Of Imperialists, Bigots and Cartoon Waterfowl

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America, by David Cay Johnston.)

When How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic was first published in Chile in 1971, the book’s authors, Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, were leftist academics committed to supporting Salvador Allende’s project of advancing democratic socialism in Chile. After Allende won a free and fair election to Chile’s presidency, the country’s military and other right-wing elements stepped up their assault on the new government with key backing from the Unites States. The Nixon administration exulted when Allende’s Popular Unity government was overthrown in a military coup on September 11, 1973.

While in hiding from the military, Dorfman watched on television as copies of How to Read Donald Duck were burned in bonfires along with hundreds of other allegedly subversive volumes. The Chilean Navy dumped the entire third printing into the ocean. The book had been a target of the Chilean right-wing since its release: Dorfman had been attacked by an anti-Semitic mob, and a deranged motorist shouted “Viva el Pato Donald!” while trying to run him down.

Unlike many of their comrades, Dorfman and Mattelart (a Belgian sociologist who had been living in Chile) made it out of General Augusto Pinochet’s Chile alive, and Dorfman eventually settled in the States, becoming an American citizen in 2004.

How to Read Donald Duck didn’t fare so well stateside, either. An entire consignment of 4,000 copies was seized by U.S. customs agents acting at the behest of lawyers for the Walt Disney Company. And no U.S. publisher would touch the book, given the Disney empire’s notoriously litigious ways. But away from the grip of Disney, the book sold more than a million copies worldwide and was translated into 17 languages.

Now, the feisty New York-based imprint OR Books has released How to Read Donald Duck in America. The book is a bit of a time capsule, written as it was when Third World leftist hopes were high for movements and governments that could throw off the yoke of U.S. cultural and political hegemony. In a 2008 interview, Arnold Mattelart explained that the book’s title refers to Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s Reading Capital (1965), and said that How to Read Donald Duck can be read as an extension of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957).

Dorman and Mattelart examined 100 Disney comics featuring Donald and his fine-feathered family, from which they display panels throughout the book (Donald has nephews and an uncle, but no parents, which in the view of the authors enhances the sexlessness of the comics). Dorfman later commented, “We had intended to roast Disney and the Duck.”

Dorfman and Mattelart did a good job of following through on that intention. They argue that “The world of Disney is a nineteenth century orphanage … The mere fact of being older or richer or more beautiful in this world confers authority. The less fortunate regard their subjection as natural. They spend all day complaining about the slavemaster, but they would rather obey his craziest order than challenge him.” Women play the roles of “humble servant or constantly courted beauty queen; in either case, constantly subservient to the male.” The exceptions to those prescribed female roles are the occasional witches.

How to Read Donald Duck still has useful things to say about life in the United States. In 2017, Dorfman wrote:

Certainly, many of the values we impaled in that book – greed, ultra-competitiveness, the subjection of the darker races, a deep-seated suspicion of foreigners (Mexicans, Arabs, Asians), all enwreathed in a credo of unattainable happiness – animate Trump’s enthusiasts (and not merely them). But such targets are now the obvious ones. Perhaps more crucial today is the cardinal, still largely unexamined, all-American sin at the heart of those Disney comics: a belief in an essential American innocence, in the utter exceptionality, the ethical singularity and manifest destiny of the United States.

For further blistering critiques of U.S. imperialism, readers would do well to check out Dorfman’s essay collection, Homeland Security Ate My Speech: Messages from the End of the World (2017), also published by OR Books. The prose in this second work tends to be more elegant than the occasionally strident writing in How to Read Donald Duck. But the essays are never pedestrian. They have a grace and elegance that remind the reader why Dorfman is such a respected literary figure. The overarching theme that runs through the book is the question of how to survive the Trump era with one’s fighting spirit intact. Some of the pieces, which originally appeared in The Atlantic, Guernica, The New York Times Book Review, and various other publications, were written before 2016, but most of that earlier work was updated to take in the realities of our new presidential regime.

Dorfman begins Homeland Security Ate My Speech by explaining that “The thoughts I have gathered here … were written, day by day, and during long nights of insomnia, against hopelessness and despair, with the burning conviction that understanding the world is imperative if we are to change it, if we are ever to reach the sweetness of a common dawn that Wordsworth envisioned for humanity.” His essays are packed with literary references, but Dorfman never comes off as a name-dropper: his lessons from world literature are dead-on and packed with resonance.

Among the writers he brings to life, Dorfman argues that William Faulkner “would have been appalled, but not in the least surprised, by the rise of Donald Trump or the deranged danger he represents,” and that Faulkner’s character Flem Snopes is “a minor Southern incarnation of Trump.” Dorfman notes a speech the Mississippi writer gave during his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony in which Faulkner exhorted the assembled students to “never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed.” Clearly advice as relevant today is was in the mid-20th century.

Dorfman’s breadth of literary knowledge allows him to tease out lessons for today from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, among others.

Dorfman also calls upon the voices of past politicians, as in the hysterically funny “Words of Encouragement for Donald J. Trump from James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States,” in which Buchanan beseeches Trump to continue doing what he is doing in order to “rescue me from my status as the worst president in the annals of the United States.” Another piece, this one offering advice to the Orange One from the 16th-century Spanish monarch Philip II, is equally caustic, as Philip takes heart in Trump’s demonization of Muslims and dissidents, and revels in the U.S. president’s retrograde sexual politics.

The travails of living underground during the early weeks of Pinochet’s dictatorship, which Dorfman relates, offer useful insights into perseverance under tyranny. While holed up with hundreds of other bedraggled souls in the Argentine Embassy in Santiago, the author launched a book discussion group on Don Quixote. Dorfman writes of the great Spanish author’s vision, “[Cervantes] is telling us that our besieged, besotted, captive humanity should not lose hope that we can awaken in time.” Descriptions of subsequent years as an exiled spokesperson for the Chilean Resistance provide equally inspiring insights into what it can take to maintain struggles for social justice against daunting odds. It’s also fascinating to follow Dorfman’s evolution from a 20-year-old radical taking time off from his university studies to fight police in the streets and help organize shanty-town dwellers to an equally radical, though sometimes world-weary, older man of letters who embraces Martin Luther King Jr.’s model of militant nonviolence.

There is much else in Homeland Security Ate My Speech that I could touch on, including the title essay’s brilliant riffing on Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov. But suffice it to say that the only note in the entire collection that rings false comes from the following sentence about The Confidence Man: “Of course, Melville’s time was not the age of Twitter and Instagram and short attention spans, so his ever-fluctuating rascal engages in endless metaphysical discussions about mankind, quoting Plato, Tacitus, and St. Augustine, along with many a book that Trump has probably never heard of.” Probably, Mr. Dorfman? Surely your obsessive, brilliant dissections of our Prevaricator-in-Chief leave no need to qualify a statement about Trump’s unfamiliarity with deceased authors who never wrote a word about him.

That mild caveat aside, Dorfman’s wide-ranging intellect and playful, erudite approach to the art of the skewer make Homeland Security Ate My Homework an immensely satisfying, many-faceted read that builds on and complements How to Read Donald Duck. My advice is to track down Homeland Security Ate My Homework, read it, then force your friends and family to do the same. ◊

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