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The real reason today’s Republican Party hates corporations like Disney

A stunning move by America's third-largest state against free speech is deeply tied to the far right's crusade to destroy U.S. education.

In this 2019 photo, guests watch a show near a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, part of the Orlando area in Fla.
In this 2019 photo, guests watch a show near a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, part of the Orlando area in Fla.Read moreJohn Raoux / AP

It’s kind of a shame that one of the great myths of my baby boomer childhood — that the late Walt Disney had frozen himself so he could spring back to life, Sleeping Beauty-like, after humankind had cured cancer — turned out to be an urban myth. Because these days ol’ Walt would probably be spinning so fast he’d be melting up the cryogenics lab, if he only knew what his former best friends in the GOP were saying about his beloved business empire.

To say that the original Disney was an icon of 20th-century blood sport capitalism is like saying Michael Jordan was a good basketball player. At the dawn of the Cold War in 1947, the cartoonist-turned-entrepreneur proved his anti-communist bona fides by naming names before the notorious House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC), even though the alleged “reds” whose lives were ruined by Disney were just workers who wanted to unionize his studio.

So how crazy was it this week to see a leader of today’s extreme-right, anti-democratic Republican Party, Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs — still a member of Congress despite his involvement in a 2021 coup against the U.S. government — tweeting a picture of the Disney company logo with the “D” replaced by the hammer-and-sickle of the USSR? Or, much more important, to see the governor and lawmakers of America’s third-largest state enact a law that explicitly punishes Disney for criticizing the government, a nuclear-level violation of the First Amendment?

The new law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis late last week strips Disney of the ability the state granted the firm in the late 1960s to self-govern its massive Orlando-area theme parks, with uncertain but expected to be massive economic consequences — a measure DeSantis and other Republicans unambiguously linked to the Disney stance on an earlier bill about not raising LGBTQ+ issues in a grade-school classroom.

The punitive move — whether or not it’s constitutional, and I’d argue it’s not — makes a mockery of right-wing wailing about “free speech” and “cancel culture.” It’s also inspired a growing mob of QAnon types — taking their cues from elected officials who know better — to accuse decent folks who work for Disney of serving as pedophilic “groomers” of young children, first online and then in mobs outside Walt Disney World. Surely innocent people will get hurt.

I don’t mean to give short shrift to the First Amendment issues raised by Florida’s all-out assault on one of the state’s largest employers — especially since my livelihood and passions as a journalist depend on continuing America’s imperfect traditions of free speech, and a free press. That part of the story was summarized pretty succinctly by Ian Millhiser writing for Vox: “Florida’s decision to strip a government benefit from Disney because, in DeSantis’s words, Disney expressed ‘woke’ opinions and ‘tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda,’ is unconstitutional. And it’s not a close case.” I sure hope our Trumped-up federal courts agree.

But it’s also important to put the move in a much broader context. For starters, the Disney attack is just the latest and most forceful salvo in a wider Republican war against what they’ve branded as “woke corporations.” These are big firms where socially conscious branding has evolved — with a push from their younger, college-educated workforce, accelerated during 2020′s George Floyd protests — into stands on issues like transgender rights or voter suppression that are typically at odds with today’s GOP.

But a place like DeSantis’ Florida, which has become a kind of laboratory for the mad science of post-Trump neo-fascism, isn’t only attacking so-called woke corporations like Disney with the heavy, blunt object of punishing their free speech. Republicans pushing dark censorship in the so-called Sunshine State also want to pull up the very roots of “woke corporations” — which is any schooling that might have taught these people to embrace diversity and fairness in the first place. At the risk of verbally sinking to their crude level, DeSantis seems to be “grooming” Florida’s kids ... to be stupid.

