When We Were Neighbours

The anti-Trump: Fred Rogers. Pittsburgh, 2006.

I’m standing outside in the rain. Not the savage sort we usually see during our summer Monsoon season here in the Sonoran Desert, but an impossible soft mist. There’s just enough of a breeze to set our wind chimes in motion, creating a soundscape that implores me to be completely in the moment. I hear myself saying, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood.”

As my fiftieth birthday drew near, I thought about all the historical anniversaries that would be commemorated this year: the Prague Spring; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy; the Democratic convention in Chicago; the massacre of student protesters in Mexico City and the controversial Olympics that followed. But I never expected to see Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood receive this much attention. 

The surprising success of the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, currently playing in multiplexes across the United States, speaks to subterranean impulses in the time of Donald Trump. As the news fills up with stories of incivility, people who refuse to treat each other with respect because of their political differences, a counter-movement is struggling to get off the ground. For people who grew up watching Fred Rogers’ show, his calm yet forceful insistence that everyone is special and equally deserving of love must seem a way to give it lift.

And that’s a lot of people. In this time of a perpetually fragmenting television market, when even the most successful shows only pull in a small fraction of the number of regular viewers that they once did, it is hard to fathom the impact that programs like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood once had. Parents who were reluctant to let their children watch commercial television happily sat them down in front of PBS. And children whose parents were less involved frequently ended up watching those programs anyway, because other channels rarely broadcasted content that appealed to them in the morning during weekdays.

My mother, perhaps because her parents were typical mid-century intellectuals, let me watch television all day when I was home, from Let’s Make a Deal and The Newlywed Game through afternoon soap operas and the syndicated reruns and local news that followed them. But it was the slate of PBS children’s programming that I watched most intently. Although I liked Sesame Street best myself, she always said that she preferred having me watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood because it calmed me down. Maybe that’s why I was less enthusiastic about the show. Nevertheless, when I was watching the documentary, tears started to stream down my face the minute I saw him walk through the door and open the closet to select a sweater. And I almost never cry. Everyone else in the theater was bawling too.

Although the film does nothing to dispute the purity of Fred Rogers’ television personality — unlike other beloved celebrities, he has not been touched by scandal — it strongly emphasises the intellectual intensity that motivated him to produce and sustain it for over three decades. The show did not come about accidentally. Nor did the subtle propagandising for inclusivity that would come to define it. We learn that he spent a lot of time with leaders in educational theory at the University of Pittsburgh and tried very hard to put their ideas into practice in a way that would achieve maximum impact, both on children and their parents.

Indeed, we are given the impression that nothing bothered Rogers more than the belief that he wasn’t serious. Given the cultural context in which the show emerged – the first episode screened on February 19th, 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive – when children were being exposed to “second-hand television” of the most disturbing sort, his decision to prioritise calm over excitement now seems like a radical intervention. But for parents who were a little too old to have been raised by the tube and who still vividly recalled the perversely sunny optimism of most programming in the 1950s, Rogers’ approach may have seemed somewhat reactionary.

One effect of the political upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s was to disentangle the terms “radical” and “reactionary”, with the former now used mostly for the left and the latter mostly for the right. Only over the past decade, really, have they started to converge once more in the mainstream media. This makes it easier to discern that Rogers was a “reactionary radical” from the beginning. Not the angry, flag-waving sort, mind you, but composed and quiet. If he went backwards, it was only to reposition the cutting edge.

On the surface, Rogers’ political investments don’t seem that pertinent to the story Won’t You Be My Neighbor? wants to tell. While the treatment of small children has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to the increasing vigilance of the ICE, few Americans are going to disagree with his conviction that children need to feel as special and safe as possible. His lessons are so broad that they consistently sidestep the hard questions that inspire partisan rancour. Nevertheless, the makers of the film not only reveal that Rogers was a lifelong registered Republican but do so in a particularly memorable way. All through the remainder of the film, I kept thinking, “But he was a Republican!”, before I reminded myself once again that the term meant something different back during his show’s heyday.

Maybe that’s the point of underscoring Rogers’ political affiliation. If we compare his words and deeds with those of present-day Republicans, from the president on down, it is not hard to discern that the divide between them is widening rapidly. The qualities that he worked hardest to project – curiosity, patience, caring – are regularly dismissed as soft and ineffectual. And the most important message of the make-believe portions of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, that feelings of fear, anxiety, and loneliness should be taken seriously, is completely out of step with the derisive attacks on liberal “snowflakes” that Donald Trump and his surrogates love to dish out.

