A new trailer for a movie is sometimes a cultural event, but it’s rarely a highly emotional, much less moral, occasion. The teaser for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a new documentary about children’s television host Fred Rogers from director Morgan Neville, prompted an unusual reaction when it was released this week.
“With the country feeling more divided than ever, everyone’s heartstrings could use a good tug, and that’s exactly what the trailer for the upcoming ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ promises,” wrote Erin Nyren in Variety. “Doesn’t that trailer just fill you with hope and pat you on the back, assuring that everything is going to be O.K. eventually?” asked Yohana Desta in Vanity Fair.
It’s nice to think that rediscovering Mister Rogers’s teachings could heal the country at a time when we need it most. But if Rogers played an indelible role in millions of Americans’ childhoods, it’s harder than ever for us to actually live by his precepts.
Twenty years ago, when Tom Junod profiled Rogers for Esquire, he acknowledged that “Mister Rogers is losing, as we all are losing. He is losing to it, to our twenty-four-hour-a-day pie fight, to the dizzying cut and the disorienting edit, to the message of fragmentation, to the flicker and pulse and shudder and strobe, to the constant, hivey drone of the electroculture.”
That is even more true, and the consequences of the “twenty-four-hour-a-day pie fight” are even more dire, than they were in 1998. In his famous 1969 testimony before Congress in support of public broadcasting funding, Rogers argued that “if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
The ugly aftermath of the 2016 election has posed a serious challenge to Rogers’s message of love, kindness and neighborliness. From the porn stars, to the profanity, to the purity of his anger, it’s hard to imagine a less Fred Rogers-like figure than President Trump, and the airtime the networks devoted to him as a candidate represented a remarkable subsidy to his campaign, if not the decisive factor in his election. Trump’s triumph over the medium that Rogers hoped to turn into a force for good is a blow to Rogers’s life’s work. And it’s hardly the only one.
When Rogers died in 2003, Fred Phelps, then the head of the Westboro Baptist Church, picketed his funeral, declaring that Rogers’s “syrupy teachings led millions astray. He was a wuss and he was an enabler of wusses.” That’s a judgment that many of us who grew up with Mister Rogers would revolt against. Who opposes the prospect of teaching children that they are valuable and giving them the confidence not merely to negotiate the world but also to believe that they can contribute to it? Who but a monster would tell Rogers that his devotion to approaching everyone he met with love and openness was naive, much less morally degraded?
And yet, since Nov. 8, 2016, the idea that we ought to give up on understanding each other — and perhaps that we don’t have the capacity to show love and understanding for each other — has become a persistent part of the national dialogue.
Writing in New York Magazine, Frank Rich rejected the post-election efforts to understand Trump voters in blunt and instrumental terms: “Is it a worthwhile political tactic that will actually help reverse Republican rule? Or is it another counterproductive detour into liberal guilt, self-flagellation, and political correctness of the sort that helped blind Democrats to the gravity of the Trump threat in the first place?”
When the New York Times’s Opinion section devoted a page to how Trump supporters felt about the president a year in, readers wrote in to complain about the project. “Perhaps The Times should devote an entire editorial page to flat earthers. For dialogue and understanding, of course,” suggested Lawrence Rosencrantz.
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask why those calls for love and understanding don’t flow in two directions, or to ask about the long-term cost of showing love to people who seem determined to hurt you back. But if someone who wasn’t Fred Rogers showed up and started telling Americans that in this moment, “the greatest thing we can do is help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving,” he might well get condemned in terms far harsher than those Phelps used to celebrate Rogers’s death.
Some of us want to Make America Great Again. Others of us long to return to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Slogans are easy. Figuring out what greatness actually means, and doing what it takes to truly be a neighbor, is much harder.