America has been on edge for about 17 years now, since the tragic events of 9/11. War. Recession. Scandals. Highly contested elections. Once upon time in America we were more on the same page. Today’s culture has been hijacked by 24-hour news, power-grabbing politicians, and a YouTube-using, fame-seeking generation filled with Instagram models and blog personalities hell bent on grabbing enough followers to sell themselves as a brand to other media outlets to make millions with no regard for the content and messages they produce. But it wasn’t always like this. The entertainment and political cultures weren’t always this way, and if the GOP wants to make America great again, one such path is to look at social leaders who preached civility and not antipathy.
One such leader of this America of the past was Fred Rogers, the star of the beloved children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. A Presbyterian pastor and lifelong Republican, Mr. Rogers was the real counter-culture movement in an ever-changing America during the late 1960s. His warm persona and emphasis on human kindness and goodness separate him from most of the garbage out there disguised as “entertainment.” There is a new documentary about his life called Won’t You Be My Neighbor playing in limited release throughout Ventura County and nationwide and should be required viewing. What was so interesting about the show was how political the show was. If the Republican Party were smart, it would get a copy and watch it as a group.
Here are just a few of the politically charged themes he addressed:
- Rogers’ first episode ever was about a puppet king who wanted to build a wall and was convinced to tear it down by learning to love those “changers” who were different
- Explaining the assassination of Robert Kennedy to a lion puppet
- Having a black neighborhood police officer in his mostly white neighborhood
- Desegregating a pool by sharing it with the police officer
- Destigmatizing divorce
- Addressing the country after 9/11 about loving each other
His show today would be a stark contrast to the Donald Trump administration. While Trump is looking into separating illegal immigrant families through federal prison and building walls, Mr. Rogers was trying to bring up a generation to love all of God’s creations. Instead of rooting for the demise of his political opponents, he taught children how to grieve and deal with death. Instead of playing the US Vs. THEM game, he taught about sharing. This was the America that people loved. This was the culture we once developed. Instead of judging people for personal battles (like divorce), Mr. Rogers taught children that life was hard and people made mistakes. In fact, his take on race was radical for its time, using black actors as authority figures and using white men as postal worker service men.
What I found interesting is that many right-wingers now look back on the positive themes of Mr. Rogers as the downfall of a generation who feel “entitled” because he told them that they were special just the way they were. One Fox News commentator satirically called Mr. Rogers an “evil, evil, evil man.” That is ridiculous, as Mr. Rogers was saying what America’s Constitution said all along, that all of us are equal and no better than another. The American promise was that you had the right to pursue your dreams and be happy just the way you were.
As we look at the current state of politics and our vulgar celebrity culture, if we really want to make America great again, we must start being kind to each other again. Once upon a time in this country, even though we battled through our racist or sexist discriminatory laws, we had an overarching civility about us.
At the end of the film there is an overwhelming moment, a challenge per se, to be grateful. In our current winner/loser binary language, we have lost that. Trump isn’t going to restore that. We must look back into the best of our past to restore what once made America great to those who came here, or else we are doomed to more separation from the promise we once gave.