I was recently on a plane from San Diego to New York City – a 5.5 hour flight – armed with nothing more than a book. I settled in, and was pleased to see a documentary on the offered docket of in-flight entertainment, one that I had been wanting to watch but never gotten around to it. It was about Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers, called Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
I didn’t watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood growing up, I don’t think. What I mostly recall from my RGB cathode-irradiated youth was Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokémon and other Japanese shows of the convulsion-inducing ilk. Slightly before that – or perhaps concurrently with, it’s all a hippocampal haze – were the Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network shows like Hey Arnold!, Animaniacs, Dexter’s Lab, Johnny Bravo, et. al. Foggier still are recollections of Nick Jr. (short for Nickelodeon Jr.), a set of programming that was hosted by that disembodied proto-emoji, the definitive little brother to Orwell’s Big, known simply as Face. That era of my televisual upbringing was stocked by Rugrats and Blues Clues, and more (my apologies to those programs who lent a hand in raising me that I am forgetting to thank).
But my childhood did not feature Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. PBS, in large, I remember being pretty averse to. I never watched Sesame Street. Where was the action? I only remember ever watching The Magic School Bus while at school, particularly when the teacher wanted to demonstrate the concept of friction(?) and human biology – I’m sure you remember that age-old episode where they shrink the bus and go inside poor young Arnold—the stuff of legends. Never Arthur, nor that insufferable cue-ball Caillou, or the cringey kids of ZOOM. Between the Lions bored me. Zoboomafoo admittedly had its moments. I vaguely recall watching a little Wishbone in my day. But Dragon Tales? Blechh. I remember thinking myself too cool for those semi-educational, moralizing kiddie shows, even when I myself was a kiddie. The world of fast-paced, flashy and amoral entertainment had already seduced me by the time I was five or six.
I feel that I am worse for it. While we all acknowledge how formative those years are, we as a nation, or as a people, perhaps do not consider enough media’s early role in forming children’s characters and psyches later in life. I would guess that for many parents—and I’m not on my high horse here, I don’t even begin to fathom the difficulties of child-rearing, and hopefully won’t have to anytime soon—the goal of children’s media is to keep their attention occupied for chunks of time. Not to educate them.
Watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I learned about the father of kids educational TV, and his philosophy. For Fred Rogers, a child was not just a pre-person, a cog yet to turn out in its function, but a full human being already, albeit with yet unformed concepts of the world (and smaller limbs). His program gave that full person the respect it was due. In its three decades on the air, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was always fighting an uphill battle to compete with the fast-paced, irreverent kids shows featured on major networks, Yet it managed to last for 33 years, from 1968 to 2001. It stood tall through fraught cultural periods, times of factionalization and division in America, and various national disasters and tragedies, not only moving through them but confronting them, addressing them and explaining what they meant to children watching at home. The show took on concepts like death and addressed segregation. When Bobby Kennedy was shot, it told children about the word “assassination,” and explained why it happened. The program respected kids’ full humanity enough not to leave them in the dark.
Human beings, as a rule, I think are more attracted to brighter lights, bolder headlines, and flashier graphics, just as I was as a kid. We also want things simplified and narrowed. It’s understandable – looking at the whole world with a constant, open-mind is not only exhausting, it’s terrifying. It can feel like open water.
As a result, much of our television programming today caters to that fear. Though the program Fred Rogers created for children was vastly more sophisticated than the crap being propagated for adults on stations like Fox News, it’s certainly of a much less popular kind. In 2007, Fox and Friends did a segment on Mr. Rogers. In the bit, the hosts suggest that Rogers—who died in 2003—was responsible for “ruining an entire generation.” They blamed him for the putative entitlement of the millennial generation, saying that he told children that they were special “even if they didn’t deserve it.” They vapidly sermonize: “He didn’t say, ‘If you wanna be special you gotta work hard.’ The world owes you nothing and you gotta prove it!” One of them avers: “This evil, evil man has now ruined a generation of kids.”
To me, the “millennial entitlement” narrative is complete tripe. Moreover, to suggest that telling a child they are special is coddling them is ridiculous. Perhaps we should repeal child labor laws while we’re at it. What’s particularly disgusting about the segment is that it’s so careless. The concept behind it is so thin, yet it was rolled out willy-nilly—an approach that was completely antithetical to Mr. Rogers,’ who was gentle and considerate of how everything he said could leave a profound impact.
