Books: March-April 2005

March 31, 2005

 

  

The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie DustThe Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust
By Mark I. Pinsky '70.
Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
286 pages. $14.95, paper.

I begin with a disclaimer. I have never been a fan of Walt Disney. As a kid, I did see many of the early Disney films such as Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Sleeping Beauty, but that is the extent of my knowledge of Disney. My family was late getting a TV (due to our lack of money), so I did not grow up on the Wonderful World of Disney. We were bricklayers, so the world was hard work.

Moreover, I have never been to Disney World. I have never wanted to go to Disney World. I have only been to one theme park in my life, Six Flags Over Texas, and even as a Texan I did not like it. I have been to Orlando for meetings twice. The second time under protest. I assumed an anthropological mode. For example, I think it is extremely interesting that Orlando is the first city in the world in which everyone is required to live in a motel.

So the only reason I have for reviewing Pinsky's interesting book is that it is about religion. It turns out Walt Disney thought of himself as "religious," that is, as a Christian. Like many American Christians, however, he did not think he needed to go to church. Which means, of course, that, like many American Christians, including those who identify themselves as "conservatives," Disney knew almost nothing about Christianity.

Pinsky argues, however, that even though Disney explicitly avoided making a religious film for fear of offending, his films are suffused with a theological vocabulary including words such as faith, belief, miracle, blessing, and sacrifice. Yet Pinsky also rightly observes that this vocabulary owes little to any determinative religious tradition, but rather draws on the American civil religion of "faith in faith."

Pinsky divides his account of the Disney films into two periods: the Disney Years, 1937-1984, and the Eisner Years, 1984-2004. You could not wish for a starker contrast. Pinsky's overview of Walt Disney's classic films documents Disney's extraordinary ability to tap into mythic themes such as true love and fidelity conquers all. Parents could put their faith in Disney because his films underwrote the presumption that if you are good, things will come out all right in the end. If anyone ever understood family values, Disney did.

Beginning with Eisner, however, things begin to go bad. Pinsky makes clear that they go bad not because Eisner is Jewish, but because something seems to have happened to the Disney magic. The Eisner years still produced some hits such as The Little Mermaid, but most of the films are not only forgettable but fail to fulfill the deepest religious Disney commitment--that is, they fail to make money.

Pinsky quotes Dennis Campbell '67, Ph.D. '73, the former dean of Duke's Divinity School, who suggests that Eisner's inability to sustain the Disney magic reflects the loss of shared values by the American people. There is no doubt something to that, but I think the matter more complex, as illustrated by Pinsky's very even-handed account of the Baptist boycott of Disney. The Baptists feel betrayed by Disney because they have confused the civil religion of the earlier films with Christianity. That they have done so is understandable, because the Christianity often represented as "conservative" is more of a civil religion than it is Christianity. Pinsky, moreover, rightly observes that what the conservative Christian critics of Disney are really complaining about is what made Disney and America what it is: global capitalism and the market economy.

Pinsky's book can be read as a morality tale about America, but at least part of that story is about the pathos of Christianity in America. For, as Pinsky makes clear, Disney's "religion" was only superficially connected to any profound form of Christian practice. For too many Christians in America, the crucifixion is understood as an unpleasant episode that was turned into a success by a kiss from a prince. In a similar fashion, many Christians forget that the Gospels are not exactly family-friendly, which makes so ironic the current criticism of Disney by Christian conservatives. To the extent they feel betrayed by Disney, they expose their quite deficient understanding of Christianity. Of course, we should not be surprised that such is the case. Conservative Christians are, after all, Americans.

American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End WelfareAmerican Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare
By Jason DeParle '82.
Viking Press, 2004.
422 pages. $25.95

When Bill Clinton entered office in 1992, half of all African-American children in the U.S. lived in poverty. When he left office, that figure had dropped to 30 percent, and the welfare rolls had been slashed by a whopping 63 percent. Clinton's 1994 plan to "end welfare as we know it" replaced welfare payments with work requirements. It was a plan that angered liberal Democrats like Daniel Moynihan, who feared the worst for poor families, and surprised conservative Republicans like Newt Gingrich, who had tried to claim that welfare-to-work was his party's own agenda. Welfare reform made for strange bedfellows and divided longstanding allies. How did it happen? And did it work?

Jason DeParle's account of the nation's boldest experiment in social policy since Social Security will itself draw praise and criticism from both liberals and conservatives. DeParle uses the stories of three women and their ten children as they move from Chicago to Milwaukee (and back) in search of a better life (or the next drug sale, depending on one's cynicism) as a departure for his policy analysis. He punctuates these stories with anecdotes about the political leaders who led the reform and their scheming and plotting to pass welfare legislation in the tumult of the mid-Nineties. Rounding out the description are scientific data about America's poor.