When George W. Bush was campaigning in 2000, many Americans on the left argued that there wouldn’t be much difference between his Republican administration and a Democratic one led by Al Gore. As governor of Texas during the 1990s, Bush had promoted a more inclusive “compassionate conservatism”, building on the call for a “kinder, gentler nation” with which his father George H.W. Bush had accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1988. But the excruciatingly close contest that put “43” in the White House, culminating in a controversial Supreme Court decision, stirred the embers of partisanship left over from the previous decade. And there was still a lot of heat left to work with, from the rise of right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, to the Contract With America, to the party line vote by the House of Representatives to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 temporarily restored a sense of unity throughout the United States, not to mention bringing Fred Rogers out of retirement to craft messages of comfort for his former audience. But it didn’t take long for the political divisions of the previous decade to rematerialize, as Republicans pushed to derive maximum advantage from Bush’s popularity as a “war president” and Democrats realized that their best hope of regaining power was to hope that the conflict lasted long enough for that popularity to evaporate, just as it had for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. That’s what ended up happening, giving us two years of Democratic control of both the White House and Congress under the even-more-divisive leadership of Barack Obama, followed by six more in which the Republicans parlayed their recapturing of Congress into no-holds-barred obstruction of his supposedly dangerous liberal agenda.

Apart from his refusal to bite the hands that fed him – pragmatic, if infuriating to his progressive supporters – Obama’s biggest failing as a leader may have been his penchant for treating his constituents the way Fred Rogers treated his audience, calmly explaining the issues of the day as if he were trying to allay the fears of pre-school children. People who didn’t find this approach condescending – because they were sure he wasn’t talking down to them – loved his manner even when they had reservations about the man. But it infuriated future Trump voters, who tended to feel that the President’s desire to appear above partisanship was a ruse intended to achieve partisan goals.

And that is why, as the 2018 midterm elections draw near, the United States seems more polarized than at any time since 1968. However, while Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does an excellent job of situating Fred Rogers’ show in relation to that tumultuous year, its attempt to also make it speak to the present conjuncture is less successful. When we are told early in the film that he devoted part of its first week to the autocratic King Friday’s decision to build a wall, the parallels to today seem almost painfully obvious. But as the documentary unfolds, it becomes less and less clear how we are supposed to transmute nostalgia for Rogers’ “slow television” into actionable knowledge.

By being out of step with the trends of its own time, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was able to provide a refuge for children who felt overwhelmed by bad news, whether in their families or the televisions that frequently served as surrogates for them. Now that most of those children are well into middle age, however, the search for such a refuge takes on a more disturbing aspect, leading to self-sorting into social media “bubbles” where even the scariest prospects are recapitulated in language that provides solace.

When anyone can serve the functions of a neighbour, the need to reach out to one’s actual neighbours diminishes sharply. I know that part of the reason why Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood resonated for me as a small child is that I lived in the middle of the woods, without any neighbours close by. Although the invitation that gives the film its title was meant to break the fourth wall, forging a connection as real for children as the one they had with their own families, I never took it literally. When the trolley transported viewers to the land of make-believe, I saw the work of someone who had learned to manufacture neighbours in his mind, just as I frequently did.

Maybe that’s why the aspects of social media that disturb so many people of my generation and the Baby Boomers who preceded them barely trouble me. Finding the “neighbours” I want on the internet doesn’t seem much different from finding them in my own imagination. But I worry a lot about the consequences of not having to deal with anyone who lives on my street. Recently, a couple near retirement age moved into the house opposite ours. They made a point of introducing themselves and continue to call out to me by name. Yet despite having an unusually good memory for that sort of information, I can’t seem to recall who they are. Something inside me has deemed them expendable, since I can secure the satisfactions of community more easily on my computer or mobile-phone screens and without the stress of dealing with political differences.

While I recognize that this is a serious character flaw, reducing the likelihood that I will have meaningful communication with people who are not like me, I struggle to correct for the distortion it produces. Sometimes I wonder whether watching so much Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a small child is to blame. Because despite the fact that the show tried to make diversity less scary, the presence of its supremely square host made watching it more comfortable than traditional forms of social interaction. From this perspective, his invitation to become a “neighbour” seems like a way of potentially avoiding contact with one’s actually existing neighbours.

While our inner children may still need a sense of stability and comfort to thrive, our very survival as a nation – and a species, given the dire predictions about climate change – depends on remembering how to behave like grown-ups. And, while Fred Rogers provides a good role model in some respects, his promotion of televisual neighbourliness is ill-suited to a world in which partisan politics cannot be wished away by make-believe. Sometimes, the only way to ensure that your neighbourhood survives is by acknowledging that not everyone in it is willing or able to treat you as a neighbour. That is a scary prospect. But I would argue that it’s ultimately a lot scarier when we go out of our way to feel safe.

Photograph courtesy of Guillermo Ascanio. Published under a Creative Commons license.