Most people have heard of Koko, the gorilla who could speak about 1000 words in Sign Language, and understand about 2000 in English. What most people don’t know, however, is that Koko was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fan. When Fred Rogers took a trip out to meet Koko for his show, not only did she immediately wrap her arms around him and embrace him, she did what she’d always seen him do onscreen: she proceeded to take his shoes off.
If a gorilla tried to take my shoes off, I think I would kinda freak out. But then, Fred Rogers has balls of steel, right? Didn’t he storm Omaha Beach at Normandy? Didn’t he hump the boonies in Nam? Wasn’t he a Navy SEAL? Marine sniper? Gorilla wrestler on the novelty circuit? Cross-dressing Mossad assassin?
No…just a Presbyterian minister with balls of steel.
According to various rumors that occasionally go around (wait for it…) FACEBOOK, Fred Rogers was a Navy SEAL or a Marine sniper. In the time I’ve been using Facebook, I’ve seen the “Fred Rogers was a trained killer” meme do about three laps around the park.
He wasn’t. Or at least, that’s what they WANT you to believe. They also want you to believe he died in 2003. The powers that be don’t want you to think that Fred Rogers is kicking it with Koko and Elvis in a super-secret bunker smoking phatties of that medical-grade stuff they won’t let hit the street because one puff and you’d see the system for what it is, man.
As a fan of cultural psychoses of every stripe, I love the rumor that Fred Rogers is a killer. It speaks to our hunger for duality. Like Lou Reed’s portrayal of Andy Warhol in his Kazantzakis-inspired “Dime Store Mystery,” Rogers needs to be “fully human, fully divine and divided,” because otherwise his story’s just too damn perfect. As a species, we can’t stand that. We want to rip him down off his perch, because if he’s that good, then maybe we suck. Toppling the mighty is at the heart of comedy and tragedy both. On his show, we don’t see Rogers’ Gethsemanes.
Rogers, a devoted theology student who decided before graduation he had no desire to preach, would probably appreciate man’s need for duality. But there’s no secret killer lurking under the Rogers’ legend. His story, and those of many other educators, is far simpler than people want it to be. There’s duality everywhere, but not in educating children. There, the truths are simple, and most adults don’t give a shit about them. If they did, they’d stop what they were doing and bawl their eyes out.
Being a child is dangerous, because the kids don’t have the barriers adults erect to keep themselves stupid. Kids come at the world with a fresh set of eyes, by definition. In childhood, every moment is potentially a naked lunch, where everyone sees what’s on the end of every fork. It takes huevos of steel to handle that level of unpredictability on a daily basis.
As a culture we bleat constantly about protecting children, but when it comes time to cough up a sheckel? Well, then “I’m sorry, Jim, I love Big Bird, but…” And yet, if Fred Rogers was a trained killer, “lower-my-taxes conservatives” would be happy to fork out the big bucks to “further his work.”
Educating kids, though? Yeah. That’s just not an “essential.” Poor kids, who are disproportionately affected by cuts in public funding for things that are provided to the public free of charge, are draining the public coffers by getting something for free.
Maybe that’s why Romney “loves” Big Bird so much, because Big Bird likes poor kids exactly as much as he likes rich kids. That is a heinous crime in Milton Friedman’s America, where it’s bathtime for Democracy. And anything goes at bathtime, right?
Rogers did spend his life preaching. He preached moderation and kindness. And he also preached public sector support for education — to . the Senate, in support of public funding for PBS, where he reportedly gave one conservative Senator goosebumps. He’d give Mitt Romney goosebumps, too, if Mitt bothered to pay atention.
Even bringing up Mitt Romney’s ludicrous, ill-informed and somewhat pathetic attack on PBS during the debates. He lost, right? Romney is nothing more than a footnote in history, right? He’ll never run for office again, and Ryan is hamstrung by his poor performance in the campaign, right?
Actually, whatever Ryan’s future is in politics (and I’m pretty sure he’s cooked), Romney is LESS than a footnote in history. He was not a presidential candidate — he was a comprompose. He’s a wobble in the battle for the conservative soul. It’s a death match between those conservatives who genuinely believe that government should be smaller and those who believe government should allow a conservative Christian worldview to control every aspect of society. Unfortunately, those are the same people.
What interesting lives those people must lead. Their Gethsemanes must be self-satisfied reassurances that it’s all justified because making rich people richer is God’s work. Because, as I recall, Christ never shut up about how important that is, right?
Born-Again Christianity as a political movement no longer seriously worries me. It did in the ’80s and the ’90s, but I think the United States has shown its stripes. Our nation likes its secular lifestyle. Our citizens like our secular pleasures. And people espousing the most right wing forms of a born-again Christian view of politics tend to go stark-raving batty. Often enough to prove the trend, they say severely fucked-up things that no moderate conservative would ever stand by. And then, when challenged, they double down and plant their feet.
The truth is, Christian logic doesn’t hold up under rational scrutiny, because religious faith doesn’t hold up under rational scrutiny. That’s why it’s called faith. It doesn’t belong in the political arena. Allowing it there is not just counter to the Founders’ intentions…it’s dangerous.
Wanna know why? Because the U.S. is founded, partially, on religious freedom, which includes not just the right to join or not join particular sects, but to practice as you wish within those sects, at least as far as the government is concerned. If I, an atheist, interpret Jesus’s comment to “Love thy neighbor” as “provide public services for thy neighbor,” and a conservative anti-tax Christian interprets it to mean “don’t tax thy neighbor, but put thy neighbor in prison if she tries to get an abortion,” well, fine. We’re never going to get anywhere arguing the right and the wrong of it. Save that shit for the pulpit. It’s the job of policymakers to argue the public good, not theology. I believe that most Americans know that.
What does worry me is the conservative crusade, originating with Milton Friedman’s disciples, to “shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” in the words of Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who seems to think that the way to get lower taxes is to kill the government. Because if there’s one thing that history has taught it, it’s that countries without governments are awesome.
The society built by by people like Mister Rogers is built on moderation and kindness…values that do not come naturally to children any more than cruelty, brtuality, or selfishness.
If you think Big Bird is safe because Romney didn’t win — or because Romney, and whatever lower-my-taxes rich asshole comes after him, really does “love” Big Bird — then, fine, go ahead and sleep soundly.
But we shall know Romney’s kind again, and Grover Norquist’s, and Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s.
And there’ll never be another Fred Rogers.