The Politics of Walt Disney: Truth and Myth

The Disney Corporation has as of late been playing a game of duality with the American public: woke in the United States, and accepting of anything from nations whose policies are far more racist and anti-gay than even some of the views of the most regressive people of the United States, such as China and Saudi Arabia. They cemented this further when on April 6th, Disney hired as head of global communications Kristina Schake, a Democratic Party operative and LGBT rights activist. They have also attracted the ire of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida for their embrace of the misleading “Don’t Say Gay” campaign against a bill that prohibits the teaching of gender identity to children K-3 as well as their new policy of “gender neutrality” at Disney parks, with him signing a bill into law placing Disney’s self-governing status under review, meaning that unless the Florida legislature acts to renew it, its self-governing status will expire in June 2023. A take on the recent controversies surrounding Disney I read recently asserted that Walt Disney himself would be canceled by the Disney Corporation except for the fact that the name is so iconic. Indeed, there have been accusations against Disney of bigotry, including anti-black racism and anti-Semitism. The purpose of today’s post will be to ascertain truth and myth surrounding Walter Elias Disney’s (1901-1966) politics as well as to address claims of prejudice against him from various sources, including from actress Meryl Streep and his own grandniece, Abigail Disney. Neither Streep nor Abigail Disney, however, knew Walt very well. Streep was 17 and never met Disney and Abigail was only 6 when he died. In other words, neither speaks from personal experience being around Disney, simply what they have read, and what they have read are the words or people writing based on the words of people who participated in the 1941 Disney Animators’ Strike, namely union organizer Herbert Sorrell and animator Art Babbitt.


A Look at Walt Disney

“I am not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do. Walt Disney does not smoke. I smoke. Walt Disney does not drink. I drink” (Calia). This revealing quote from Walt Disney illustrates the difference between his public wholesome image and his actual self. It is indeed irresistible to look behind the curtain at the man behind the Disney Corporation and his image. Author Marc Eliot’s 1994 critical and heavily criticized biography, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, is a prime example of such an effort to look behind the curtain.

Politics: Both a Democrat and Republican

Walt Disney’s father, Elias, would actually have appealed to many people who work in the political field of the Disney Company today as he was a socialist. He was an imposing and stern figure and would take the earnings his children made at work for “safekeeping”, the rationale being they didn’t know the value of money yet. Disney himself was influenced by his father and was a Democrat for his young adult life. However, he seems to have been the old-fashioned sort of progressive, opposing bigness in all things. Although he supported FDR for a first and second term, he would overtime become disillusioned with Roosevelt and the New Deal. By 1940, he regarded himself as a supporter of Wendell Willkie. He would never again back a Democrat for president Disney befriended and supported the campaigns of several prominent Republicans, including Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. The Disney Company made a cartoon (“I Like Ike”) to promote Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign and in 1960 he backed Nixon’s bid for the presidency. In 1964, Disney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. LBJ knew of Disney’s politics and support of Barry Goldwater, and to his chagrin he showed up wearing a Goldwater button on his jacket. That year Disney urged actor George Murphy to run for the Senate and gave him financial support. Murphy won in an otherwise difficult election for Republicans. In his last political effort, Disney backed Ronald Reagan’s successful 1966 campaign for governor.


Walt Disney died in 1966, but if he were alive today, his politics indicate that he probably would be a critic of the direction of his company, like Colonel Harland Sanders was of Kentucky Fried Chicken in his later years. The difference was Disney would disapprove of his company’s culture politics while Sanders disapproved of the quality deficiency of KFC’s product.

