Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Kindness Is Not Enough

I didn't grow up on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.  Even if I'd been the right age -- I was 17 when the show went national in 1968 -- there was no public television station near where I grew up, so my childhood TV companion was CBS' Captain Kangaroo.  And the new documentary about Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, hasn't been booked in a local theater yet, but I'll see it when it does.  The publicity the documentary has been getting me led me to look at a number of clips featuring or about Rogers, and I want to see more.  He also wrote some books that I think I should look at.  Not necessarily to write about here, though I might, but childhood development and education are interesting topics to me.
A lot of what I have been looking at is reactions to the film. There's a genre of Youtube videos where people watch movie trailers and "react" to them, usually without anything interesting to say. When these reactors take on the trailer of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, certain motifs recur.  Some wipe away tears; not only women -- heck, I did too the first time I watched it.  Another was the notion that "we need Mr. Rogers today."  Here's a pro version:

It seems to me that this dishonors Fred Rogers.  There's a tension in this clip between its sentimental picture of a nice guy (which he was) who taught the importance of being good neighbors (which he did), and the man who took on difficult, painful issues like death, divorce, disability, racism, and just "feeling blue."  That tension emerges in the commentator's portrayal of the present as an us vs. them time, when being nasty is common in social media and politics -- while showing images that contradict that neat dichotomy, that human beings were mean to each other when Fred Rogers was at his peak as a "superstar."  Like the racist motel manager who dumped muriatic acid into the motel swimming pool to try to intimidate black protesters.  But dig this:
Many people from that time remember Brock as more the victim in the incident. One moment of temper led to an unwanted legacy. “Jimmy kind of caught the brunt of it. He was a nice guy”. said Eddy Mussallem, a fellow hotelier and longtime friend. “They had to pick a motel, so they picked Jimmy’s motel. I always told him he did a foolish thing”. Brock found himself pressured by civil rights groups and militant whites fighting integration. On 2007, aged 85, Jimmy Brock died at his St. Augustine home.
This is not how you get past us. vs. them, but it's a popular attitude with a certain strain of liberal.  Contrary to the ABC commentator, Fred Rogers was not a "revolutionary," but he had firm beliefs and worked hard to express them in children's TV.  Washing and drying the feet of a black friend on his show surely upset many "nice" white people, and Rogers knew that.  Francois Clemmons, the actor who played Officer Clemmons, is gay, but he understood (however reluctantly) why Rogers cautioned him about being openly gay.  We can't ask Rogers himself why he made this decision, but it seems clear enough.  He doesn't seem to have been bothered by Clemmon's homosexuality, which is noteworthy in a Christian minister of his generation at that time; but he knew that a gay actor on a TV show for young children, even if the character he played wasn't gay, would be treated as a scandal that would probably have resulted in the show's cancellation.  (Compare the complicated case of the Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash, decades later.)  Not just turning off the TV, as the commentator says, but taking the show off the air altogether, so nobody could see it.*

Fred Rogers died in 2003, but his programs and a good deal of other material by him are still available.  You and your children can watch them on PBS' website, and at least some are available on Youtube.  If we need him, he's still there as much as he was when he was alive. What bothers me, on reflection, is that so many adults expect him to save them somehow.  I understand fully the fond memories they have of his show, hut it wasn't all sweetness and light, and that was exactly where its value lay, and still does.  I wouldn't say this to children, of course, but these people are grownups.  If he's in their hearts (as one woman says in the ABC segment), then they should be able to take what they learned from him and live by it, act on it.  If they aren't doing that, if they aren't trying to make the world a better, safer place for children -- even just the children around them -- then they didn't learn anything from Mr. Rogers after all; they're just using him as a security blanket.  The past he represents for them was not a safe place, which is why he made TV for children, to help them cope with it.  Of course we all need our comfort zones, but once we've been comforted we have to go back out and deal with the world.  As Rogers said repeatedly, "Look for the helpers."  The helpers are not "them," but "us" -- you and I.

If I were going to criticize Rogers in any serious way, it would be that he doesn't seem to have stressed that enough.  (I could be wrong about that, since I am drawing on an insufficient sample of what he said over many years.)  Even small children need to know that they can be helpers too -- but most little children are empathetic and want to help.  It's one of the most basic forms of competence children have, and children want, more than almost anything else, to be competent.  I'm wary of reading my politics into Rogers', so let me quote from his 2002 commencement address at his alma mater Dartmouth College.  You can see it on Youtube, but the text is available online.
[B]eside my chair [in my office], is a French sentence from Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. It reads, “L’essential est invisible pour les yeux.” What is essential is invisible to the eye. Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person, and often many, who have believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.
There’s a neighborhood song that is meant for the child in each of us, and I’d like to give you the words of that song right now. “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.”
And what that ultimately means, of course, is that you don't ever have to do anything sensational for people to love you. When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see, or hear, or touch. That deep part of you, that allows you to stand for those things, without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.
I was six or seven when it occurred to me to wonder where moms and dads go for comfort when they have bad dreams.  Where does the buck stop?  It stops with each of us, but we have each other, with whom the buck also stops.  I understand the desire to go back to childhood when we could run to mom or dad to reassure us after a bad dream.  I feel it myself, living with everyone else in an international bad dream.  But we can't go back to childhood, and our parents (even when they are still alive) can't give their adult children the same kind of comfort they gave us when we were four or five.

In that commencement address Rogers also told a story of competitors at the Special Olympics who stopped in the middle of a race to comfort one of their number who'd fallen and was crying.  Then they all walked to the finish line together.  No losers.  No winners -- that's the hard part for many or most people to accept.  Rogers explained: "Because deep down, we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too. Even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then."  So I don't think I'm reading my politics into his.  But they aren't just his, or mine: lots of other people have said and are saying the same thing.  We don't need Mr. Rogers to be here now to tell us these things; we just need to listen to what he already said, and then to tell each other.  The best thing about being an adult, as opposed to a child, is that we have much greater scope and ability to be helpers.

P.S. After I wrote this post I found Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers by Michael G. Long (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), which devotes an entire chapter to this issue, "'He Understood': Homosexuality and Gay Friends."  Rogers had numerous gay friends, including one from his college days, and seems not to have been at all uncomfortable with gay people; he also was supportive of "inclusive" ministries when they emerged in his own denomination. I think his extreme caution about Clemmons was completely understandable for someone working in children's television in 1968, when a gay actor could have been quietly fired and very few people would have taken it amiss.  That Rogers instead kept Clemmons on, befriended him, encouraged him to be happy, and learned from him, speaks very well for him.

We all grow at our own pace, yet I was mildly surprised when Long mentioned the death of Rogers's gay college friend, a operatic baritone named James Reardon whom Rogers also invited to appear and perform on the show.  Reardon died around 1988, and Long writes "the newspapers reported that he died of pneumonia" (148).  From this we may infer that Reardon died from complications of AIDS, yet Long doesn't say so, even in a book for adults published in 2015.  We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.