In the very first week of his show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood being nationally broadcast in the U.S., back in February 1968, Fred Rogers—a minister and a Republican—dove right into timely controversy by emphasizing timeless truths. The puppet King Friday XIII was angry at protestors in the Land of Make-Believe and wanted to build a wall to keep them away from his castle but was soon persuaded by peace slogans and festive balloons to stop being such a grump and take down the barrier.
It’s no coincidence this episode from LBJ’s era is so prominent in the excellent new Trump-era documentary about Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The documentary can’t really be accused of being a partisan lefty work, since it strives to underscore the point that Rogers was focused on universal, timeless, simple human concerns, which inevitably include things like being nice to people and trying to get along—as we all knew just a few years ago, as you may recall, and as people continue to tell kids all the time, I hope.
It’s sad we’ve lately reached the point where if you confess that you’re neither outraged nor eager to offend—not keen to “drink the tears” of people from any major political faction—you risk looking seriously unhip. But a documentary about Mr. Rogers is a reminder that, numerous past political and personal scuffles notwithstanding, I’d rather ride a trolley called Kindness to the very end of the line than see if I can troll my enemies into committing suicide or whatever passes for “winning” these days.
More trolley, fewer trolley problems and trolling, you might say. I’ve also been listening to a lot of “nu gaze” music lately, which may be the Gen X version of using “smooth jazz” to steady the nerves. Not ashamed.
Then again, I realize our open hearts won’t make Mexico stop being the kind of place where 114 politicians have been murdered in just the past nine months. It’s chaos down there, and it’s natural to want to avoid that spilling into the U.S., but it ought to go without saying we should be seeking the most humane and narrowly-tailored (not to mention cheapest) way to deal with such problems, not using those problems as an excuse to become run-amok authoritarians. Ditto the Muslim terrorism situation.
You know what’d be a cheap and easy fix? End the drug war and foreign military interventions. Presto, two major causes of refugee flows eliminated and two very different sorts of populations made a lot less angry (plus billions saved at a time the deficit is doubling). Government is an institution so coldhearted and stupid, though, it simultaneously harms some people by denying them opioids they need for pain relief while harming others by forcing them to consume ketamine they don’t want. First, do no harm.
But for the moment, I’m more interested in psychology than policy. We want to be kind rather than cruel, right? That does still go without saying, yes? Not so sure lately, and I’m not just blaming Trump, though his bully habits make him almost a traumatizer-in-chief to a rattled nation.
I’ve noticed Hollywood, young adult novels, and comics all mulling the idea of trauma lately and them seeming to have slightly creepy mixed feelings about inflicting it—as if, like “tough love,” trauma wounds but creates all sorts of irresistible new possibilities, even alternate personalities or realities in some stories (not to mention in real-life cult indoctrinations and torture sessions).
The latest “Crisis” comic book series from DC Comics, coming in September, Heroes in Crisis, will even feature a superhero psychiatric trauma center, as if years of seeing the universe periodically blown up and remade is finally driving our heroes nuts. Not coincidentally, the writer, Tom King, says he drew inspiration from working for the CIA during recent years of protracted low-level warfare overseas.
On the bright side, that old Stanford Prison Experiment, which was long touted as proving that if you tell people to pretend to be guards and prisoners they’ll automatically turn into savages, turns out to have been faked. I always thought it was unenlightening even if real: Tell people to do theater and you don’t really generate much useful information about real everyday behavior. It’s like drawing historical conclusions from telling kids to play Vikings for an hour.
But in any case, cruelty may not be inevitable, may not be the universe’s overarching great truth. Even if head grouch Trump goes down in history as the man who brought peace to the Koreas (not yet a sure thing, given the fact that North Korea has agreed to peace, denuclearization, and/or reunification almost annually for the past 30 years), which would be fantastic, we should not rush to draw the conclusion that being a jerk is the one thing that gets results. There was still the diplomacy part, after all, whether it took its cues from the likes of Jimmy Carter or from Kanye and Scott Adams.
In fact, much as I differ with every faction involved in this story, the dreaded Deep State (perhaps finally reconciling itself to Trump?) probably deserves a great deal of credit for having a stealthy, grown-up hand in the positive developments in the Koreas this season. Intelligence-sector people have informally made junkets to North Korea for several years now, hoping for the day when we’ll be siting shopping malls there instead of training missile sights.
I don’t think Trump is as go-it-alone as he sometimes seems, and that’s probably for the best. His imagine-a-better-future approach over there hasn’t been so terribly out of step with what the intelligence community wants, just out of step with what a few homicidal/suicidal hawks sometimes seem to want—not to mention military-spending pork-lovers back in the States such as Sens. Murphy and Duckworth (Democrats of CT and IL, respectively).
Those two legislators have suddenly, after decades of congressional passivity in the face of presidential military planning, rediscovered Congress’ role in foreign affairs just in time to warn that Trump must not be allowed to withdraw troops from South Korea. Anything but that! Maybe we were better off with congressional silence on these matters after all.
I realize neither North Korea nor Mexico is the easygoing Land of Make-Believe, but it’s still desirable to be friends when possible and not go looking for enemies. Better carrot than stick. At the moment, better our Korea policy than our Mexico policy. If you really think Trump’s mean, don’t aim to outdo him. Become like Mr. Rogers, not like Stalin. This world could use some peace and quiet.
—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey.