Thursday, 4 January 2018

Defending Disney - Part 1: A Sampling of Recent Accusations

Before we go onto the debunking, let's first take a look at why a debunking is needed. There's always a couple of conspiracy theories surrounding any given popular topic so a popular historical figure like Walt Disney should be no exception. However it's the sheer prevalence of the "Walt Disney was a Nazi and raging racist" claims that I feel makes adding an extra voice to the counterargument a worthwhile effort. So here's the part where I point fingers.

"He sees no more than the party wants him to.
He says nothing but what the party wants him to say,
and he does nothing but what the party wants him to do.
And so he marches on with his millions of comrades
trampling on the rights of others.

The above is a screen and quote from Education for Death (1943), in our time probably the second most famous of Disney's anti-Nazi cartoons after Der Fuehrer's Face (1943) about a boy that throughout his life is being indoctrinated by the hateful ideology of the Nazis to persecute others and eventually march to his own death in Adolf Hitler's war machine. The short was inspired by Gregory Ziemer's book of the same name, which he wrote to highlight how the youth of Germany were being indoctrinated after he escaped Germany before World War II.
I will cover Walt Disney's many contributions to helping the fight against the Nazis in a later section, but I think it's valuable to have some snippets from Walt's actual output during World War II in between Internet accusations that he was "by all accounts" a Nazi. Doing a Twitter search for "Disney Nazi" or something similar reveals at a daily basis a startling amount of people who either spread or are utterly convinced by these rumors. The question also regularly pops up on sites such as Yahoo Answers, as documented by Cartoon Brew's Amid Amidi in his post Why Kids Today Think Disney was a Jew-Hating, Hitler-Loving Racist, who says Walt Disney's supposed hatred of Jews and Blacks is "one of the most vile mistruths tossed around about the old man". However it were primarily the videos and articles that follow which gave me the impetus to actually look into the history of Walt Disney.

One article responsible for a recent flare-up in rumor-mill accusations against Walt Disney is Paste Magazine's Walt the Quasi-Nazi: The Fascist History of Disney is Still Influencing American Life by Ryan Beitler. As the title's "Quasi-Nazi" would suggest, it is filled with soft-rejections of accusations, namely the fact that Walt Disney once met with German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and the rumor by Art Babbitt that Walt was seen at a German American Bund meeting, while somehow still attempting to smear Walt with them. The author admits that there is no actual evidence for calling Walt Disney a Nazi, but then proceeds regardless of that admittance, refuses to actually look at the claims critically and still take them at face value, which seems like a transparent attempt to nevertheless instill that image into the readers' minds (effective, as Twitter's response to the article suggests). His personal accusations then follow in how Walt's anti-Nazi propaganda somehow wasn't anti-Nazi enough for the author's tastes, because the 2 cartoons he looked at didn't cover antisemitism while there was a Jewish "swindler" (really just the Big Bad Wolf disguised as a peddler) in Three Little Pigs (1933).
In the end he skips over all that and instead focuses his attention on Walt Disney's unfulfilled ideas for EPCOT (which never came to fruition during Walt's life and after his death got converted to Walt Disney World) and then judges Walt based on that. While practices at this Disney World can certainly raise some ethical questions (as one of the articles which Beitler sources does), the author instead uses it as another cheap method of throwing the words "Nazi" and "fascism" around, thus turning a more nuanced question over American corporate overreach into kneejerk outrage because your kids are watching propaganda from a fascist! In short: Quasi-Nazi accusations for clickbait.

I'm personally not particularly interested in the goings on regarding Disney World (I have never been there but I assume it is much easier to escape Disney World than it was Nazi-occupied Europe). It is however a rather famous quote that "fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power" (misattributed to Mussolini), so this article seems to have it backwards anyway to attribute Disney with introducing fascism into corporatism. I will however rip into the Nazi accusations that this article helped spread since its main points have been echoing around the sensationalist press for a while. 

A 2017 Grunge video (1,440,275 views) entitled Respected Historical Figures Who Were Actually Terrible People has a bizarre section on Walt Disney. In Neal Gabler's Disney biography The Triumph of American Imagination (2006), plenty of time is spent debunking the myths of Walt's supposed racism and antisemitism with plenty of examples to back Gabler up, followed by elaboration for why Walt is mistakenly assumed to be these horrible things. However Gabler is gracious enough to admit Walt was racially insensitive just like the rest of his generation and also lists a couple examples of insensitive words Walt has been heard using. Grunge threw away everything positive but picked those two negative examples and declared Walt racist anyway and pretended Gabler's book was some sort of exposure. Then the video states Walt had issues with women by bringing up a letter Walt Disney wrote dismissing a female applicant. Unfortunately they should have actually read the entire letter and been more careful with cropping as it is advice rather than rejection and even their own video shows the letter is signed by a woman named Mary Cleave rather than Walt Disney.

There was also a relatively recent video (25,951 views) by the YouTube channel 'FactFile' who made his video on Walt Disney in the wake of The Walt Disney Company cuttings ties with YouTube Let's Player PewDiePie. In general it presents the same basic arguments as usual however it gets the facts very wrong (such as claiming German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl traveled to Hollywood in 1938 to get a job.(1)) and plays even more loosely with rationalizations of context-less clips from old cartoons. Somehow they think the fact that Meryl Streep at the National Board of Review in 2014 gave a speech chastising Walt Disney is the final confirmation they needed that he was in fact this horrible person. As if Meryl Streep of all people is the final authority on Disney history (the fact that she quoted Ward Kimball (2), only to be debunked by Ward Kimball's official biographer should tell you something). At least they admitted Der Fuehrer's Face was anti-Nazi propaganda. Needless to say, clickbait exposures that feature distorted facts about Walt Disney seem to have become an industry on itself, and rarely is anyone outside of animation historians actually brave enough to contradict the narrative by looking at history in context.

