December 15, 1966. On the "CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite," commentator Eric Sevareid made these eloquent observations about Walt Disney just hours after the world learned that Walt had died:
"He was a happy accident, one of the happiest this century has experienced. And judging by the way it’s behaving, in spite of all Disney tried to tell it about laughter, love, children, puppies, and sunrises, the century hardly deserved him."
The discussion that's been taking place in the comments section of "What's It All About, EPCOT," has both fascinated and unnerved me. Have we truly grown so cynical that Sevareid's words are more accurate and prophetic today than 40 years ago?
By all accounts, it would appear so. "Humor" today is defined by irony and sarcasm -- particulary if the object of scorn is someone in a social class or political party other than your own. The idea of simply telling a joke is outmoded; today, wry observance is what we think is funny, because it allows us to be superior to others.
Belief in anything considered childlike or simple is ridiculed. A fairy tale, as we witnessed with Shrek and Shrek 2, isn't enough; the story has to mock the idea of believing in a fairy tale and show how anachronistic and backward that idea is.
We deconstruct ideas, entertainment, people (especially celebrities and politicians) and belief systems so that we may mock them. And when we do strip them down to nothing, we find that mockery on its own does not sustain us; as a nation and, increasingly, as a species, we are unsatisfied and unhappy to learn that anyone else might by satisfied and happy using the same tools we have. (Therefore, for instance, we shout out "That's so fake" on a ride because we are fearful others might actually be enjoying the illusion.)
We find ourselves angry that our lives -- individually and collectively -- are not as happy as we imagined and believed they would be, so we make fun of the lives, likes and moral systems of others so we can feel better about ourselves. And, of course, we don't.
Cynicism has reached epidemic proportions. More distressingly (as the human condition has rarely been one of happiness or contentment), we have destroyed what few outlets we had to combat that cynicism. (I will not address issues of religion here; feel free to determine on your own whether cynicism has invaded that aspect of your life.)
In past decades and centuries, humans often turned to artistic outlets both to express their frustration, grief and sorrow and, more importantly, to celebrate and gain happiness from expressions of positive feelings -- of joy, of discovery, of friendship, of beauty, of scale and scope, of awareness and idealization.
It can be no accident that Walt Disney's unique brand of entertainment achieved its highest level of popularity -- turned the man himself into a celebrity of such a caliber he often marveled at it -- during two calamitous times in U.S. history: World War II and the start of the Cold War. When, as Sevareid said, the nation (and world) was grappling with how to accept the reality of "intercontinental missiles, poisoned air, defoliated forests, and scraps from the moon," Disney reminded his audiences that there was another side to life, one filled with that "laughter, love, children, puppies and sunrises."
In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, people saw these things as a relief. They believed what Uncle Walt told them: that there was nothing at all wrong with finding solace in simple joys. He said we would use these potentially horrifying threats only for good, that man, at his core, believed in himself and in fulfilling his own potential. He said that life, for lack of a better term, was good.
After Walt Disney died, of course, the world experienced chaos -- but this is no history lesson, and, more importantly, the chaos of that day was little different than the chaos of today ... or the chaos we have ever faced.
What's different? I don't know -- well, I have theories, but they are not worth going into here. They boil down, however, to this: No one has offered anything as pure, as simple, as honest as Walt Disney did. No one has expressed such an individual voice.
For years, The Walt Disney Company recognized that it had an incredibly unique place in entertainment as the only organization built on such a strong foundation. Although "What would Walt do?" became an overused question no one could answer, it was important that the question was asked. There was a genuine commitment -- even when the company began trying to branch out into different kinds of entertainment in 1983 -- to quality and to the integrity of its guiding philosophies. If they couldn't re-create the "magic," they at least tried.
No one's trying anymore.
EPCOT Center, for whatever faults it may have had, possessed enormous strength of conviction. It imparted a message of hope and idealism, and wasn't ashamed to say that idealism, gosh darn it, wasn't a bad thing. We could all strive to be better. Did some laugh? Of course. Did many millions come away believing the message? You'd better believe it. Like Sevareid said of Walt himself, EPCOT Center was "a happy accident," borne from a desire to see at least a semblance of Walt's last, greatest dream brought to life. Bastardized as it may have been, it could be said convincingly that at least some of what Walt wanted was there. At least some of Walt's amazing vision for our future was in it.
There's very litle of Walt left in today's Disney. It is not goverened by any philosophy or conviction but by the desire, simply and relentlessly, to make money. It is not above cashing in on the diminishing goodwill created by Walt Disney, goodwill that survived for nearly four decades -- even if it bankrupts itself of that goodwill in relatively short order.
If today's Disney and its employees and managers come across as cynical, it is because the concepts and "creativity" they present are not backed by ideas, emotion and thought, but by manufactured marketing strategies that increasingly make very little pretense that the Disney mission is to part us from our money and make a small number of people very wealthy.
How can we help but respond to that with a cynical eye?
When many of us initially regarded John Lasseter, we did so happily because we imagined he would approach his role with the zeal, gusto and heart that no one has since Walt himself. As we hear of him approving Pixar-based rides and (apparently) endorsing the idea of turning Tom Sawyer's Island into a Depp-influenced pirate's cove, hearts sink because one person who could turn the tide of cynicism is failing to even acknolwedge that the cynicism is there.
A kid who says those pirates on their Caribbean journey look fake is doing it because he has never received approval from the outside -- from parents, teachers, friends or, worse, himself -- to believe, to imagine, to pretend. In Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie Walt Disney helped develop before he died, a wistful song refers to "The Age of Not Believing." It seems we've entered that age, and we're worse off for it.
Walt Disney gave approval to believe, not just to children, but to the world. It was a gift of light. The light, at long last, is fading. Whether it can be brightened again remains to be seen.
I don't blame society for being cynical. I blame the simple lack of anyone who has risen up to say, "There is more than this."
On that cold December night 40 years ago, Sevareid left his audience with these 10 words:
"People are saying we will never see his like again."
He may, indeed, have been right.
And if you've made it this far, thanks for getting through such a long diatribe.