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Best of TomDispatch: Ariel Dorfman, A Tale of Two Donalds

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[Note for TomDispatch ReadersA little treat for you on this July 4th weekend, a 2017 TomDispatch piece from a favorite author of mine, Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, and my introduction to it of that moment. Of course, in a country where Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is attacking Walt Disney World and the Supreme Court has just loosed a flood of concealed weaponry into our already embattled land, while ensuring that there will be ever fewer abortions, you know that Donald Trump, a target for Dorfman even then, did indeed make his mark on this country. As it happens, he did so all too violently, even if he didn’t manage to steal the last election. (There’s always the next one!) How sad. Remind me, what exactly are we celebrating this July 4th? Tom]

In 1985, at age 41, I visited Disney World for the first time. I remember the experience for two things: the endless lines so cleverly organized that you never knew how long they truly were and the Hawaiian Luau dinner I attended. Yes, a genuine Hawaiian feast that reminded me of American Chinese food circa 1953 and the unforgettable “entertainment” offered by “native” Hawaiian dancers with spears who smacked their weapons on the ground and rhythmically advanced on the diners glowering fiercely. Whoever those dancers were, they were quite skilled at playing “primitives” from elsewhere, also circa 1953, objects of fear, wonder, and scorn. (Oh yes, and Disney World was the place that first taught me this country had an obesity problem — along with some of the most fattening food on the planet.)

I must admit that my grown-up’s eye view of Walt Disney’s fantasy universe left me a little shocked at the time, but I shouldn’t have been. After all, a decade or so earlier I had absorbed How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, an unforgettable exposé of the true nature of Disney-style American “innocence.” It was a document that had emerged from the democratic Chilean revolution of Salvador Allende, just one of the governing experiments of the twentieth century that the U.S. helped do in. (In fact, I still have my copy of that British-produced book from the mid-1970s, which, in its Spanish version, had quite literally been consigned to the flames and later in English was impounded by U.S. Customs. It was a work that no American publisher would put out at the time and so my well-worn copy has become a remarkably valuable collector’s item, as Dorfman points out in today’s post.)

Keep in mind that I had been a typical Disney kid of the 1950s. I read Walt’s comics and raptly watched Walt Disney’s Disneyland on our black-and-white TV. That weekly extravaganza included such gems as “Our Friend the Atom,” a paean of praise to the all-American power source that, only a decade or so earlier, had obliterated two Japanese cities. Above all, though, the show was a living ad for the wonders of — you guessed it — Disneyland, which was partially constructed with money ABC paid to air it. (“Each week, as you enter this timeless land, one of these many worlds will open to you: Frontierland, tall tales and true from the legendary past!  Tomorrowland, promise of things to come! Adventureland, the wonder world of nature’s own realm! Fantasyland, the happiest kingdom of them all!”) I can still remember yearning to visit Disneyland and see the guide on its “African” river at Adventureland shoot his pistol directly into the voracious maw of a hippopotamus. Of course, Uncle Walt’s showcase had been built in distant California at a moment when air travel wasn’t the commonplace of today and the farthest west I had ever been was Albany, New York.

Still, I do have something to thank Walt for. In the spring of 1980, in exile from his native Chile (then in the hands of its military), Ariel Dorfman walked unannounced into my office at Pantheon Books in New York City. Fortunately, thanks to Disney’s favorite duck, I already knew his work well and so was prepped to become the editor of his first two books in English. Now, another set of decades down the line, he completes the circle of our lives as he looks back by torchlight (so to speak) on his own experiences with Walt Disney and what they mean in the age of Donald Trump. Tom

How to Read Donald Trump

On Burning Books But Not Ideas

The organizers of the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville last month knew just what they were doing when they decided to carry torches on their nocturnal march to protest the dethroning of a statue of Robert E. Lee. That brandishing of fire in the night was meant to evoke memories of terror, of past parades of hate and aggression by the Ku Klux Klan in the United States and Adolf Hitler’s Freikorps in Germany.

The organizers wanted to issue a warning to those watching: that past violence, perpetrated in defense of the “blood and soil” of the white race, would once again be harnessed and deployed in Donald Trump’s America. Indeed, the very next day, that fatal August 12th, those nationalist fanatics unleashed an orgy of brutality that led to the deaths of three people and the injuring of many more.

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Andrea Mazzarino, The Right-Wing’s Attempt to Militarize American Politics

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Once upon a time, if you had told me about it, I would have thought you were joking — and I would have considered it among the worst jokes ever told. On my mind is the ad recently posted on Facebook and Twitter by the Republican Senate campaign of former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens (who resigned less than two years after taking office “amid allegations of sexually assaulting and blackmailing a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair”). In it, you see him standing on the front porch of a house, dressed normally but holding a shotgun. Around him are what look like well-armed Special Operations forces. He identifies himself as a former Navy SEAL and then his companions promptly bust down the front door, as explosions go off. Greitens walks into the house, saying, “Today, we’re going RINO hunting… Join the MAGA crew, get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”

RINO, of course, stands for “Republican in name only,” the insulting term for any Republican — think Adam Kinzinger or Liz Cheney on the House January 6th committee — who doesn’t back to the hilt former President Trump and his mad election claims.  And MAGA, in case you’ve forgotten, was The Donald’s 2016 election slogan, Make America Great Again — emphasis on that “again.” At the time, it was an American politician’s unique implicit admission that this country was on the decline, a claim that turned out to ring a distinct bell among so many voters.

