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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
No. 12:  

The Smell of Rodent in the Morning

Heart of Darkness
Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad

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King Leopold's Ghost
King Leopold's Ghost
by Adam Hochschild

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Team Rodent
Team Rodent
by Carl Hiaasen

Francis Ford Coppola's last great movie, Apocalypse Now, is finally receiving its pound of flesh. Critics have rightly proclaimed the newly expanded version, Apocalypse Now Redux, a masterpiece. Some have even called it Coppola's best movie. Considering that Coppola was also the director of Godfather I and II, this is saying a great deal indeed.

But when Apocalypse Now was originally released in 1979, it received a tepid response from critics and moviegoers. This is partly due to the fact that, as Coppola admitted, his long anticipated "Vietnam film" wasn't strictly about Vietnam. Before 1980, the war was still fresh in people's minds, and Coppola's movie, which focused more on one insane renegade colonel, baffled audiences and failed to satisfy expectations. (That, and the fact that in 1979 it was still shocking to see Marlon Brando the size of a thyroidal sea cow.)

For Coppola, though, the American experience in Vietnam resembled nothing so much as the "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly" Joseph Conrad encountered in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the century, and later portrayed in his nightmarish masterpiece, Heart of Darkness. So for his Vietnam film, Coppola simply transplanted Conrad's story to Southeast Asia. That this worked so well is as much testament to the timelessness of Conrad's art as it is to Coppola's extraordinary talents.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad's alter-ego, Marlow, assumes command of a steamer traveling up the Congo River. He's headed for a trading post under the command of a mysterious Mr. Kurtz, who, it's been rumored, is hoarding a fortune in ivory. Marlow's mission is to retrieve it. He soon learns, though, that Kurtz has amassed his huge stockpile by strange, unorthodox means, including, oh, setting himself up as a god to the natives. He tells them what to do; they carry out his every wish. He even participates enthusiastically in "savage" rites, and may, it's hinted, have become a cannibal.

Kurtz has clearly stepped outside the bounds of European society and allied himself with a moral code of an entirely different order.

...Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him....Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say....But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core...

For Coppola, the moral chaos personified by Mr. Kurtz bore a striking resemblance to the ethical quagmire of the Vietnam War, which destroyed the lives of so many of his generation and permanently altered the American self-conception. But for Conrad and Coppola both, their primary interest was not the specifics of the Belgian conduct in the Congo or the American disaster in Vietnam. The lesson of Heart of Darkness is that the potential for such moral decay exists in every human heart.

According to Albert J. Guerard "Conrad believes, with the greatest moralists, that we must know evil our own capacities for evil before we can be capable of good; that we must descend into the pit before we can see the stars." But isn't it equally important to recognize evil when it manifests in the world around us, and to call a spade a spade? Certainly. And isn't it also true that today there is no more obvious manifestation of rapacious greed than those contemporary colonialists, the multinationals? Who would argue that at the center of every modern multinational is a Kurtz-like heart, mired in moral anarchy.

Ironically, the most malevolent of them all is also the most trusted. I am referring, of course, to the world's most perfidious regime, the Disney corporation. Today, the devil wears mouse ears.

For those who balk that the company that created Goofy bears any resemblance to Conrad's Congo or Coppola's Vietnam remember this: Disney owns ABC and is, therefore, also responsible for Home Improvement.

But Disney is, of course, far more venal than atrocious TV. As avowed Disney-hater Carl Hiaasen explains in Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World: "Disney is so good at being good that it manifests an evil; so uniformly efficient and courteous, so dependably clean and conscientious, so unfailingly entertaining that it's unreal, and therefore is an agent of pure wickedness."

Disney is Marcia Brady with a billion-dollar bank account and a taste for blood.

Speaking of blood, in his celebrated history of the Belgian Congo, King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild recounts in shocking detail the horrifying methods the Belgians employed in their efforts to extract as much wealth as possible from their sole colony. In the pursuit of ivory, Belgians murdered and brutalized ten million Congolese. Even by twentieth century standards, the Congolese genocide stands out as particularly heinous.

Disney could have taught the Belgians a thing or two. Since Michael Eisner became CEO, Disney has been just as devoted to profit as despotic old King Leopold. Yet Disney is much more intelligent in their methods.

The Belgians were just plain stupid. Violent theft is a flawed business plan (not to mention bad PR). Once you've murdered someone and taken their goods, that's it. There goes that revenue source. Disney has a much smarter formula: go after society's weakest members the young — and give them a taste for good clean fun, Disney style. And make them pay for it. Soon you have a billion little money machines. And eventually they will breed and replenish your revenue source. Disney is committed to developing renewable resources. Pull the same trick in countless countries around the world and soon you'll be pulling in...let's see, last I checked it was over $20 billion per year.

The fact is, Disney is just not as harmless as it seems. "So what," you say. "Who cares if Disney makes a lot of money? Doesn't that just mean that they offer a really good product? Doesn't Disney bring joy to billions of people worldwide every year?" Maybe so, but folks were pretty happy with Hitler there for a while too — until they realized what he was up to.

