Could There Be Another Fred Rogers Today?
“The need was always there to be loved and to be capable of love, everyone wants to be loved and to know that he or she is capable of being lovable.” These were the simple words Fred Rogers gave to his sister Elaine shortly before he was put into a medically induced coma in 2003 that he would never emerge from. Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which was released in June, seeks to demystify the philosophy and career of one Mr. Fred Rogers. As the documentary progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Rogers’s message did not need decoding; but that we, the viewer, needed to be conditioned into remembering how to love our neighbor. This raised the crucial question of whether we can have another Fred Rogers in this world and, if we get him, do we deserve him?
Coming out of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I knew that I couldn’t just jump right back into writing more articles condemning this or criticising that. It made me question what I am doing to show people that they are loved and capable of love. In the 17 years since Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood went off the air, nobody in modern media has been able to fill Fred’s humongous sweaters and be the driving force of kindness for children. However this really isn’t about children, it’s about society as a whole. Who is there, every weekday, asking us to be his neighbor and be loved as his neighbor? Certainly not Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson. Definitely not Rachel Maddow or Wolf Blitzer, not even cuddly Anderson Cooper comes close.
But even if another Fred Rogers-esque entertainer would emerge, a man that promoted peace and love above all and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, how long would it take for him to get cancelled? It would be all too easy to chalk up the impossibility of Rogers’s hypothetical success today to simple political divisiveness. In 1969, Fred Rogers went before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to plead his case for why the government should fund national television and ended up securing millions of dollars from a committee that was initially dead set against it. And if there was ever a more divided time than today, it would have to be 1969. Flash forward to 2003 at Rogers’s private funeral in Pittsburgh where Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church held a public protest with signs and chants of “God Hates Fags.” Despite the fact that Rogers himself was a happily married man, and a Presbyterian minister for far longer than he was on TV, and not homosexual, the “church” still decided to protest his funeral because of the warmth and acceptance Rogers gave to his co star Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons) who was, in fact, gay.
But it is all too easy to point at the Westboro Baptists and say, “well they don’t represent the rest of the population. We all loved Fred Rogers.” This may have been true for a time, but once us “entitled millennials” started coming of age, having hard times finding work and places to live, the right-wing establishment needed somebody to blame. And what better target than the man who, five days a week for over forty years, told each and every child across the country that he or she is special just for being themselves. Fox News anchors went so far as to call Rogers an “evil, evil man.” The argument here being that if you tell children they are inherently special and loved, then they won’t do anything do earn it. Because that is exactly what it says in the Bible: God only loves you if you make varsity, no participation trophies. It is truly ironic that the man who was an ordained minister, taught the Golden Rule of loving one’s neighbor as oneself for four decades would be denounced by the theocratic mouthpiece that is Fox News.
One of the big reasons that Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood ran for so long was Rogers’s own distaste for the world of children’s programming that he saw. Shows that don’t attempt to teach children important lessons like what does assassination mean, how disabled people are still people, and why we can all share the same pool. And now, 17 years after the show ended, it is just as difficult to find children’s programming that boldly attempts to explore the same depth as Fred Rogers did on a daily basis. So, even if the adults in society could stand Rogers’s hippie-dippie, entitled attitude towards their children, would the kids even watch it? Many of the shows that came of age towards the end of Rogers’s television career are still immensely popular today, in particular Power Rangers which was singled out in Won’t You Be My Neighbor as a prime example of why Rogers felt he needed to stay on TV. He felt that children weren’t learning anything by watching these bright colors and explosions of heroes fighting villains. One thing that made Fred Rogers so effective in talking to children was his honesty. He didn’t try to bury themes deep beneath the surface, so far down that the children themselves couldn’t even figure out the message of the show, and that showed respect. Any kid’s show that contains the phrase, “what does assassination mean,” spoken by a sockpuppet has serious respect for its viewers.
So what is the answer? How do we make this world, or just this country, one that could support another Fred Rogers? Won’t You Be My Neighbor? leaves viewers with a simple mantra that could be the answer; WWFRD: what would Fred Rogers do? When you think about it, the phrase is almost too simple. When you meet somebody different from you, maybe politically, socially, or ethically, treat them like they lived right next door to you in the neighborhood of make believe. The entire world is our neighborhood, and you must ask people everyday: won’t you be my neighbor?