One sunny afternoon, I enjoyed a walk off-base in Okinawa, Japan. As I strolled down a sidewalk I watched as U.S. school children, within the fences of the U.S. military base, shot at each other with their toy Uzis while playing a game of war. No doubt these children copied what they indirectly experienced on a daily basis, in their own military communities. These experiences include the viewing of propaganda created by Armed Forces Network which often details historical military missions on public TV, the sounds of aircraft flying overhead, gate-guards who stare down passengers while holding large automatic weapons, and parents who continuously deploy. Notably, this situation of playing war is not unique to military children alone. My observation that day was not a political statement of ‘play-acting war,’as many children around the world, regardless of their affiliation with a military, play war games with sticks, toy guns and weapons, and video games. But for me this one moment began to spark questions regarding what playing “peace” looks like?
Do children ever pretend they are medics, engineers, or relief workers on humanitarian missions? Maybe they do. But on that random day, peace did not appear to be the game. A year later, while reading Michael G. Long’s Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, this quote reminded me of that question:
“‘When I was a little boy, I had some neighbors who wanted to play war games all the time. After a while, I got scared of those games, and I didn’t want to play…’ Rogers, in turn, was helping children understand that they did not have to be like the violent government – which made its soldiers use real guns – or the children in their neighborhoods who mimicked soldiers,” (67).
As Long indicates, in this example, Fred Rogers also thought about games of war and its effect on children.
In his larger work, Long examines the values that Fred Rogers actually stood for, by directly confronting the misrepresentations of Rogers as promoting certain values through memes, gifs, and videos, made by social media users today. Long argues that from the 1960s to the 2000s, Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, used his show, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and larger company, to advocate peaceful living based on a unique set of religious values, as a response to American mainstream cultural, societal, and governmental practices and even in response to mainstream U.S. Christian practices of the time. Thus, contrary to the United States’ foreign policy and domestic political tensions during the last 40 years of the twentieth century, Rogers provided a message of peace for his young viewers.
Accordingly, Long explains that Fred Rogers used secular television programming to publicize a unique set of values, that blended different ideologies of love and acceptance. Through Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, which Roger’s considered his ministry, he encouraged stances of anti-war in every violent conflict since Vietnam and nurtured the concept of peaceful communication. In addition, he encouraged children to embrace universal acceptance of others through the concepts of ending hunger, providing gender fluidity for both boys and girls, and accepting oneself and others. Additionally, he encouraged the promotion of peaceful and loving communities through responsible environmental practices such as vegetarianism and recycling, fostering a love of animals, and advocating compassionate parenting principles. Though many who Rogers worked with thought more could have been accomplished when it came to war, race, reproduction rights, and gay rights, Long illustrates that Rogers consistently supported these issues passively and subtly. He consistently placed his children viewers first by not alienating their parents’ political views.
Long successfully supports his argument that Fred Rogers’ presented countercultural values to U.S. children since the 1960s. First, Long places Fred Rogers in a historical context by illustrating how Rogers’ television episodes framed a response to political and social events occurring at the time. To do this, he analyzes primary sources such as Rogers’ correspondence, his business papers, and the actual scripts of the television shows including the ‘Neighborhood of Make-Believe’ skits. Second, Long places Fred Rogers’ religious views in the context of mainstream American Christian values of the time, indicating how in many instances, his views diverged from what mainstream American churches promoted. For example, Rogers did not subscribe to the idea that the Christian God would exclude and annihilate non-believers from heaven, but instead Rogers projected a peaceful rhetoric by advocating for the love, complete acceptance, and forgiveness of others “just the way you are,” as his own God would. Thus, his beliefs, according to Long, aligned more closely to Quakerism and even Asian religious philosophies, than matching his association as an ordained Presbyterian minister, (27-43). Third, he clearly displays how Rogers acted consistently passive for over four decades, in subtly supporting certain issues that that might upset the parents of his viewers. This occurred despite protest from those closest to him, who did not think Rogers acted enough in promoting issues such as anti-war protesting, civil rights, and sexual rights including women’s reproductive rights and LGBT movement.
With these positives considered, some areas of Long’s work need further consideration and clarification. First, although extremely well-researched and easy to read, the descriptions of the Christian deity formations of “God” and “Jesus” often seem assumed by Long as universal. This stylistic preference probably stems from divergence in approaches between the fields of history and religious studies, as Long works as a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies. Additionally, in cases where Fred Rogers’ views became seemingly inconsistent and did not necessarily advance a rhetoric of acceptance, even subtly, Long misses an opportunity to indicate that even Rogers sometimes failed to live up to his own proclaimed values. For example, Rogers did not include obese people on his show and frequently encouraged characters to lose weight. This failure to live up to his own acceptance rhetoric might have stemmed from Rogers’ own insecurities of being bullied for his weight as a child (34, 164-165). These concerns however indicate the significance and worth of Long’s work as a truly remarkable interdisciplinary work.
His easy-to-read comparison on how society today uses Fred Rogers’ image to make political points that he might or certainly might not have held provides a relevancy to this work for general audiences. He successfully indicates that because Fred Rogers represented countercultural values subtly, social media users often popularize incorrect or out-of-context portrayals of the icon. Additionally, this work illustrates how mainstream media such as television or social media can be used as a tool to shape the way in which countercultural values, such as peaceful living, can be encouraged as a realistic lifestyle for younger audiences. Even 53 years after the start of the Neighborhood, as children continues to play war and the U.S. government continues to project its power abroad as a normal response to conflict, peace and conflict resolution still seems a countercultural message.
Long, Michael G., Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Image: Some portray Rogers as secular despite his ministry. As Long indicates, Rogers did keep the language of his show secular to reach many audiences but the messages came from his unique Christian principles, (180-181). Meme retrieved from http://www.quickmeme.com/good-guy-fred-rogers
Image: Some portray Rogers as a sniper. As Long indicates, Rogers did not serve in the military and identified as a pacifist. If drafted, he envisioned himself working in supportive roles (27). Meme retrieved from http://imgur.com/gallery/Xiifs