A longing for Mr. Rogers

There’s a mistaken impression that today is the 50th anniversary of the first Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS. It’s not. That comes next Feb. 19 (the first version of what would become Mr. Rogers Neighborhood actually was in 1953). But it’s never not a good day to hold on to the goodness of Fred Rogers.

Whenever inhumanity defines a day on the planet, Mr. Rogers makes a reappearance to a new generation, reminding us to “look for the helpers — because if you look for the helpers, then you’ll know there’s hope.”

Today is, again, one of those days.

Hope would be easier if there were still a Mr. Rogers, but he died in 2003 and no one ever took his place in popular culture. Bravado is in now; kindness is — too often — considered a weakness.

Bullies win now.

“Mister Rogers’ neighborhood was, in many ways, a suburb, and, today, it retains the limitations of a typical suburb; it’s mostly white, conservative in its values, blandly Protestant in its sensibility,” Phillip Maciak, assistant professor of English and Film at Louisiana State University, writes on Slate.

But the show’s emotionality was and is radical. The route to good feeling, for Mister Rogers, was empathy; the path to happiness was the control of anger; the climax of every episode was conflict resolution.

It’s easy to mistake this as a nostalgic paean for a bygone era, to read a defense of this show as a modulated call to Make America Great Again. But Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood doesn’t represent another time so much as another way of seeing, another way of entering the world.

The neighborhood is not an idealized version of American life; it’s a counterfactual experiment in imagining an American life that is founded in tolerance, kindness, and imperturbable calm. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted in 1968 to speak to children in an era of fear and anger and mistrust. This doesn’t seem nostalgic. It seems contemporary. It’s TV that hails you as a neighbor, and that tells you what to do with the mad that you feel right now.

On Twitter today, author Anthony Breznican tells the story of his encounter with Mr. Rogers.

Related: 9 times Mister Rogers said exactly the right thing (Vox)