Daniel Fan

Prophecy Smack Down: Walt Disney vs. the Apostle John

November 23rd, 2009

Greetings All! During my recent visit to Disney’s Epcot in Orlando Florida, I managed to catch a glimpse of the future, which I’d like to share with you.

Now, Epcot isn’t your average no-tech, smells-of-grease-and-stale-popcorn theme-park. Rather, it is nothing less than Disney’s projection of what an idealized future might look like. Epcot doesn’t just give visitors a chance to jump ahead in time; it also includes the functionality of sending a postcard from the future back to your present-day self. (Ok, the photo of my future self had a giant hole in his head, but I’m chalking that up to a minor backwards-compatibility issue.)

So you ask: “If you could really see the future, Daniel, what would the future hold for me?”

Well it depends…

For those of you who are white, the future is clean, bright, metallic, polymer, automated, digital, and completely Energy-Star compliant.

It’s a little different for us minorities. See, we don’t have a future, or at least one in which we’re represented in any way more significant than say, soylent green. Sadly, somewhere, before the monorail gets to Disney’s “Future,” there’s a stop where we all get off (or maybe the monorail doesn’t stop).

To those who haven’t been there, Epcot is divided into two halves separated by a lake. At the entrance to the park is the “World of Tomorrow,” where all the high-tech future-oriented rides and attractions are. Across the lake is a collection of period sets collectively referred to as “The World.” This is where you can stroll through exotic locales like China, Japan, and Morocco without even leaving the park. .

Visiting “The World” was actually one of the best parts of my trip. Disney gathers people from different countries and brings them to Epcot to crew these destination sets. At first, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was touring a zoo for humans (one where I was part of the exhibit). But once I got over it, I found that talking with people from around the world and getting their perspective was very much worth the price of admission.

Midway through the day, I crossed the lake to continue my visit in Epcot. And then it hit me. “I’m going from ‘The World of Today’ to ‘The World of Tomorrow,’” and boy did tomorrow look different.

In The World of Tomorrow, I crash landed on Mars in “Mission Space,” failed a brake test at “Test Track,” and glided over the Golden Gate bridge in “Soaring.” I even took a 30 second ride on a Segway. I thought to myself, “I kind of like this future.” That was, until I climbed aboard “Spaceship Earth,” located in the iconic Epcot Ball.

Spaceship Earth traces human development from the Paleolithic Age to the Future. As you’re leaving “the Future” a camera snaps a picture of you to send to your present day self. This is, apparently, where future Dan lost half his skull. It’s also here where my concerns about Disney’s version of “Tomorrow” really solidified. And it wasn’t just in my head, or missing from my head…whatever.

The ride started out with a diorama of cavemen fighting a mammoth. Of course, all the cavemen were white. Weird, right? But it’s easy to understand when you remember that Ice Ages only happen to white people. Thank God for that because I’d be really cold in an ice age, not being able to grow facial hair or an Austin Powers-like chest rug (it’s all in the genes, or maybe, not in the genes as it were).

Next, we got into the accumulation of world knowledge, which apparently was stored, in its entirety, at the Library of Alexandria. After that, the Renaissance further increased human knowledge, along with the Enlightenment. And from there we were off to industrialization, computerization, and the future.

Apparently no one outside of Europe and North Africa had any influence whatsoever on human history as a whole. Well, that’s not really fair. There were two black guys (or maybe one was Arab) who sorta helped out at Alexandria. But then we actually got to the future. And everyone looked like Lady Gaga?

Somehow, we colored people aren’t in Disney’s version of the future, but white people are. In fact, when it comes to the World of Tomorrow, white people are like cockroaches after a nuclear winter. And that’s a good thing for white people, because, not only do they survive, but they get to inherit the earth, too. Though, I hope white people like white, because in the World of Tomorrow, the upholstery is white, the walls and ceilings are white and you can wear any color of outfit you want as long as it’s white. Disney’s interpretation of culture in the future is necessarily vague (having to be conveyed by mannequins and repetitive animatronics). However, those that do make it to the future seem to enjoy the pastimes of today’s privileged, like sports (value of leisure), not having to drive for themselves (value of autonomy via automation), and instant food extruded from machines (value of time and instant gratification). Bottom line: white folks might like some aspects of Tomorrow, but they should spend today stocking up on all that good “exotic” food, because I’ve been to Disney’s version of the future, and it ain’t servin’ chitlins, sushi, fry bread, or tacos.

So is this a giant diatribe against Disney? No. Disney actually did a very good job of illustrating a dominant culture (in this country) view of the future. And for that I’m grateful. Plus, Test Track was pretty fun. Epcot’s “World of Tomorrow” is a pitch perfect example of what educator Tim Wise refers to as “universal perspectivism,” as in “the way I see it is the way everyone sees it.” Thus, it’s perhaps unintentional, but only natural that, in a theme park devised by white people, only white people would appear in Disney’s version of “The Future.” Unfortunately, this little oversight implies that somewhere on the path to Tomorrow, minorities step off in a big and permanent way.