The story of welfare reform is one of contradiction, and DeParle, a senior writer for The New York Times, works both sides well with facts, numbers, and anecdotes. He highlights the two biggest ironies of all: First, even though welfare rolls shrank across the 1990s, federal spending on poor families actually grew, through a combination of job programs, health insurance for the poor, programs to build the self-esteem and life skills of poor women, and privatization of the welfare bureaucracy. Second, at the end of the day, many families that had moved off welfare through full-time employment actually took home fewer dollars.

Both welfare reform and the growing economy produced new jobs, which led poor folk to experience the satisfaction of bringing home a paycheck and making a real contribution to society. One heroine of DeParle's story boldly asserts how good she is at getting new jobs; in fact, she's gotten dozens of them. But, sadly, she is unable to hold on to any of them.

During welfare reform, well-meaning programs were implemented to help welfare recipients learn job skills, parenting skills, and skills to resist drug use and to build self-esteem, so that they would become employable. Families benefited from federally subsidized child care and Earned Income Tax Credits. One of the bold successes of this era is the reduction in the vast number of children who have no health insurance, through the implementation of the State Child Health Insurance Program. This program goes beyond Medicaid to provide health insurance for previously uninsured children who live up to 100 percent above the poverty line. (Families at this level have too much income to qualify for Medicaid but are often too poor to afford health insurance on their own.) But, as DeParle notes, many programs were implemented haphazardly by untrained caseworkers. For some recipients, the "program" became a place to buy and sell drugs. The paperwork was intentionally so complicated that many recipients gave up on completing it, thus relinquishing their benefits.

Privatizing the welfare bureaucracy is a particularly bittersweet, if not sour, story. DeParle captures the reader's emotions with tear-wrenching anecdotes about caseworkers and reformers who inspire the rest of us. The caseworker who trudges across town in the snow to buy a woman a winter coat and the right-wing slumlord-turned-idealist who runs a welfare-to-work program in Milwaukee called Pay For Performance are brought to life and applauded. But DeParle also tells of other welfare reformers who illegally funneled federal dollars to their own private bank accounts.

DeParle is at his best when he contrasts the rhetoric of welfare reform with the realities of private lives, not only among poor families, caseworkers, and welfare bureaucrats, but also among political leaders. He notes the irony in the fact that the "Personal Responsibility Act" of 1994, which emphasized the value of hard work, the benefits of marriage, and the virtues of moral fidelity, was engineered by leaders who, at that very same time, were living double lives: a president having an affair with an intern (Bill Clinton), a legislator having an affair with a junior staffer (Newt Gingrich), and a key White House staffer fondling a prostitute's toes (Dick Morris).

Ultimately, DeParle wants to move beyond simply telling a gripping tale to conducting a critical analysis of public policy. He builds a three-legged stool familiar to policy analysts: anecdotes of real people with whom he has walked the streets, accounts of political philosophies by leaders on all sides of the issue, and the best-available scientific evidence.

So what are the take-home messages? First, most people, even longtime welfare recipients, want to work and will work if the proper incentives are in place. As DeParle concludes, "Welfare recipients were much more capable of working than most experts had guessed." Second, the morass of public policy can be traversed: Change can happen through legislative and policy reform. The key to policy action is singularity of focus. Just as the pillar of the No Child Left Behind Act has been accountability through standardized testing, the pillar of welfare reform has been employment. This single measure guides incentives, reporting, goals, outcomes, and standards. Third, with singularity of policy focus come inadvertent side effects. In the case of welfare reform, these have ranged from child-care crises to loss of health care. Not all side effects are negative, though, and a comprehensive policy analysis attempts to capture them all.

A fourth message is that, despite the massive changes that occurred rapidly through welfare reform, over time a surprisingly large number of families that had left welfare sank back into poverty. For one of the three women, Angie, life on welfare meant that she couldn't pay the bills, she had to live in a dangerous neighborhood, and her children had no father. Off welfare, she still couldn't pay the bills, she still lived in a dangerous neighborhood, and her children still needed a father. But she worked. "How well am I doing?" Angie is quoted as asking. "I ain't gonna call me poor--but I am poor."

Perhaps the critical take-home message is that real change for poor families will take more than a few thousand dollars of extra income or a marginal shift out of poverty: "[T]here's a threshold that families have to cross to feel that their lives have changed. And most haven't crossed it," DeParle says.

What is the next step for welfare reform? DeParle does not give satisfying answers here, and they may be beyond the scope of this book. He is sharply critical of President Bush, who, he believes, has dropped the ball completely on welfare reform. This is a story with more chapters still to be written.