Sometimes remembering something that never existed is the first step on the path to something greater. Sometimes human beings need the inspiration of a dream, the reassurance that there once was before we can believe that there will be.
That is one of the reasons that I love going to Disney. Now, don’t get me wrong; as a Florida resident, I can be as cynical about the Rat as the next person. I know a good bit about the corporate machine behind the curtain, and I know that I could never work happily within that system. Furthermore, I am more than familiar with the historical and ideological criticism of the parks. I’ve read the structuralist analysis of the ways in which Disney manipulates history and promotes consumerism; I’ve perused diatribes declaring Disney’s watered-down historicism and internationalism to be something akin to the tool of Satan.
But I think many of those passionate condemnations, for all of the viable points they may raise, ultimately miss an important consideration. Disney promotes itself as a place of dreams, and as saccharine and artificial as that may seem in syntax, it has a deep booming echo in the reality of the parks. I teach history and humanities; I understand what a messy, morally ambiguous place history is, but I still find a chill climbing my spine to settle into a lump of unabashedly emotional patriotism when I read the bronze plaque affixed to the entrance to Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom. That proud place of hard working men and women of integrity and vision who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the dream of Liberty is something of real consequence. And ultimately, it does not matter whether that place ever existed in the convoluted world of reality. It matters that the dream inspires; it matters that the place exists in imagination and that Liberty Square provides enough of a taste of that idealized, unrealistic past that those passing through it may hope for a better future.
As we age, we learn the harsh reality of our world. We learn that you can’t always trust the policeman to help you when you’re lost. We learn that stories don’t end “happily ever after.” We learn that our heroes all have feet of clay. Losing those illusions is an important part of maturity and of being a contributing part of our world. However, the total abandonment of those ideals is equally destructive. When we completely close the door on the hope of a better world, we fall into the morass of hopelessness. If we accept that there never was a good time, we acknowledge that there will never be a good time, and in so doing we give up on anything worth fighting for beyond the next meal and the next breath for ourselves. That is, certainly, a way of living, and it is more and more frequently a way of living embraced in our world. Our world, however, also reflects the consequences of that path; the death of dreams cheapens the life lived only in sensory reality of the moment.
I refuse to condemn the “Disney version” of reality out of hand because I think it serves the same purpose as the stories proverbial grandparents tell; stories that far too rarely are heard or heeded. It reminds us of a time that never existed, a time we wish had existed, a time we need to have existed. That perfect, picturesque main street of yesteryear, filled with happy, friendly people had a place in reality, but we need to believe that somewhere, sometime that sense of beauty and good will was a part of our world. If we can believe that and carry that memory with us, we can carry with us the hope of re-creating it. That colonial square with its dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all humankind may never have existed beyond a long ago shattered inkwell, but remembering it as a lost, cherished memory changes our perceptions. It makes us long to bring back that forgotten place, and in that longing we strive for a better future. That inspiration is the greatest gift imagination can give.
Times are tough. Trust and idealism have become dirty words, along with enterprise and progress. So many of us are too busy trying to get through today to believe that tomorrow will be better; heck, some of us feel that idealism and trust are the things that got us into this mess in the first place. There is a sense that progress and improvement are illusory at best and downright manipulative at worst. Yet I passionately believe that without remembering the world that never existed, without the belief that good things are possible, dreams die beyond resurrection, taking hope with them. And without hope the people may not perish, but the idea of a society based on ideals rather than self-preservation falls into a dark abyss. So I will choose to maintain my annual pass and take my pilgrimage to the plaque outside Liberty Square. I will remind myself of a place that never was in hopes that it will inspire me to put a little hard work into creating a place that someday just might be.
Originally posted 3/16/2009