The very fact that a strong dichotomy exists between the diverse World of Today and the monochromatic World of Tomorrow within Epcot betrays the presence and execution of universal perspectivism. If that viewpoint were true, there’d be no need for The World of Today as part of Epcot. The fact that not everyone sees things the same way, or even wants the same thing, forms the foundation, literally, for half the attractions of Epcot. That, sadly, is something the other half of the park seems to ignore quite successfully.

Consider this: Although China and Morocco were represented in “The World” of today, they had no place in Spaceship Earth’s representation of human development. Where would whites be without their appropriation (perhaps misappropriation) of the Chinese Hu Yao, a.k.a. “gunpowder?” Certainly the vast European empires which began in the 1500s and covered the globe in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and British flags five centuries later were founded in large part on this technological advancement. What about Arabic lettering? I mean, who wants to do long division in Roman numerals? It isn’t just that minorities don’t exist in the future, but apparently they didn’t exist or contribute in the past either. That’s universal perspectivism at work.

Put succinctly, Disney’s futuristic World of Tomorrow without the diverse World of Today is technically competent, and environmentally sound, but bland, boring, repetitive, incomplete, and yes, unbiblical.

Maybe we should take comfort in the message of someone who really has seen the future and brought a little of it back to us. In Revelations 5:9 (TNIV) the Apostle John tells us:

And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God members of tribe and language and people and nation.”

Thank God every tongue and tribe will be represented in the new heaven and new earth and that we all have the privilege of being in this version of the future. Thank God that our Creator’s vision of Tomorrow is both more expansive and more inclusive than Disney’s, because writing this essay has really given me the hankering for a gyro, or maybe some Chinese BBQ pork, or a steak quesadilla. Come to think of it, a nice hot bowl of nabeyaki udon sounds good too…

So, I’d ask you, my readers, to think critically whenever someone talks about “the future” or even “the past.” Whose take on the future are we talking about; whose history? Who’s starring? Who got left off the box office poster? If someone tries to sell you a version of the future that isn’t inclusive of “every tribe and language,” you might want to turn the packaging over and check the expiration date.

Is Racism Over Now That a Black Man is President of the United States?

March 3rd, 2009

January 20th 2009 provoked many questions for the people of this country. But to me, there were not any questions more frustrating than this one: “Is racism over now that we have a black man as President?” The fact that we are asking ourselves this question means we have not seriously considered the nature of racism and its long-standing influence on the history of this country and its occupants. Furthermore, the answer to this question may not be easily grasped by anyone who has never been the subject of systematic racism. For those who have not experienced direct or indirect empowered prejudice based on skin color and physical features, it would be both convenient and easy to believe that a black man being President fixes it all. Such a belief would be naïve, and if you’re a Christ follower, possibly even sinful. Barack Obama was elected neither Dictator nor Messiah, and certainly his election can’t mean the end of racism as we know it, as many have hoped. It is important that we appreciate the achievement of electing an African American to the office of the Presidency, but it is equally important to keep such an achievement in proper relational and historical perspective.Let’s first acknowledge that racism can be and often is interpersonal. It may be conscious or subconscious but racism acts out in relations between two or more people. Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s relationship to most people is political, not personal, and there we find the crux of our problem. Yes, a majority of Americans may have voted for him as President. But what about as a friend? Would they also have voted for him to be a brother-in-law? Step-dad? Son-in-law? A majority vote for Obama isn’t necessarily a vote for closer relations with the minorities of America. Penciling a personally unknown man into (albeit an important) office, far away and buffered with checks and balances, is very different from inviting him into your home or maybe even into your family? The choice to put away racism is a choice that people make, or don’t make, via interactions with their neighbors, not with their ballot sheets or a President 1200 miles away. Such a vote for better relations with “those people” is a vote that has to be cast, not once every four years, but every day until “those people” become “my people.” I would hope that someone couldn’t vote for Obama one day and the next day think some racial epithet or look in fear on a minority, but I’m just not that optimistic.Let us also acknowledge that racism is systemic. Barack Obama’s Presidency has so far done very little to address directly the myriad problems that plague minority America. The perceived value of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue might have appreciated due to the popularity of its current residents, but find me one other zip code where a black family moved into a previously all-white tract on or after January 20th, 2009, and real estate values went up. First black man moves into the White House? People of all colors pack the front lawn as far as the eye can see. First black man moves into some other all-white affluent neighborhood? White people might start passing out the Red Bull (“because Red Bull gives you wings”). Roger that Houston, we are a “go” for White Flight. I can’t think of any agency or company that has changed their hiring practices as a result of the Presidential election. I can’t think of any INS procedure that has gotten easier since Obama took office. I can’t think of any police department that has changed its policies on racial profiling now that a black guy is riding in the big armored limo instead of driving it. Sit down and create a list. Column A: things that have changed for minorities because an African American has become President. Column B: things that have not changed for minorities since an African American has become President. I think you’ll find column B runs off the bottom of your page, while Column A is significantly shorter. Racism has been evolving and metastasizing in this nation before we ever had a constitution, a government, or for that matter, a President. To expect that this loathsome and gargantuan barnacle could be suddenly evicted from our ship-of-state overnight simply by changing a light in the pilot house is unrealistic.Speaking of the pilot-house, let us examine the office of the Presidency in isolation. Again the premise is that Barack Obama’s occupation of the White House suddenly removes racism from the country, or in this case, the office of President. Immediately, many believed that there was equality for all, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had finally become a reality. Those minds fail to consider this one thing: The math is off. Waaaaaay, waaaaay off. You see: such a premise is based on the equation 43 = 1. Barack Obama is of course the 44th President of the United States, but also the nation’s first minority President. Yeah, you knew that. But what most people haven’t considered in contrast is this: since George Washington first took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, the Presidency has been passed from the hands of one white man to the next in a chain uninterrupted for 220 years. For all of that time a white person has exercised the powers of the Presidency, primarily to the benefit of…well until 1965, white people. Minorities didn’t get equal voting rights until 1965, so how could any President before that time claim to represent the will of those who had made no meaningful contribution to his election? Even if Barack Obama serves out all four years of his term and gets re-elected, he will be hard pressed to make up for so many decades of white-for-whites decision making—decisions which continue to pay benefits for whites today. Some examples might be useful here: Andrew Jackson’s explicit and willful failure to perform his Constitutional duties in upholding the edict of the Supreme Court and due to his inaction, the subsequent unlawful eviction of the Cherokee Indians from their treaty-guaranteed native lands; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 signed by Chester A. Arthur; the forced internment of Japanese Americans by Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066; the list goes on. Each of these events required at least presidential consent if not direct action. Each resulted in negative consequences for minorities that can still be felt. Certainly not all decisions made by white Presidents served only white people, but a preponderance of evidence remains, leading us to correct our math: 43 ≠ 1.