And keep in mind that, in the America of 2022, Greitens is anything but alone in such a vision of armed madness personified. Consider it a sign of what TomDispatch regular Andrea Mazzarino, co-founder of the invaluable Costs of War Project, calls our “anger problem.” Let her explain. Tom

America’s Anger Problem

Dealing with Trump’s Occupation of All Too Many American Hearts and Minds

Increasingly, it seems, Americans have an anger problem. All too many of us now have the urge to use name-calling, violent social-media posts, threats, baseball bats, and guns to do what we once did with persuasion and voting. For example, during the year after Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, threats of violence or even death against lawmakers of both parties increased more than fourfold. And too often, the call to violence seems to come from the top. Recently, defendants in cases involving extremist violence have claimed that an elected leader or pundit "told" them to do it. In a country where a sitting president would lunge at his own security detail in rage, I guess this isn't so surprising anymore. Emotion rules the American political scene and so many now tend to shoot from the hip without even knowing why.

Increasing numbers of us, however, respond to the growing extremity of the moment by avoiding the latest headlines and civic engagement, fearful that some trauma will befall us, even by witnessing "the news." As a psychotherapist who works with veterans and military families, I often speak with folks who have decided to limit their news intake or have stopped following the news altogether. Repeated mass shootings in places ranging from schools to houses of worship combined with the increased visibility and influence of militias at theoretically peaceful demonstrations can be more scarring than the wounds soldiers once sustained in combat zones.

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William Astore, Up in Arms and Armor in America

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Consider this a rarity. In my introductions to TomDispatch pieces, I’ve seldom quoted myself, but in April 2021 I wrote a piece I called “Slaughter Central” and, as a lead-in to retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore’s thoughts on the mad Republican response to the recent school slaughter in Uvalde, Texas, let me offer these excerpts from it. Sadly enough, I wouldn’t change a word.

“By the time you read this piece, it will already be out of date. The reason’s simple enough. No matter what mayhem I describe, with so much all-American weaponry in this world of ours, there’s no way to keep up. Often, despite the headlines that go with mass killings here, there’s almost no way even to know.

“On this planet of ours, America is the emperor of weaponry, even if in ways we normally tend not to put together. There’s really no question about it. The all-American powers-that-be and the arms makers that go with them dream up, produce, and sell weaponry, domestically and internationally, in an unmatched fashion. You’ll undoubtedly be shocked, shocked to learn that the top five arms makers on the planet — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics — are all located in the United States.

“Put another way, we’re a killer nation, a mass-murder machine, slaughter central…

“Before we head abroad or think more about weaponry fit to destroy the planet (or at least human life on it), let’s just start right here at home. After all, we live in a country whose citizens are armed to their all-too-labile fingertips with more guns of every advanced sort than might once have been imaginable. The figures are stunning. Even before the pandemic hit and gun purchases soared to record levels — about 23 million of them (a 64% increase over 2019 sales) — American civilians were reported to possess almost 400 million firearms. That adds up to about 40% of all such weaponry in the hands of civilians globally, or more than the next 25 countries combined.

“And if that doesn’t stagger you, note that the versions of those weapons in public hands are becoming ever more militarized and powerful, ever more AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, not .22s. And keep in mind as well that, over the years, the death toll from those weapons in this country has grown staggeringly large. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently, ‘More Americans have died from guns just since 1975, including suicides, murders and accidents (more than 1.5 million), than in all the wars in United States history, dating back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.4 million).’

“…Think of all of this as a single weaponized, well-woven fabric, a single American gun culture that spans the globe… Much as mass shootings and public killings can sometimes dominate the news here, a full sense of the damage done by the weaponization of our culture seldom comes into focus. When it does, the United States looks like slaughter central.”

And with that in mind, let Astore, who also runs the Bracing Views blog, take you into the response from hell to that reality, the “hardening” of American schools. Tom

Why Going “Hard” Is Taking the Easy Way Out

Hardening Schools and Arming Teachers Is the Wrong Approach

American schools are soft, you say? I know what you mean. I taught college for 15 years, so I’ve dealt with my share of still-teenagers fresh out of high school. Many of them inspired me, but some had clearly earned high marks too easily and needed remedial help in math, English, or other subjects. School discipline had been too lax perhaps and standards too slack, because Johnny and Janey often couldn’t or wouldn’t read a book, though they sure could text, tweet, take selfies, and make videos.

Oh, wait a sec, that’s not what you meant by “soft,” is it? You meant soft as in “soft target” in the context of mass school shootings, the most recent being in Uvalde, Texas. Prominent Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz have highlighted the supposed softness of American schools, their vulnerability to shooters armed with military-style assault rifles and intent on mass murder.

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