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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Mr. Rogers' Resistance
distributed 7/20/18 - ©2018

A few days ago, I saw the documentary, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" The exploration of Fred Rogers and his TV show is -- as all the reviews have said -- a marvelous and heartwarming film. What I didn't expect was fresh and relevant insights about how to live a life of resistance.

In the last two years, I've written often about resistance. In this political era when the people in power have an agenda that is pretty much diametrically opposed to eco-justice values, I've lifted up resistance is a primary way of being engaged and active. If we can't achieve our own agenda, at least we can resist.

The movie's in-depth look at Mr. Rogers helped me to see resistance in a new way. It is helping me to envision resistance as a more effective and affirmative strategy.

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Fred Rogers had an agenda, and his children's show on public TV was the way he enacted it. The film's website makes it clear that he was a man with a mission.

Fred Rogers' career represents a sustained attempt to present a coherent, beneficent view about how we should best speak to children about important matters and how television could be used as a positive force in our society. ... While the nation changed around him, Fred Rogers stood firm in his beliefs about the importance of protecting childhood.

Those gentle words about his mission fits well with my recollections of the gentle show, which we watched with our son in the 1980s. I learned this week, though, that Fred's move into TV was an explicit reaction to the character of children's programming in the 1960s. He was upset with kid's shows that were frenetically paced, prone to "cartoon violence," and which served as an avenue for promoting commercialism.

The film's director speaks of a world that "was just doubling down on trying to sell toys and sugar to kids." The Washington Post's media critic writes about TV as "the most powerful mass medium of the 20th century," and how Fred Rogers saw "the weaponization of that medium on behalf of polemic and consumerism."

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood didn't just happen to be an aberration in the world of children's TV. It wasn't that this nice Presbyterian minister dreamed up a slow-paced show with sock puppets simply because he thought that kids would like it. The design of the show was an intentional act of resistance against the empowered programming of the day.

The movie review in Forbes puts it in religious terms.

A Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers really did embody Christian teachings in the full-on "love they neighbor" mode, with even his show's name attesting to his belief in it. ... It's notable that Rogers initially thought he hated TV as a mind-numbing commercial delivery system, but like Jesus going where the sinners were, he went into it to project a positive message, and succeeded until the day he died (and beyond).

By design, Mr. Roger's neighborhood was slow-paced. There's a part of the film where Fred answers the question, how long is a minute? He sets a kitchen timer for 60 seconds, and sits quietly while it ticks down the time. (The film, notably, does not have us sit with him for that length of time.) The set looks home-made, and there aren't any spin-off toys of the characters for sale. It embodies a kind of simple living in stark contrast to hype and consumerism.

In an interview, the film's director contrasts Mr. Roger's Neighborhood with Sesame Street, which started one year later.

Sesame Street is the hip, cool kids show on PBS. Sesame Street was growing fast. By the '70s, they were doing shows at Madison Square Garden, arena shows for 10,000 kids, and they were selling dolls, and they were doing the sort stuff that Fred refused to do. When he was doing his little public performances, he refused to see more than 30 kids at once. He would do 30 performances a day for 30 kids. He wanted it to be personal.

Listen to the language there. It wasn't that Fred Rogers didn't have invitations to do big shows, or that he couldn't draw a crowd. He refused to do it. The show was produced in a context of resistance, of refusing to buy into the values that he found objectionable. He used the show to make an explicit presentation of a different set of values -- that kids (and adults) are acceptable just as they are, that feelings are important, and that important issues can be talked about. Village Voice says:

In 1969, when stories of black bathers being kicked out of public pools abounded, Rogers ... invited Officer Clemmons, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood's black police officer character, to join him in a soothing foot bath. In the show's first week, Rogers took on the Vietnam War; when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, he calmly but directly explained that, too. As soothing as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood could be, it never shied away from the realities of life and death.

The Presbyterian church ordained Rogers to a ministry of evangelism on TV, which was a remarkable step into a unique kind of ministry. What I discovered this week was how revolutionary that ministry was. Not only did Fred provide love and care for his viewers -- children and adults -- but he created a program that actively resisted the dominant patters of commercialism and violence on TV.

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When I've written about resistance recently, I'm afraid that I haven't always seen it as deeply and profoundly as Mr. Rogers did.

For me, and from what I've heard from others, resistance is a way of getting in the way, of blocking horrible things. Ten days after Mr. Trump's election, I wrote, "Resistance to the Trump policies also will slow, or prevent, some immigration actions."

Resistance of that kind says "no" to what is unacceptable. There are certainly lots of occasions when getting in the way is a good and appropriate thing. But that reactive, disruptive approach emphasizes the no, without being vivid with a yes.

For several decades, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood put forth a clear "yes" in resistance to the negative values of other children's TV. By its very public witness, Rev. Rogers demonstrated another way of teaching and relating and living. That kind of positive witness is compelling.

We're living in difficult times. There is much to stir anger and fear. There is much to fight against. When we're not in positions of power, one way of fighting is to resist, to get in the way, to block what is bad.

This week, the example of Fred Rogers reminds me that there is more to resistance than saying no. To be out there in the public sphere, intentionally and visibly living out a different set of values is also an act of resistance. It is a form of resistance that provides our communities with fresh options and with hope. When we work to build up relationships with our neighbors -- all of our diverse neighbors -- then we are resisting the powers who would exploit and exclude.

I'm grateful for this reminder about affirmative forms of resistance, and I pray that our movement in support of "peace, justice and the integrity of creation" can discover new and effective ways of embodying that kind of resistance.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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