Peter Bart: Will Hollywood Icons Topple Like Confederate Statues In Current Cancel Culture?

Walt Disney

Could Walt Disney be next? Really?

Let me explain: Most industry people I know were drawn to Hollywood by the prospect of creating things, not cancelling things. Now the dialogue has shifted, whether about airports (John Wayne), statues (Teddy Roosevelt) or movies (Gone With the Wind).

Could logos be next? Walt Disney was a man who did great things but whose points of view were nonetheless tainted by some unacceptable ideas (“tainted,” by today’s standards). A taint provides ammunition for those who now advocate removing John Wayne’s name from Orange County’s airport or bringing down statues of Confederate generals or even of progressive presidents like Teddy Roosevelt or Andrew Jackson. Each of them had a taint.

I understand the motivations of the cancellation club, but don’t want to join it. Statues honoring defenders of slavery (John C. Calhoun) or military bases immortalizing Confederate generals (Fort Bragg or Fort Benning) are preposterous relics of the past. Banish them; it’s hard to believe they were “honored” in the first place. But let’s take a breath: Trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt, a champion conservationist, invited Booker T. Washington to a presidential dinner at the White House to demonstrate his retreat from earlier racist positions. Andrew Jackson fought Calhoun and championed the little man over big money and became an outstanding President.

Now for the Hollywood types: I feel a personal stake in arguments about Disney and Wayne because I spent time with each of them.

John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Wayne was an idiot in responding as he did for his infamous 1971 Playboy interview, frivolously challenging ideas about racial equality. But over the years I had several political talks (and arguments) with him about everything from Vietnam to racial issues, and never detected racism or anti-Semitism. I gave him his first copy of the novel True Grit as a starring vehicle, even as I told him that he had a burr up his ass about the “red menace.” He grunted and read the book. I felt he enjoyed both the book and the arguments.

I had two long meetings with Disney; he actually escorted me on my first tour of Disneyland. He vented his ignorant theories attacking the rights of labor unions. He was also tactless when describing his desire to “increase dialogue with the Jews in the industry.” In short, he was hard-core right wing — like Wayne. But I sensed his indiscretions stemmed not from bigotry but from a lack of the discretionary “cool” required of today’s CEOs. In terms of his lexicon, he was still a bit of a hick.

In the years following his death, I spoke with people who worked with him and I could not find anyone who recalled specific comments suggesting a deep-seated anti-Semitic bias or the sort of radical nationalism represented by a Charles Lindbergh.

Orange County’s culture would not suffer were Wayne’s name removed from the airport; Bob Hope was expunged from Burbank. But Disney? It would be outrageous to advocate diminishing the Disney logo, which is a symbol of creativity and innovation. Its removal would constitute a loud announcement that the cancellation club ruled our society and that any name or book or movie could be subject to its attack.

Writing in the New York Times, Bret Stephens argues that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, while slave owners, were both great men, if “creatures of their time.” If we start expunging names, a better case could be made for renaming the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building. “An intelligent society should be able to make intelligent distinctions between those who made our union more perfect and those who made it less,” Stephens writes.

A similar distinction could be made in judging both artists and their art. It is one thing to expel Woody Allen from our archives and banish his work (Europe is exhibiting both of his new films), but does that suggest that society should systematically weigh in on the morality of every other artist? Is a company like Netflix obligated to review every old movie it shows to judge whether cops were presented in too heroic a light? Should every period picture like Gone With the Wind require an introductory panel to contextualize its content? One industry poll suggests a slim majority would answer yes.

I don’t think a focus on “cancellation” will advance either our culture or the state of our sensibilities.

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