Mickey gets a history lesson

Click to follow
SO, THERE are limits to mouse clout after all. In the face of withering fire from historians and wealthy landowners, Walt Disney has struck camp and retreated into the Virginia countryside, where the company wanted to build a dollars 650m ( pounds 415m) 'America' theme park. Excellent news.

The 3,000-acre site is only six miles from Manassas and the civil war battlefield of Bull Run, where in 1861 and 1862 Confederate forces turned back Union Army drives toward Richmond. To build a civil war theme park there was truly a Mickey Mouse idea. There is a fine federal museum on the Bull Run battlefield, and as you walk the lines you can listen to actors' readings of the wretched troopers' letters home. Not to quibble, it has also been hard to think of parts for Mickey and Minnie in this drama.

Disney proposed a virtual reality portrayal of the war and also of slavery - branding irons, chains, auction blocks and a model slave ship were mentioned. Only Hollywood could dream up such a trivialising of history.

Early in the battle, Disney co- opted the Virginia governor and most of the state legislature with visions of throbbing commerce and overflowing tax coffers. It donated dollars 100,000 to the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites after the group voted to be advisers, rather than opponents, of the theme park.

But the opposing forces were formidable - hardly the average 'not-in-my-backyard' protest. A glittering array of historians and writers took up the fight, including the civil war historian Shelby Foote, and William Styron, who wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel partly intended to convey what it was like to be a slave. Some of the biggest names in American business - Du Pont, Mellon, Mars and Firestone - donated millions because they did not want their fine horse pastures and hunt country cluttered up with legions of podgy, hotdog- munching vacationers.

There has been a victory at Manassas, but the battle is not yet won. Disney has pledged to look for another site - also in Virginia - and to 'reach out' to the historians who complained about the project. The row thus affords a great opportunity for a national debate on guidelines for theme- park builders, which could be an example for the rest of the world - since these monsters are undoubtedly here to stay.

Zoning and land-use planning are established functions of government. In the United States it is possible to balance cultural needs with commercial enterprise. Central and state government have intervened in the past to preserve millions of acres of parkland, giving America some of the most pristine wilderness and parks in the world. The principle should surely apply to areas of special historical value, too.

In a surge of preservationist zeal, the US Senate held hearings. But the mouse roared, and senators concluded that it was not for Congress, or the nation, to interfere in the pursuit of happiness in Virginia. Congress could, in fact, have done better. In 1988, it spent dollars 119m to buy land at Manassas that developers coveted for a shopping mall.

One benefit from the skirmishes so far is the opening of a discussion about whether inserting a lesson on slavery into a funfair is a good or bad way of making Americans more aware of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, and its implications. Disney's chairman, Michael Eisner, for instance, told the Washington Post: 'I sat through many history classes where I read some of their stuff and I didn't learn anything.' From which many concluded that Disney was more likely to be a cultural stripminer than an appropriate guardian of the nation's cultural heritage.

But the historians are not off the hook, either. They are open to charges of being mean-spirited, for denying happiness to lots of plain folks. In some cases, educating through entertainment is the best way to help children learn.

The problem here is that there are two separate issues. One is the obligation of a state to preserve its history, as close to the truth as possible. Battlefield sites should be untended fields of hay, and overgrown rifle trenches, and museums of musty uniforms and swords and muskets. People should be free to follow their own imaginations - and be given non-commercial guidance to help them figure out what it all means.

But government cannot prevent the 'imagineers' of Disney making money out of history. No one can stop them trivialising the record in order to entertain, even though their plastic portrayals cannot evoke the full meaning of momentous human injustices or the struggles to overcome them.

I do not object to the concept of Disney's 'America' as entertainment. I object to the claim that it is automatically educational and so worthy of a place alongside a federal museum at a civil war battle site - whether it be Manassas or elsewhere. Disney chose the spot because its marketing managers liked the idea of 'the gravitational pull' on visitors to Washington, half an hour's drive away. They were cashing in on more than history.

Disney can find 3,000 acres somewhere else. I suggest the neighbouring, much poorer, state of West Virginia. It deserves the investment more than the horse country of the Old Dominion.