Furthermore, the very expectations for Obama’s Presidency differ from that laid on any President before him. No one knows this better than Barack Obama. In reference to his inauguration address Obama quoted one of his children (and then responds to that quote himself): “And then Malia says, ‘First African American president—it better be good.’ So I just want you to know the pressures I’m under here from my children.” Such differing expectations did not end with Obama’s first speech as President, nor are those judging him limited only to his children. Can anyone find me a record of anyone attending George Washington’s inauguration and saying “I sure hope George does a good job ‘cuz if he doesn’t no white person will have a chance at the Presidency for at least the next 20 years!” Both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush left office with disastrous approval ratings. Despite this no one has yet stood up and shouted “Dangnabbit! That’s the last white guy I’ll ever vote for.” So if JC or GWB aren’t held as representative of all white people who have or will potentially hold the office of President of the United States, why is Obama expected to be an indicator of the future for any and all African Americans who might sit in the Oval Office? Sadly the truth is that depending on how Barack Obama completes his Presidency, it could be harder for the next African American, or any minority in that case, to become President. The fact that expectations, and the consequences of failing to meet those expectations, are different for a black President than a white President demonstrates the very inequality that King preached against when he emphasized the content of character over the color of skin.

Finally, let us acknowledge that racism is complex. Equating the ascendancy of an African American to the office of President with the solution to the overarching racial divide in America is to perceive wrongly and naively racism as purely a conflict of black vs. white. I think we’ve established that getting a black man or woman into the Oval Office isn’t the magic bullet to kill racism against African Americans. So if an African American President doesn’t solve the problem of racism against African Americans, how can it solve the problem of racism against minorities who aren’t even black? People who are prejudiced against blacks are not more likely to drop their prejudices against black people just because one of those black people is President. The same people are even less likely to drop prejudiced beliefs against non-black minority groups. In exclusive terms of the Presidency itself, for African Americans it’s “1 down, 43 to go;” but for other minorities the score is even more daunting than that.Some may ask: “So are you saying it doesn’t matter one bit that we have an African American as President?” Not at all. The ascendancy of an African American to the Presidency is an event to be celebrated. However, banishing racism from the national conscience will not take place via the Presidency, nor legislation from Congress, nor any political act or occupation of office whatsoever. Personally, I’m not willing to wait till there’s been 43 white Presidents, 43 black Presidents, 43 Latino Presidents, etc. To lay the burden on Barack Obama for ending racism is not only unfair to him and morally irresponsible for the rest of us; it is also an abdication of the calling we who call ourselves Christians have to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves. I believe racism has to be fought not by the person we elect, but by the people we choose to be. Only when we individually and collectively make an intentional, daily decision to treat others with equality and reject mechanisms which systematically subjugate peoples based on the color of their skin will we have achieved something akin to Dr. King’s dream of the Promised Land.