ethic is fraught with peril.

Here I would consider such childhood hardships as Walt Disney was forced by his father to endure: the newspaper route, most notably and notoriously, foisted upon an 8-year-old in the sub-zero Missouri winter. It haunted Disney through adulthood—but you can't argue with the results. I couldn't intentionally traumatize my child even knowing it would lead her to greatness. Is that a moral failure? Sacrificing immortality, essentially, for her joy today? Again, this is something to which I'll never know the answer, which is a small comfort. I'll labor under the assumption that I am right, though, which has taken me this far in all other pursuits. Ultimately, the variables of personality are just so wild and plentiful that to even consider them is to stare into the abyss.

Tomorrowland and Atlas Shrugged

Tomorrowland is a beautiful, enjoyable film—they had me at Space Mountain—but it suffers from what seems like a straightforward problem of logic. The purpose of Tomorrowland (the city) is to act as a kind of sanctuary in a parallel-universe, where geniuses can to do their work unhindered by god, government, or society. The city they build is astonishing and wonderful and is flush with robots, androids, jet packs, and flying machines. Trouble starts when George Clooney's character, Frank, builds a device to see the future of Earth (i.e. the "real world"). The people of Tomorrowland discover that doomsday is in our future, and efforts are immediately abandoned to recruit new "dreamers" to join their city. Tomorrowland eventually falls into disrepair. (N.b.: This is never precisely explained. I realize that the city itself was never completed—that the future seen by Casey, the protagonist, is an advertisement for a city under construction—but this doesn't explain the massive, very fully realized Tomorrowland that Frank does see. How was it built? Robots? Then why didn't the robots continue to maintain the city even after the recruitment drive stopped? What happened to the people already there? They are still there, after all, because Nix (Hugh Laurie's character) specifically says that even after Earth's apocalypse, Tomorrowland's residents will be just fine.)

After the hazy abandonment/decay of Tomorrowland, Nix sticks around and begins broadcasting a warning to the people of Earth: you're doomed unless you change your ways. It's important to note that Nix really does seem to want to save Earth. He's baffled by our stupidity in the face of Armageddon, and dismayed that even when warned, we change nothing. We march resolutely toward 100%-certain doom. (The remainder of the film's plot involves scrappy dreamers trying to stave off the apocalypse and restore Tomorrowland. You won't be surprised to learn that they succeed.)

So here are a couple of questions: Taking Nix at his word that the people of Tomorrowland genuinely want to save the Earth, why don't they go back and bring some of that magical technology with them? I understand why he would fight to keep the normies out of his paradise, but why not bring paradise to the normies? Those flying, city-building robots might be pretty useful in staving off the end of the world. Meanwhile, if Nix and the Tomorrowland gang don't want to save the Earth, why do they keep broadcasting the (apparently sincere) warning?

One way to look at the film is as a parallel to Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Casey, the central character, is Dagney. Athena plays the "Destroyer" role of John Galt. Nix is Galt. The city is Galt's Gulch. The warning broadcast, which is central to the film's plot, is Galt's radio address. But Galt's radio address isn't a warning; it's not intended to save society. Rather, it's an explanation for his actions, and a call for others to join him in allowing society to fail. Meanwhile, Galt's Gulch had three purposes: to build a new society founded on productive ability; to hide the men and women of productive ability from the rest of the world (thus denying their productivity to the rest of the world); to establish a beachhead from which a new civilization might rise. Galt wasn't dealing in half-measures. He aimed to destroy the existing order. He wanted to "stop the motor of the world," and he succeeded. (Atlas Shrugged is the only novel I can think of where the protagonists actively work to bring about the end of the world.)

But with respect to Tomorrowland, we're left with two problems: 1. In recruiting the world's inventors and geniuses to join him, Nix, like Galt, is implicitly starving the world of the very people who would be best-equipped to save it. But that is not his goal. 2. Knowing that the world is doomed (and giving up any hope of saving it), rather than attempt to find as many "dreamers" as possible to populate Tomorrowland, Nix sets Tomorrowland on a course of total isolation. It doesn't take Nate Silver to see that this is demographic suicide. Ah, you might say. There's the moral! That we're all like moths to flames, genius and non-genius alike. But that also directly undermines the whole premise of the story: that we can change things by dreaming. It suggests instead that oblivion is coming regardless of who you are or how much you studied in school.

One might wonder, then, whether it's not genius versus non-genius, but dreamer versus cynic. That's arguable (it's certainly suggested) but if dreamers are the key ingredient to change the future, why the hell was Tomorrowland built in the first place? If dreamers really could change the real world for the better, they never would have felt it necessary to withdraw. The wonder that is the city of Tomorrowland, in fact, is proof that dreamers cannot change the future. Here in the real world, the best dreamers can do is build new cell phones on which to smear around our facial grease. But in Tomorrowland, freedom, isolation, and a couple of decades result in geniuses and dreamers building hovering swimming pools, laser blasers, and transdimensional teleportation devices. From the start, Tomorrowland was an extremely cynical venture, but he results don't lie: it was also an axiomatically correct one.

Finally, it might be suggested that perhaps Tomorrowland intends to somehow refute Atlas Shrugged. That were John Galt really to build his remote Objectivist paradise, he would eventually turn into Nix. I would argue otherwise simply because Galt had a plan and the clarity of purpose to see it through to the end. If Nix's actual motive was to destroy humanity, to what end was he working? Eventual conquest? This is never suggested in the film. Rather, it's pretty clear that he wants out completely, and is as worried and uncertain about what comes next as anyone else. So again I ask: why wasn't he hustling to recruit Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and any number of real world geniuses before the mushroom clouds starting sprouting? In short, maybe the film is meant to be an affirmation of Atlas Shrugged. What does failure look like? Nix's half-hearted effort. To see how to make it work, see John Galt.

An aside:

Very broadly, and perhaps if told over a much longer timescale, Tomorrowlandcould also be a retelling of Foundation by Isaac Asimov. The "time window" is Hari Seldon's psychohistorical analyses; the Earth is Trantor; and Tomorrowland is Terminus. But this also implies a plan for the aftermath of Earth's apocalypse, which Hugh Laurie seems not to have.

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