The Murdoch-ian program merely found a crease in the skin, an angle, and pursued it to its utmost, either unaware or apathetic to who it might impact, and how. They created a trashy, paltry narrative because they could, and because it was flashy and polar and bold. They did this, likely, despite knowing that it didn’t hold more than a sip of water. They knew it was incomplete, and rather vicious. They knew it would sell. Because a partial narrative is far more comprehensible, and digestible, than the whole truth—and a lot more conclusive, and comforting. That’s something universal—the desire for narrative satisfaction, drawn out of a story that is too mysterious to wrap our heads around completely.
To many, Mr. Rogers was a soft-spoken old codger who wore cardigans and was a little too interested in children. Making such an offhand and derisive assumption about him—dismissing him, calling him a coddler or weirdo or, in the parlance of our time, a “snowflake” (made ironic by the fact that Rogers was a registered Republican his entire voting life) – that’s exactly the sort of thoughtlessness he fought and taught against. Because it’s self-protective; a partial, societally-approved line that keeps one from trying to see the whole picture, and moreover, inside themselves.
Though from afar he seemed a paragon of virtues like kindness, empathy, patience and especially perseverance through love—the closest thing to an American saint I can think of— Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does not portray him as flawless. Just as someone who tried his damnedest. That’s one of the documentary’s salient points: no one is the whole package, no one is perfect, not even Mr. Rogers. He embodied hope, yet when the documentary reveals that when PBS asked him to do a series of PSAs to address the tragedy of 9/11, he doubted himself, struggling to see how it would make any difference. At times, even he could be cyncical. Mr. Rogers was not the second coming of Christ—as his son jokingly refers to him onscreen—he is not someone prohibitively pure and therefore not worth the effort to emulate. The only solution he could ever offer us was to try: to do “whatever we can to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own -by treating our ‘neighbor’ at least as well as we treat ourselves.”
He didn’t know all the answers, and never purported to. The only belief he ever espoused was that life, in all its mystery, in all its uncertainty and even scariness, was always worth it. In 1997, Rogers accepted an Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In his acceptance speech, he told this story:
“Last month a 13-year-old boy abducted an eight-year-old girl; and when people asked him why, he said he learned about it on TV. ‘Something different to try,’ he said. ‘Life’s cheap; what does it matter?’
Well, life isn’t cheap. It’s the greatest mystery of any millennium, and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that – to show and tell what the good in life is all about.”
The word “wholesome” is a sort of derisive or at least dismissive term, used to describe campy sitcoms and families with golden retrievers featured in their Christmas cards. Ironically, the term is used to describe that which tells a partial story, one that excludes the tragedies and terrors of reality. But real wholesomeness describes that which never shies away from truth, and never takes an easy way out—like hatred, or anger, or fear—but looks at everything as being part of the same lovely thing, and responds in kind. Wholly. When you regard the avatars of its antonym—partiality, telling half the story—like Tucker Carlson and other manipulators, benders and fracturers of truth (i.e. liars)—one can see that wholesomeness, or the pursuit of it, is the truest and best way a human being can aspire to see, and act. Even if it’s not always comfortable.
It can be terrifying, trying to see everything as it is, and Rogers was not immune those fears and doubts. Nor was he immune to hopelessness and despair, and even anger, the documentary shows. He simply tried to respond with love, and never stopped. He fought the good fight. Rogers kept a quotation by his desk that he frequently referenced in the speeches he gave. It’s from The Little Prince, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret;
it is only with the heart that one can see rightly,
what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
It’s hard to communicate the message that he tried to – that there is a truth, a beauty, a love that you cannot see. The big, underlying thing that can’t be talked about adequately. It’s easier to gravitate to the easily identifiable messages that are beamed at you constantly from every medium. But that underlying thing is the real truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. You may not discover it in a pure, distilled form that you can mainline like a tincture of Tucker Carlson’s poncey face. But you’ll probably be better for trying, and you won’t be deluding yourself. As for me, I’ll never join them. So I might as well try to beat ‘em.
One of the most famous songs from Mr. Roger’s neighborhood goes like this:
“It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your caps and gowns, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings. Whether old or new, I hope that you remember, even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you, yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.” Today, lots of people would dismiss that as “liberal snowflake” blather.