Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fred Rogers

If you have some morbid curiosity about the advanced forms of insensate evil, you could do worse than look at this old and titanically mean-spirited "Tribute" to Fred Rogers, published in the Weekly Standard.  I think the tone of the thing is supposed to be "good-natured satire" or "friendly sniping" from across the political aisle, or something.  But in this attempt, if attempt it is, the piece falls catatonically flat.  Watching the American right-winger attempting to wield humor -- and more especially, irony -- is like seeing a villainous cartoon character hurl a boomerang at his nemesis and then confidently dust off his hands. Neither realizes that the joke will ultimately be on them.

Here's a taste of the fortifying wit and whimsy of Mr. Last:
"For all of his sweetness, Mr. Rogers was a countercultural figure. His show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, presented a liberal view of the world that often verged on self-parody. One episode I saw recently featured a nonsexist orange construction sign proclaiming 'People at Work.' In another, Mr. Rogers made little bags of homemade granola [...] before heading off to tour a tofu factory."
Never mind the fact that the real Fred Rogers, so far as I can tell, never declared his loyalty to a particular political party or ideology, and that both liberals and conservatives can find things to admire in his work.  That matters little to someone like our Weekly Standard author who, it would seem, finds the idea of female construction workers so hysterically implausible that it "verge[s] on self-parody." Last's little squib, by the way, was written in 2011.  So yes, he could have known better.

The very next line after the "tofu" remark heads a tour-de-force of utter non-sequitor:
"That makes sense, of course. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood began filming in 1968. The drug culture was unfurling; homeless teenagers were taking over San Francisco; student protesters were rioting. Hijackings and assassinations had become routine. America’s center was failing to hold."
What does the demonstrative pronoun refer to in the first sentence?  What does eating tofu and recognizing that people who aren't male can also work on highways have to do with "Hijackings and assassinations"?  Are these the inevitable consequences of the unbridled consumption of granola?  Are we meant to suppose that Mr. Rogers is just the smiling public face of the Symbionese Liberation Army?  Search me.

After all this pungent satire, Mr. Last shifts into a a deeper and more sonorous key, as he starts to express his admiration for the man whose grave he had appeared to be dancing over a few lines before.  This admiration, however, is still further prefaced by one more wet fart of right-wing hatred:

"I’d make book that [Rogers] was in favor of the United Nations and the Nuclear Freeze movement and Jimmy Carter and all of the other horribles of the left. But when it came to culture, Fred Rogers was deeply conservative.  [...] An ordained Presbyterian minister, he was conventionally religious, not spiritual."
Does being "religious" mean that you are "deeply conservative"?  Is Prebyterianism a sign of right-wing convictions?  It would probably surprise and alarm Mr. Last to learn that the mainline Presbyterians of Mr. Roger's era footed the bill for Angela Davis's legal defense, and that their ranks earlier in the century gave birth to such radical icons as Norman Thomas and A.J. Muste.

There is a more interesting case to be made that Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was "conservative" in some, and probably apolitical, sense of the word, as I'll come to below.  But it is quite obvious that any such sense of the word would be a more sophisticated and nuanced one than is intended by Mr. Last-- who proceeds to give us his Victorian understanding of how proper child-rearing should proceed, and which he uncharitably attributes to Fred Rogers:
"Mr. Rogers stood to suggest that adults could be kind to children while still acting like adults. Which is to say that grown-ups know best and should civilize the dear little savages, with love and understanding in their hearts."
Perhaps this was the philosophy of Mr. Last's own parents or guardians, and no doubt it made its contribution to the emotional and moral tone-deafness he displays in his writing.  However, it was certainly not the philosophy of Mr. Rogers, who certainly did "act like an adult" (unlike his "admirer" here), but who did not see children as "savages" who had to be broken in like horses.

All of Fred Roger's work upheld in the most sustained and focused way possible the importance of  a child's self-expression, the integrity of her individual personality -- in short, all of that "specialness" that conservatives are always complaining about.  ("I like you just the way you are," was a frequent refrain.)  In this sense, his series was deeply "liberal" and Mr. Last was probably closer to the truth at the outset of his article, when he seemed to regard Mr. Rogers as an ideological foe.

But Fred Rogers was also "conservative," in the sense that he recognized that being true to oneself and being in touch with one's own deepest feelings is worth doing in part because it is a way to preserve important cultural values -- and to maintain through them the lasting bonds between people which can alone give life meaning.  In short, Mr. Rogers gives potential for headaches to ideologues of both cultural liberalism and patriarchal conservatism, because he recognized that living in peace with ourselves means living in peace with others and vice versa.

A couple lines by way of closing from Fred Rogers in his writings to adults -- they are lines which reveal his deeply compassionate and politically sui generis philosophy, while also demonstrating, I think, that if he had lived to read Last's dubious "Tribute," he would have responded not in anger, but in pity for the stunted mentality it reveals. (You're a better man than I, then, Mr. Rogers.)

Says Mr. Rogers:
“Part of the problem with the word 'disabilities' is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can't feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren't able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.”

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