Until watching Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it had been a long while since I’d given Mister Rogers much thought. If he came up at all in the past two decades, it was probably as a gag: an off-hand remark about button-up cardigans or a jibe about sock puppets. Fred Rogers is one of those democratizing figures in American life who is universally recognizable and universally safe for joking (or last-minute Halloween costumes). In this, Rogers may even out-rival Richard Simmons, Dan Quayle, or the Kardashians. Except Rogers, rather embarrassingly, exercises a deeper moral claim on us. Neville’s Won’t you be My Neighbor has the melancholic effect of reminding us of that moral claim. The 1970s provided no shortage of sappy television icons, but Mister Rogers is the only one who assured your four-year-old self that he loved you.
Given his sheer earnestness, I’d assumed that Mister Rogers started taping in the 1950s—even if Mister. Rogers seemed to linger long after Andy Griffith and Theodore Cleaver were relegated to Nick at Nite. But Neville’s film emphasizes that Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, which first aired in 1968, was very much a product of the Vietnam era. One of the earliest episodes depicts King Friday erecting a wall through the neighborhood, as Rogers and Lady Aberlin calmly discuss the management of fear and grief. Just after the shooting of Bobby Kennedy, Daniel the Lion asks Lady Aberlin what “assassination” means. Four months following Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, Rogers and the neighborhood’s African American police officer (Francois Clemmons) quietly share a footbath on a hot day.
Rogers’ fellow producers describe him as “radical” for his willingness to discuss current events—including the war and the Civil Rights Movement—and his intense interest in child development. It’s an unexpected characterization of a man made famous for his sunny stodginess. But the film is fairly persuasive that Rogers was in fact an innovator. In the 1950s, Rogers worked with leading practitioners at the Arsenal Family & Children’s Center, affiliated with University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. There, he knew the pediatrician Benjamin Spock, the psychosocial developmentalist Erik Erikson and child psychologist Margaret McFarland. It was then that Rogers began thinking seriously about honest, hands-on ways to help children learn, express themselves, and manage fear. One of Rogers’ persistent themes is that childhood is indeed scary and demands responsible role-modeling from adults (in clips from the late 1970s, an especially fusty Rogers worried that the Superman franchise was encouraging kids to think they, too, could fly).
The other radical aspect of Rogers is that he was, in the words of one of his colleagues, an “evangelist for television.” An ordained Presbyterian pastor, Rogers put his seminary studies on hold to take a job at NBC in 1951, on the hunch that the future was in television. By itself, TV was a neutral medium. But with the right programming (and subtle Christian messaging), Rogers believed television had the chance “of building a real community out of the entire country.” Children growing up in difficult circumstances could, at least for a half-hour each week, reside in Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, knowing that kids in Connecticut or Kansas lived there too.
The thought isn’t crazy. Benedict Anderson famously referred to people living in modern nationalist states as “imagined communities.” We develop a “horizontal” relationship with most of our fellow citizens not because we meet most of them but because we share the same language and partake in the same media culture. This insight accounts for Tocqueville’s well-known admiration for democratic newspapers, and is still more or less the justification for PBS or NPR.
Yet the documentary’s mournful tone suggests Rogers’ project hasn’t succeeded. It would be hard to make the case that citizens are kinder or more neighborly than when Rogers started out. TV may technically be neutral, but today’s Americans certainly aren’t. We’re excessive, vulgar, impatient, and increasingly partisan about our media choices. Maybe we have only ourselves to blame.
In a great little essay called “Tocqueville’s Television,” Ben Berger highlights the etymology of “television.” The Greek tele (far) joins with the Latin visio (sight). So TV portends to be far-sighted—not unlike what Tocqueville said his goal was in the introduction to Democracy in America: “to see not differently but further.” Fred Rogers, we might say, shared this Tocquevillian foresight. Rogers was right that TV would shape our culture. And he was right that most of that cultural output would be degrading—for both children and adults. Berger goes on to describe Tocqueville as the great theorist of democracy as a new “technology.” Like TV, democracy is just one tool among many and can be used for good or ill. Both TV and democracy, though, have the tendency to recede to the lowest common denominator; they equalize us, distract us, and isolate us.
The fact that Rogers tried to fight this trend and self-consciously invited us into a community reminds me of an old Political Theory article I recently discovered on The Simpsons. In 1999, Paul Cantor pointed out that Springfield, USA—where the Simpsons live—is a strangely empowered small town. He even dubs Springfield “a classical polis” for the direct control its citizens apparently have over their media. Springfield’s one and only newsman, Kent Brockman, resides in the neighborhood. And when Marge decides to protest cartoon violence, she doesn’t have to go far to do her picketing, since the Itchy & Scratchy headquarters is evidently also based in Springfield. Cantor explains: “The Simpsons takes the phenomenon that has in fact done more than anything to subvert the power of the local in American politics and American life in general—namely, the media—and in effect brings in within the orbit of Springfield, thereby placing the force at least partially under local control.” This fact, like a lot of The Simpsons, seems to be part fantasy, part nostalgia, and part joke.
What’s unnerving about The Simpsons is that the joke is probably on us. As viewers, we like the idea that we might play a more active role in politics and the media, even as we sit passively and consume something that would likely make Rogers cringe: a cartoon written for adults. He thought even kids deserved better.
According to those who worked on the set of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Rogers wasn’t devoid of humor; he appreciated the occasional backstage joke. But Neville’s documentary makes clear that Rogers didn’t think childhood—and the democratic communities his children would inherit—was a laughing matter. TV probably can’t do much in the way of forging civic bonds. But Neville does an eerily good job of making us want to imagine the sort of country where Mister Rogers wouldn’t just be a laugh-line.