Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister behind the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, said once that “to love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”  . . .
That moment when we say, I accept you—even though being with you is awfully hard right now—that’s love. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences—we don’t have to accept terrible behavior. But part of how we love our children is in choosing, again and again, to take the whole child. . . .
I don’t know about you, but I find American life these days positively exhausting. Everything is always trying to wind you up, from political tweets and cable news to sports debate shows, thrill-ride movies and Internet headlines that will say anything to make you click on a link. Small wonder that many people are looking for things that don’t do that, but that offer what we might call counterprogramming to our whole troll-infested culture.
Audiences have found that in what may be the summer’s most surprising and beloved hits – “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” Morgan Neville’s moving documentary about Fred Rogers, the creator and star of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and “Nanette,” starring the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, which has been called transformative by viewers, critics and her fellow comedians.
.. Born into money, ordained as a Christian minister, registered as a lifelong Republican, Rogers turned out to be a gentle radical whose mission was to embody and promote humane values. As Neville shows, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was inspired by Rogers’ dismay at the existing television shows for children, which he thought degrading, fatuous, thoughtlessly violent and designed to transform kids into consumers.
.. Then, she shifts gears, and we discover a value she shares with Fred Rogers, a refusal to play along with the rules of the medium of which they are a part. Just as he thought ordinary TV demeaned children, Gadsby explains why she can no longer do stand-up. She argues that stand-up works by ratcheting up tension with psychologically fraught material then releasing it with a punchline. And the demands of this process, tension and release, keep you from saying anything that doesn’t fit into that pattern.
.. neither Gadsby nor Rogers are scolds who hate art, which is, after all, a way of expressing feelings and truths that can’t be fully expressed any other way. In fact, both are consciously artful in what they do. But they also suggest that too much commercial entertainment is dehumanizing because it’s all about prompting an instantly pleasurable reaction. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “Nanette” do precisely the opposite. They’re humanizing.
The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.
Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.
.. Mister Rogers was a lifelong Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister. His show was an expression of the mainline Protestantism that was once the dominating morality in American life.
.. Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him.
The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.
Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that
- the child is closer to God than the adult;
- that the sick are closer than the healthy;
- that the poor are closer than the rich and
- the marginalized closer than the celebrated.
Rogers often comforted children on the show and taught them in simple terms, but the documentary shows how he did so with a profound respect for the dignity of each child that almost rises to veneration. You see his visceral disgust for shows that don’t show respect — that dump slime on children, that try to entertain them with manic violence.
In the gospel of Fred Rogers, children are our superiors in the way
- they trust each person they meet, the way
- they lack guile,
- the way a child can admit simple vulnerability.
Rogers was drawing on a long moral tradition, that the last shall be first. It wasn’t just Donald Trump who reversed that morality, though he does represent a cartoonish version of the idea that winners are better than losers, the successful are better than the weak. That morality got reversed long before Trump came on the scene, by an achievement-oriented success culture, by a culture that swung too far from humble and earnest caritas.
Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives. The song sheet may be stacked somewhere in a drawer in the national attic, ready for reuse once again.