So what is Disney up to? What exactly is their business? It's more than just cartoons, isn't it? What Disney sells, what Disney does better than any other entity the world has ever known, is package, market, and sell sentimentality.

Jung once derided sentimentality as "unfelt feeling." As deep as Danielle Steele and as authentic as wood paneling in a trailer park, sentimentality is the strip mall of emotions. Dostoyevsky put it best when he famously described the four Karamozov brothers' poisonous father: "He was sentimental. He was wicked and sentimental."

There is a correlation between sentimentality and the darker corners of the human heart. Hitler himself (yeah, yeah, again with the Hitler) was said to be a sentimental man.

So how could a company that is built on sentimentality, that is systematically converting the world to an ever cheaper emotional life, be considered anything but evil? It's no mistake that Disney is represented by a sanitized image of a filthy rodent. Yes, strip away the cute ears, the suspenders, and Annette Funicello, and Disney is nothing but a ruthless, ravenous rat.

Which, of course, brings us to the rat king himself, Michael "Mr. Kurtz" Eisner. If King Leopold was the black heart at the center of the Congo nightmare, King Eisner is the vacant soul at the helm of the Disney juggernaut. For God's sake. When Michael Eisner was a producer at Paramount, he was responsible for Happy Days. He fell in love with the show because he identified so strongly with Potsie. And if you ever wanted to know who to blame for Robin Williams, look no further. High on the success of Happy Days Eisner orchestrated a few spin-offs, including Mork and Mindy. I have no idea what that says about the man, but it can't be good.

Michael Eisner is responsible for the double-pronged strategy that spearheaded the greatest corporate comeback in the history of American business. After Michael Eisner became CEO, Disney became 1) extraordinarily aggressive in expanding its holdings and marketing its brand, and 2) cheap as hell. In the past decade, Disney has become notorious for wanting everything, and wanting it for free. And they seemed to have a knack for getting it.

Of course when it came to his own salary, Eisner expected the company to open its purse strings wider than Dr. Laura's mouth. According to Kim Masters in her book The Keys to the Kingdom, when Eisner first agreed to assume command of Disney, the corporation was in such bad shape that "the company was asking Disneyland workers to be good corporate 'citizens' and help Disney survive by accepting slashed benefits and a 17 percent wage cut over the next three years."

Meanwhile, Eisner asked for — and got — a compensation package that set new standards for corporate inequity. Though his base salary was a mere $750,000, Eisner also received "2 percent of any growth in net above 9 percent and more than two million shares of Disney stock at $14.359 each." Grab a calculator. That's a lot.

Granted, in financial terms Disney's gamble on Eisner turned out to be justified. When he first became CEO, Eisner ran the company in partnership with Frank Wells. They turned out to be a very profitable team, orchestrating, as I've said, one of the greatest corporate comebacks in American history. Wells was Kissinger to Eisner's Nixon. Eisner provided the inspiration. Wells provided intelligence and a couple of feet on the ground. But sadly, in 1994 Wells was suddenly killed in a helicopter accident and Eisner was left to run things alone.

As anyone who remembers Paul McCartney's post-Lennon stint with Wings knows, one half of a great team can be just that. Alone at the top, Eisner made himself a sort of demigod of Disney. Increasingly isolated and paranoid he eliminated all threats to his power and surrounded himself with relatively weak people. Soon Eisner was wandering the halls of the White House muttering to the pictures.

But unlike Nixon, Eisner hasn't resigned. And impeachment doesn't seem imminent. Maybe Eisner's eventual fate will more closely resemble Mr. Kurtz's. Toward the end, though his ambitions soared ever higher, Kurtz, fevered and malarial, gradually withered away in both body and soul.

But what's of greater consequence than Michael Eisner's fate is what will happen to his empire when he leaves?

Journalist Michela Wrong has just published a brilliant but disturbing book, which will likely become required reading for anyone interested in the Congo: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living On the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo. Wrong argues that the Belgians are directly responsible for the the political, economic, and moral chaos that has plagued their former colony since they pulled out in 1960. While they controlled the country, the Belgians assumed absolute authority. Though they built a physical infrastructure that was the envy of other African nations, they didn't give the Africans themselves the skills necessary to manage it. By running the Congo as a plutocracy and then deserting the country virtually overnight, the Belgians left their former colony with no one capable of stepping in to run things. According to Wrong, these conditions were directly responsible for the rise of the most despotic African dictator of the twentieth century, one created in the mold the Belgians left behind. Sese Seko Mobutu stole so much wealth from his country a new term was required to describe his style of government. The term "kleptocracy" has since been used to describe rapacious governments around the world, but the term was invented especially for Mobutu. Yes, the Belgians were bad. But in many ways Mobutu was worse.

So what happens when rogue emperor Michael Eisner leaves Disney (or dies a lingering malarial death), creating a power vacuum in the world's most powerful entertainment company? Slobodan Milosevic and Anne Geddes join forces to conquer the world?

The horror. The horror.


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