I was heading home after my daily trip to swim, fly, dog paddle, skydive… OK, “surf,” the internet; an old cliché that never made much sense to begin with. Getting the net here can be tough, so I either go over the hill to Inlet or Old Forge, NY. This time it was Old Forge. Driving through downtown Old Forge I passed the fabulous Strand Theater owned by Helen and Bob.
”Hmm, I have extra time. Why not go to the movies?”
Under $10 for even 3D, surrounded by movie memorabilia? “Why not?” indeed. But you might be surprised by what I watched: Be My Neighbor. I had had some hesitation: I’m of the Captain Kangaroo, Soupy Sales, Crusader Rabbit, generation. By the time my very young, soon to be, brother-in-law was watching Mr. Rogers: the 70s, I was a college student. I found Mr. Rogers plodding. I didn’t get it. Over 30 years entertaining young children, I “get it” now.
Be My Neighbor, in my opinion, is a must see. To understand Fred Rogers: a Republican and an ordained minister, is to understand how much we have changed: and not for the good. Fred was bothered by programs that encouraged children to try to fly like Superman, extreme violence too readily available to young children, and the overall rudeness that was starting to flow into children programming. He certainly would have been no fan of the vile vitriol saturated politics splattering our TV screens these days, close to impossible to protect children from all the needless, cruel, harmful hyperbolic nastiness.
I admit I have no claim to purity here.
And how would he feel about the unholy, vile, rhetorical mess we have now that so easily spills into blood spilling violence? Well, we’ll never really know for sure, but guessing is easy.
Towards the end of his life, then at his memorial service, he was bashed for supposedly wanting to “make everyone feel special” and not wanting kids to struggle towards being better: a serious misreading of the full intent of his life’s work. Fred Rogers certainly had no simplistic, jingoistic “everyone gets a trophy” mission. His “mission;” an appropriate term since he was a Presbyterian minister too, was children not hating themselves, not hating others simply because they were different. But I can understand how this might offend those who delight in being rhetorical terrorists; lobbing grenades made out of despicable accusations that are outright lies, insults, name calling, hate, obscenities and slander.
I looked at the children in the movie and realized they were acting far more mature than many adults these days. And as long as both civility and mature respectful discussions continue to die off: becoming rhetorical dinosaurs, it will only get worse.
Fred and I shared similar messages in our careers. The wonderful words, the magic message, of my 1992 show; The Snozard of Odd, was, “What makes us so wonderful? We’re ALL different!” The message of too many, even in my youth, was being different was wrong. Now some openly promote hate and fear for anyone who is different, those who differ.
Fred and I had a few minor differences. A child told him once that “the ear came off my bear.” Fred softly told her that her bear’s ear might fall off, but her ears would never fall off, her arms wouldn’t fall off… Very good, but I knew immediately my answer would have been different: “I’ll bet your bear can still hear you if you use your imagination. Why don’t you pretend he can hear you?” From there I would do what I did for so many years: inspire imagination while grounding it in reality with other comments; if not during the program, after.
In my opinion both approaches are valid, even necessary.
I wasn’t as horrified by pies in the face programming like he seemed to be. Soupy Sales was hilarious. I was no fan of the militarization of TV that has been flowing for many years now into children’s programming: often specifically designed to sell toys. I do think Batman, Superman, etc are fine: increasingly it is thoughtful context they lack. Worried about everyone gets a trophy-ism? Maybe you should be more concerned about what has been happening as super heroes multiply like Adirondack mosquitoes in June. When almost every character behaves as if they have super powers, followed by these same characters slamming into walls, being pushed over edges, falling off buildings, being punched hard with few: if any, consequences… is it a wonder when children try to fly, jump off buildings, climb where they shouldn’t, end up seriously hurt during extreme ‘play’ fighting?
I am no ban fan. But I believe context is important. The original TV Superman made it obvious Superman was unique: not us, due to his alien nature. You can’t fly. I can’t fly. Due to the nature of Krypton he alone was super. The rest of the characters were mostly very human, very vulnerable: as it is in real life. Yet over the years through movies, and many TV series, there seem to be no normal people anymore. Talk about “everyone gets a trophy”-ism. Some don’t even have a super suit and they seem invulnerable.
Fred Rogers: to his credit, tried to provide such context, but in later years it was lost in the barrage of content-less programming. When programming sponsors violence as the only and best solution, plus feeds the all too common delusion that it’s easy to tell who is good, who is evil, and nothing between those two extremes, should we be surprised students are more likely to walk into schools ready to kill?
I’m advocating for responsible writing, responsible programming.
Parents shouldn’t have to be TV police 24 hours a day, but, yes, when they see something they should provide context too.
Unfortunately Fred Rogers’ gentle way of teaching, of listening, of respect, was lost on me as a college student dating my future wife: sister of a preschooler. I think I missed something important back then.
In a time of few networks Fred Rogers had more impact. In time he was lost in the vast wasteland of channels with questionable children’s programming owned by very few corporations. I remember catching one atrocity (Saved by the Bell maybe?) where an older brother picked a young brother up high, insulted him, then just dropped him. The young brother just stood up and laughed with the others; no harm done.
Apparently stick and stones, or being dropped, provide no broken bones or bad bruising.
Good programming provides responsible context and also serves to teach. I learned my love for playing with words from Jay Ward Productions like Crusader and Rags, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Mr. Peabody and Sherman and tried to pass that on. These days I fear Mr. Rogers’ important lessons have vanished due, in part, to programming increasingly dedicated to offering an escape from decency. And if Fred Rogers could be described with one word “decent” would be a good one. I never realized how much he did: like explaining assassination when Bobby was murdered, 9/11 and Challenger.
Considering how society was changing towards crass, nasty, mean spirited discourse, I’m not surprised protestors marred his memorial service. Society is increasingly gravitating towards a norm where no statement is too over the top, debate no more than insults, manners and civility run over again and again by homicidal rhetoric.
Many thanks to Bob and Helen for screening this.
”Won’t you be my neighbor?” …there are far too many these days who don’t want to be your neighbor. They’re willing to do anything, say anything to shut you up, or chase you away. So many talk-based programs have become talk over and yell at each other programming. One of Fred’s talents: listening, is becoming a lost skill. Mr. Rogers taught children not hate themselves, not to hate others. What would he think now where we are now since he’s gone, and how we’re dragging the children along with us? I can’t imagine Fred Rogers would have approved. And I really don’t either.
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 40 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks, and into the unseen cracks and crevasses, that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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