There is too much irony here to bear. For most of the last half-century, Republicans and their handpicked judges have invested greatly in the idea that corporations like Disney have the full rights of personhood, which includes First Amendment free speech rights — because that’s what got you to unlimited corporate campaign donations. Conservatives never anticipated the blowback of corporations using free speech to undermine their political agenda. As a result, right wingers in the 2020s don’t just suddenly hate “woke corporations” but other institutions they also used to revere, like the “woke military” or the “woke CIA.

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What has changed isn’t rocket science ... or, maybe, in a way, it is. Institutions in the 21st century — not just Silicon Valley or Big Media, but even corporations that manufacture widgets, and also places like the U.S. military brass — need to hire the best people to compete. That means hiring top college graduates, who increasingly arrive at the workplace with a high priority on a culture that promotes diversity. That’s not only the moral stance, but it makes sense for a variety of reasons. For example, diverse teams on company projects produce more diverse, and smart ideas. In the case of Disney, the price of not speaking out on the DeSantis GOP “Don’t Say Gay” bill regulating classrooms would have been offending the large numbers of LGBTQ+ tourists who descend on its Florida theme parks.

Republicans, it turns out, don’t actually worship free enterprise as any sort of moral value, but just as part of a moral grand bargain in which unfettered profits fund large campaign contributions. The threatened loss of Disney’s donations was surely one reason why DeSantis was willing to toss the First Amendment onto the bonfire, but the biggest threat was a challenge to the governor’s authority, in a moment of rising authoritarianism. Florida Republicans were forced to choose between capitalism and anti-free speech fascism. They didn’t seem to think about it very long.

But I thought it was fitting that DeSantis announced his rapid-fire unconstitutional assault on Disney at a ceremony marking his signing of a different law — one that targets higher education at public universities in Florida. This law makes it harder for professors to gain tenure and also makes a mess of college accreditation (because accreditation agencies had criticized earlier DeSantis assaults on academic freedom). The governor and possible 2024 GOP presidential hopeful lashed out at “politicized” courses that “don’t prepare students for the real world,” which in the mind of DeSantis is a place where young folks wouldn’t think to march for racial equality.

DeSantis’ latest cruise-missile strike against academic freedom didn’t get much notice — in part because it was overshadowed by the Disney flap but also because the shelling attacks against classroom learning in Florida have been carried out almost daily at Putin-esque levels. In addition to this higher ed bill and the “Don’t Say Gay” law about discussing sexuality in elementary schools, Florida’s Republican government has sharply curtailed education around race through a law attacking “critical race theory” and passed other bills that will have a chilling effect on classroom learning or on what books are stocked in the school library. DeSantis’ Department of Education showed what this all means by banning dozens of math books, some for mere mentions of race or related topics.

Although many on the far right would like to end public education altogether someday, the more realistic step for now for the Ron DeSantises of the world is a classroom that teaches 2+2=4 but little more — on the level of what his fellow Republicans here in Pennsylvania admitted is “the McDonald’s track” but surely less than the critical thinking that comes with a liberal education. They are waging war today with Disney as a “woke corporation” but what they desperately want to stop is “woke people” who will challenge white supremacy and the patriarchy, and the best place for them to destroy that is in the classroom, before they reach employment age.

Not that they haven’t been trying. The right’s solution to young people challenging the status quo of racism and the Vietnam War during the 1960s and ‘70s was to end free or low public university tuition, create a student loan regime that makes it harder for the indebted to challenge the system, and to push “workforce development” over liberal education. Yet that still didn’t stop younger generations from, on the whole, embracing more tolerance — and so since those George Floyd marches the white gloves are completely off.

The true meaning of the Disney move is that today’s conservatives will do anything to maintain social control, including dropping any last, thin pretenses of supporting the Bill of Rights or the other pillars of American democracy. In 2022, they will throw away books, destroy the lives of teachers, and deliberately prevent your child from learning — anything to keep the arc of a moral universe from bending toward justice. They are embracing fascism not because they are winning, but because modernity is winning and they are losing. This is no time to cede the high ground. There is no math textbook that can calculate the moral price of losing this fight.

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