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Opinion Abigail Disney: If my grandfather’s company doesn’t stand for love, what’s it for?

A Disney employee holds a sign while protesting outside of Disney World on March 22 in Orlando. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
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Abigail Disney is a documentary filmmaker and co-founder of Fork Films.

The Walt Disney Co.’s slow and bungled reaction to a new Florida law ostensibly about education — better known as the “don’t say gay” bill — has left the company my grandfather co-created criticized by all sides. To find its way again, Disney needs to muster the courage to weather the momentary outrage of people who will not be satisfied until they have erased an entire class of human beings.

Because if this brand does not stand for love, what on earth is it for?

It has been a tumultuous few weeks at Disney since this bill gained national prominence, along with news of the company’s support for legislators responsible for its writing. At first Disney pleaded neutrality, but when that triggered unprecedented blowback from employees, management voiced opposition to the law ... and now faces threats of boycotts and punitive action from Florida’s governor and others over its allegedly “woke” reaction.

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For decades, corporations in a range of industries have said little or nothing while some politicos have advocated policies and laws that obliterated all common ground in our public discourse. Business leaders like to claim political neutrality, suggesting they be left alone to “just do business.” But changes to tax, antitrust and regulatory policy in recent decades, directly affecting (and benefiting) profitability, make it clear that just doing business has been very political indeed.

Yes, voices on both the left and right have embraced the mantra that “markets fix everything.” But the most vigorous defenders of extreme subsidies, tax breaks, deregulation and disempowerment of workers are consistently found on the right.

Some of what’s happening now is new. Last weekend, Fox News host Laura Ingraham warned companies to “stay in your lane” or risk the wrath of a future Republican administration that might reexamine the protections and favors upon which corporate America has come to rely. “When Republicans … get back into power, Apple and Disney need to understand one thing: Everything will be on the table,” she said. “Your copyright, trademark protection. Your special status within certain states. And even your corporate structure itself.”

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Disney does have special status beyond its place in millions of hearts. Its contributions to politicians on both sides of the aisle have resulted in protections and other boosts to its business model, such as a notoriously long trademark for Mickey Mouse, the licensing of whose image brings in billions. Disney World in Florida has benefited from its location within a specially created district (an invention I’m not entirely proud of my grandfather, Roy O. Disney, for coming up with — much as I adored the man). That entity allows Disney to set its own land-use, environmental and other rules within a specific geographic area.

But Disney hasn’t been behaving any more nefariously than other corporations. This is just how the game has come to be played.

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As much as I hate agreeing with Ingraham, she is right about one thing: Protections for rent-seeking practices ought to be reviewed. And as much as I have to lose as a shareholder from saying so, I will admit: Disney is a creative company that for far too long has relied on crafty political machinations to protect its advantages while doing very little creative production beyond sequels, remakes, tent poles and so on — with the notable exception of animation.

But what Ingraham suggested is selective enforcement of such reviews or protections that amount to punishment for speaking up against right-wing positions, rather than a desire to challenge the imbalances that endow corporations with these advantages to begin with.

This time, the far-right-wing political machine appears to have gotten out over its skis. Politicians should be asking whether, come next election cycle, Disney or any other corporation will back them given these threats of arbitrary punishment under a potential Republican administration. Has allowing zealots (and opportunists) to take charge of the right-wing agenda effectively bitten the corporate hand that has fed the right for so long?

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The world has changed since my grandfather’s day. Corporations looking to occupy neutral ground — including Disney — would do well to admit that there is no longer such a thing.

The political backlash against Disney is a monster of corporate America’s own creation. Once content to stay quiet and feign neutrality while real people were actively harmed by right-wing policy machinations, the mob has now come for businesses. We need corporations to step up on principle, regardless of what the resulting backlash might look like.

The only option for corporate leaders is to stand tall for authenticity, generosity, joy and decency. These things are kryptonite for the right-wing agenda. Fortunately, they are also the heart and soul of the Disney brand.

Editor's note

This column was updated to clarify that the writer's grandfather, Roy O. Disney, co-created the Walt Disney Co. with his brother, Walt.

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