"Let me remind you, Disney, before you get on your fucking
high horse with your white powdered wig that Walt Disney
was a notorious racist and antisemite, okay."
Speaking of the 2017 PewDiePie controversy and Felix Kjellberg subsequently being dropped from Disney's Maker Studios network, in its wake several videos of people defending him popped up, some of which also tried to turn the situation around by calling hypocrisy on The Walt Disney Company by claiming they had no leg to stand on considering Walt Disney's own supposed Nazism, racism and antisemitism. Personally I think the following are less egregious since they were off-hand comments rather than videos or articles that actively had to distort facts, but I'm including them just to show how ingrained these myths are (also I only found out they made these comments because I like or at least watch some of these people, so this is more about me pointing out how widespread these myths are rather than me doing some big J'Accuse over it). One of the biggest channels to defend Felix with (at the time of writing) well over 5 million channel subscribers and 6,042,899 views on the video in question came from comedy channel h3h3Productions, in which Ethan Klein understandably jumped into the debate to defend his friend but then dropped in the jab at Walt Disney personally anyway, proclaiming him to be an actual notorious racist and antisemite, unlike Felix. 'Notorious' only because it's a myth that just won't die, of course.

"Disney taking a stand on antisemitism? Have you heard of
Walt Disney? This fucker used Zyklon B at his baby shower."

[Link] (4:12) (3)
There was a particularly cringe-worthy quote (see the caption on the left) from a video (95,775 views) by YouTube reviewer and commentator RazorFist. His presentation style is one that combines high verbosity with hyperbole so he's obviously not making a serious specific claim of Walt Disney's usage of Zyklon B at baby showers but the misguided belief of Walt's antisemitism is definitely there (with a context-less frame from Disney's Der Fuehrer's Face for emphasis). It is also something of a recurring pattern for RazorFist to mention anything to do with Disney by implying Nazi ties, such as referring to Mickey Mouse as Mickey Mensch (dressed as a Nazi) in his Cuphead review. The irony is that both these gentlemen are defending a person falsely accused by the sensationalist rumor mill of racism and antisemitism by falsely accusing someone else of racism and antisemitism based on the same sensationalist rumor mill. 

There was also an older video (297,592 views) by HBomberguy, mostly known for comedic response videos, where in response to fellow YouTuber Jordan Owen being distraught over having a bad encounter with one of his childhood heroes and comparing it to having Walt Disney calling you an asshole, he counters "Now personally if Walt Disney, noted racist and fan of Hitler, called me an asshole, I would think of that as a compliment".

Finally I also remembered a joke by stand-up comedian Bill Burr about Walt Disney's supposed racism from one of his shows (to which I currently don't have access), after which I found this episode of the Monday Morning Podcast where he speculates on Disney's antisemitism (also a rather weird bit about Walt having stolen the concept of an amusement park, which is kind of like stealing the concept of a store. Walt didn't set out to make the first ever amusement park, he just wanted to create the best one possible).

Finally, a small sampling I took December 1, 2017

As you can see, people believe this stuff. Others should know better since they actually spent time researching Walt Disney to make their articles and videos, but for whatever reason they would rather publish the salacious rumors for clickbait. Next I will dive into the claims of Disney's supposed Nazism, particularly his supposed attendance of German American Bund meetings, his meeting with Leni Riefenstahl and the cartoon that shows Donald Duck dressed as a Nazi.


1. I have found no sources listed for the FactFile video but the claim that Leni Riefenstahl was touring Hollywood for work, along with the set of cartoons that are referenced in both, seems to show they used an April 2005 The Straight Dope article Was Walt Disney a fascist? as its source, which itself uses Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince as a source with only mild scrutiny regarding its factuality. Hollywood's Dark Prince is something of a joke among animation historians and received sharp criticism from Walt Disney's widow Lilian Bounds Disney and eldest daughter Diane Disney Miller. Ward Kimball's official historian Amid Amini of Cartoon Brew called it "Marc Eliot's notorious hack job", Didier Ghez says it's "full of mistakes, guesses, intentional lies and non-intentional ignorances" and Disney biography The Animated Man author and cartoon historian Michael Barrier referred to it as "unparalleled for sheer awfulness" and "the worst Disney biography ever" (among other colorful descriptions). While Disney historians might have an understandable bias against works that harshly criticize Walt, having tracked down the book myself I can indeed confirm it isn't a reliable source when even applying mild skepticism. It is a highly speculative piece with an unabashedly conspiratorial and negative slant based on questionable evidence at best (an entire chapter where Eliot asserts Walt Disney was actually born 11 years earlier in Spain as José Guirao is sourced as him having talked to two guys in Mojàcar and him mistaking Raymond Arnold Disney's birth certificate as Walt's. He then asserts the evidence for this was either destroyed or planted by Walt Disney Studio secret agents).
2. Ward Kimball (March 4, 1914 - July 8, 2002): One of Disney's famous Nine Old Men. Known for animating, among others, Jiminy Cricket, Bacchus, the Dumbo crows, Lucifer, Jaq, Gus, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter.
3. I apologize to RazorFist for a picture that is kind of at an unfortunate facial expression but every other one I took was either blurry or worse.

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