Claims of Anti-Semitism

Despite popular belief, the claim that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite is based on flimsy evidence. The basis for this as well as the claim of his racism stems primarily from the 1941 Animators Strike, which is the starting source for many criticisms about Disney. As his biographer Neal Gabler (2009) writes, “Disney came by those enemies honestly when his animators staged a strike in 1941 complaining of paternalism and low wages and Walt responded by hustling the supposed union ringleaders off the lot and firing other union members to quash their organizing. Even after the four-month-long strike was settled — under duress by the federal government — the wounds did not heal. Disney would feel betrayed for the rest of his life by what he saw as ungrateful employees. The aggrieved employees got their own measure of revenge by portraying Walt thereafter in the least flattering light. Most of what we hear about Disney as a racist or anti-Semite was circulated by animators who had struck in 1941”. The primary figures in this strike were labor organizer Herbert Sorrell and animator Art Babbitt, and both men would accuse Walt Disney of anti-Semitism. Babbitt alleged that Disney attended meetings of the German-American Bund, a pro-Nazi group run by the hapless Fritz Kuhn, but he was the only person to have made such a claim. He was also alleged to have fired an employee because he was Jewish despite employing numerous Jews in his company. Another piece of “evidence” cited for his anti-Semitism was Disney’s involvement with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. He was vice president of this group and it was explicitly anti-communist and anti-fascist and had a reputation for being very conservative. The organization itself was not anti-Semitic, but some of its members are believed to have been so privately. This would have made it similar to the John Birch Society, which although it officially disavows anti-Semitism, some of its members, including one of its founders (Revilo P. Oliver), was without doubt anti-Semitic. One thing I’d like to note is that anti-communism can often get tarred as anti-Semitism as there were some outspoken figures who were anti-Communist and conflated it with Judaism. The most notable example was of course the Nazis, who regarded Judaism and Communism as a tautology. The United States also had some homegrown people who also thought Judaism and Communism to be interlinked, such as retired Generals George Van Horn Moseley and Pedro del Valle. As a consequence, some Jews came to view anti-Communist politics as a smokescreen for anti-Semitic politics and anti-Semitism became a frequent charge against anti-communists, when it applied and when it didn’t. This perspective is behind the view that Disney was an anti-Semite. Walt Disney would later testify as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities his belief that communists were behind the animators strike.


Allegations of Anti-Black Racism


Walt Disney, unsurprisingly, was also accused of anti-black racism. This is due to stereotypes displayed in Disney cartoons, but this was the norm in cartooning and in other Hollywood productions of the time. In live-action films. The big one people look at, of course, is 1946’s Song of the South which has been criticized as being a film demeaning to blacks. However, according to biographer Neal Gabler (2009), “Walt anticipated these criticisms and actually went to great lengths to make the film as racially sensitive as he could. He hired a Jewish left-wing screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, to do a draft of the script because, as he told Rapf, “You’re against Uncle Tomism and you’re a radical.” Before signing Baskett, he approached the black actor, singer and leftist activist Paul Robeson to play Remus and asked him to review the script. And he sent the script to a number of black notables for comment, including the actress Hattie McDaniel; the secretary of the NAACP, Walter White; and, via his friend producer Walter Wanger, Howard University scholar Alvin Locke. Walt even did something that he had done on no previous film: He invited White to the studio to work on revisions with him. White begged off, saying he was too busy. In short, Walt did everything he could plausibly do to get input from the black community”. The worst that can be said about Disney was that he was no better than anybody else in the industry on this subject in his time, and arguably he was better. Disney may not have been quite on the mark with the film, but he sought input and tried to do right.

References

Calia, M. (2015, September 10). Walt Disney: The Imperfect Man Behind the Perfect Persona. The Wall Street Journal.

Retrieved from

https://www.wsj.com/articles/BL-SEB-90887


Erhard, E. (2022, April 6). Disney Hires Dem Political Operative to Lead Global Communications. Newsbusters.

Retrieved from

https://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/culture/elise-ehrhard/2022/04/06/disney-hires-dem-political-operative-lead-global

Gabler, N. (2009, November 22). Walt Disney — prince or toad? Los Angeles Times.

Retrieved from

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2009-nov-22-la-ca-disneyrace22-2009nov22-story.html

Queen, C. (2013, May 3). Walt Disney’s Fascinating Political Journey. PJ Media.

Retrieved from

https://pjmedia.com/culture/chris-queen/2013/05/03/walt-disneys-fascinating-political-journey-n145297

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