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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Posted by Gail Barth on

I ducked into a local theater today to see a movie I’ve been wanting to see for weeks: Won’t You Be my Neighbor, the much acclaimed documentary about Fred Rogers, known to millions of children as Mister Rogers. I started crying a mere five minutes in and continued on and off for the entire hour and a half.

I watched as the filmmakers revealed a Fred Rogers who was the same exemplary human being as the character he portrayed in his long-running PBS series. He dealt with rampant national racism by inviting the regular black character on the show to share a cooling foot bath with him, sharing his own towel as he dried his black friend’s feet. I found myself very weepy again at this point. This scene was in response to outbreaks of violence where blacks were using public pools and whites were doing whatever they could to stop it. Rogers’ gesture was a small, unassuming moment with huge implications that millions of impressionable children witnessed. This same audience saw him gently visit with a wheelchair-bound boy and have him explain why he needed his wheelchair (a moment that, according to the child’s parents, altered and raised his self perception forever). They heard his explanation of divorce and absorbed his comforting words. They listened as he explained death in the gentlest but most truthful way possible. They were assured that it was okay to be sad, to be angry, to be afraid. They heard the word ‘assassination’ explained when Robert Kennedy was shot, during a time when Rogers knew parents would be grieving and children would be confused and upset witnesses to that grief. At the time his show was on the air, Fred Rogers would not have dealt with LGBT issues, but we learn that one character on the show was gay and came to regard Rogers as a surrogate father. As Rogers’ wife says, it took awhile, but her husband got there, and his resulting tolerance resulted in anti-gay protesters at his funeral.

Perhaps Fred Rogers’ most important message over the years was his most important, and one the documentary establishes in the first five minutes: that love is the basis for everything important when it comes to dealing with children. And the implication is that love is, indeed, the basis for everything, no matter your age. Or, at least, it should be. And thus, five minutes in, I was openly crying. And with each affirmation of the goodness, compassion, and wisdom of Fred Rogers, I cried again.

I’m a tad, emotional, yes, but my daughter has expressed mock horror that I didn’t dissolve into tears during the movie The Help. That I was stoic during the ending of Phantom of the Opera. I don’t generally cry during movies. So, as is frequently the case with me, I thought about why today’s experience was so poignant for me. And I am apparently not alone in my reaction; I’ve heard hardcore reviewers react similarly. One man said he was in tears when he walked out. I heard the tell-tale sniffling of folks around me today in the theater. So why this response to this particular movie, this particular life?

I think I have this one figured out. What’s going on in our country today under the watchful and evil eyes of the president and his complicit lawmakers is based on hatred far beyond anything the country has ever experienced. Love as espoused by Mister Rogers is the antithesis of what’s currently being inflicted on us today. Fred Rogers did his best to counter racism and teach children the wrongness of bigotry and the beauty of acceptance; Trump has taken things in the opposite direction, undoing with gleeful abandon years of work on the part of activists and compassionate souls like Rogers. Violence spawned by white supremacists and the likes of Donald Trump is now approaching the bad old days before we supposedly knew better.

The importance of family, and acceptance and control of our emotions has been challenged since the disastrous presidential election, when families were fractured and emotions spun out of control on all sides. The world Fred Rogers tried for decades to encourage had no room for hatred of any kind. With his message of acceptance and inclusion, what’s happening now with immigrants and, especially their children, would have broken Fred Rogers’ heart. In his world, children, no matter who they are or from whence they come, would not be separated from the security and love of their parents; they would not be incarcerated in cages and abused.

Trump is, today, being lambasted, protested, and mocked in Britain. It was revealed in further indictments today in the Mueller investigation that major Russian interference occurred on the same day candidate Trump asked the Russians publicly to do just that. Trump destroys everything he touches deliberately and carelessly, including our environment, our standing in the world, our democracy. He makes a mockery of our strides in racial tolerance, LGBTQ rights, and the welfare of all children, whether through absent healthcare or detention of immigrant toddlers. And he showcases by his ignorance and hatred the hypocrisy of his many evangelical supporters, exhibiting actions that would no doubt have been abhorrent to Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister and dedicated family man.

I don’t apologize for crying like a baby today in the theater. I understand it. Fred Rogers spent decades gently trying to create a world in which all children felt valued, included and loved. His continuing message was, in fact, one of love. What’s happening today is nothing like that, and I’m sure it would horrify him, as it horrifies me. I think most of us wish Rogers’ world was our world, but that vision is receding ever farther away. If things continue as they are, the world we could be left with is a desolate dystopia where Mr. Rogers and his message don’t exist, and love and tolerance are wistful nostalgia. The contrast between the worlds of Donald Trump and Fred Rogers makes me cry, both inside and outside the theater. It just does.

Other commentaries by Gail Barth: 

Real Fake News
Donald Trump: Clueless Idiot or Amoral Serial Killer? 
Daughters in the Time of Trump
Gross Stupidity
Evil Presidents
Snowflake Nation
Gospel of Trump
Missouri Waltz

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