I should not have been entirely surprised when I saw How to Read Donald Duck, a book I had written with the Belgian sociologist Armand Mattelart, being burned on TV by Chilean soldiers. It was mid-September 1973 and a military coup had just toppled Salvador Allende, the country’s president, terminating his remarkable experiment of building socialism through peaceful means.
I was in a safe house when I witnessed my book – along with hundreds of other subversive volumes – being consigned to the inquisitorial pyre. One of the reasons I had gone into hiding, besides my fervent participation in the revolutionary government that had just been overthrown, was the hatred the Donald Duck book had elicited among the new authorities of Chile and their rightwing civilian accomplices.
We had received death threats, an irate woman had tried to run me over and neighbours – accompanied by their children – had stoned the house where my wife, Angélica, and I lived in Santiago, shouting: “Long live Donald Duck!” It was later discovered that the 5,000 copies of the third printing of the book had been taken from a warehouse by the Chilean navy and cast into the bay of Valparaíso.
What had we done to incur such enmity?
Armand and I had denounced Walt Disney as an agent of American cultural imperialism, incarnated in the life, adventures and misdeeds of Donald Duck, that innocuous icon, then one of the most popular characters in the world. Probing hundreds of Disney comic strips – sold by the million on newsstands in Chile and countless other lands – we had tried to reveal the ideological messages that underlay those supposedly innocent, supposedly apolitical stories.
We wanted Chilean readers to realise they were being fed values that were inimical to a revolution that sought to unshackle them from centuries-old exploitation: competition rather than solidarity, prejudice rather than critical thinking, obedience rather than rebellion, paternalism rather than resistance, money rather than compassion as the standard of worth.
It was not enough, we felt, to change the economic and social structures that benefited a rich minority and their international corporate allies. It was also imperative to understand how the previous rulers of our land had presented this subjugation as normal, natural and benign; how they had been covertly selling us an American model of success and consumer affluence as the false solution to poverty and misdevelopment.