Today, it seems harder than ever to discern fiction from reality. Our President frequently laments the “Fake News” while journalists detail the myriad of lies and scandals that plague his administration. Conspiracy theories masquerading as documentary films proliferate insane ideas like the government is controlling your mind by putting fluoride in the water or poisoning you with “chemtrails.” Alex Jones hosts an internet show where he tells his debauched fans about the “false flag” operation that was the Sandy Hook massacre among hundreds (thousands?) of other stories that show how close our society is to collapsing– and how the government is hastening that collapse. Oh, he also happens to sell an inordinate amount of garbage that might come in handy if civilization were to fall.
Alex Jones is about the least subtle evangelist for the intersectionality of consumerism, which takes the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, geographic location, sexuality, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, and creates marketing strategies that target the overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantages (real and/or perceived) in order to better sell consumer goods and services. For the record, I doubt very much that Alex Jones has any idea he is doing that– he’s just a cheap huckster pulling a con on some truly disturbed folks– but this conflation of social identity, political beliefs and advocacy, and consumer habits is very real.
Is this the future of our political and cultural discourse, tied inexorably to our crass consumerism and shameless greed? Or is there a better way?
The Atlantic had a tandem of pieces that can help us think about these questions. One is a review of the upcoming documentary on Fred Rogers and his iconic show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The other is a personal journey into the programming on NRATV. When read together, these pieces illustrate the opportunities and dangers of the ways the media we consume conflates our personal narratives, our group identities, our politics, and consumer society in America and point to our two ways forward.
That television (and now the internet) is used to peddle goods is hardly news. I grew up in the capitalist utopia of Reagan’s America. Most of my favorite television shows were created to sell the toys portrayed in them– the creation of HeMan the toy and the subsequent back-filling of his origins and adventures by comic book writers hired to create a world this toy could inhabit is rather infamous. These were not products created to capitalize off of a popular art form, they were art created to sell products. Commercials as content. Mattel’s mastery of this marketing approach was perhaps novel in its application but was part of a long-standing practice to integrate product placement and advertisements in programming.
Indeed, this very process is what drew Fred Rogers to television. Viewing the medium as a wonderful tool for reaching people, Rogers was disappointed that it was simply being used to sell children products rather than teaching them. Mister Rogers Neighborhood took exactly the opposite approach. His characters and subsequent stories were not created to sell toys (despite how many Daniel Tiger’s you might see around today), but to teach and comfort children in a rapidly changing and very challenging world. While Mister Rogers spoke softly and treated people with kindness, his program was not afraid to take on tough issues. Mister Rogers Neighborhood was a place where the conflicts of race, class, and gender were broken down into their simplest parts, exposed as being counter to our nature, and how to live in a more loving and just society was modeled.
Perhaps the most famous example of this, and one David Sims brings up in his review, is when Mister Rogers washed his feet in a children’s pool with Officer Clemmons back in 1969.
This might not seem edgy to the reader in 2018, but in 1969 the image of a white man and a black man sharing a pool was pushing the boundaries of acceptable culture. While segregation was being made illegal, whites were not so quick to let go of their bigoted spaces. Check out this wonderful podcast by StoryCorps on the subject. In an act of classic Presbyterian service, Rogers dries Clemmons feet at the end. They reprised this scene in Clemmons final episode on the show twenty-five years later in 1994. Mister Rogers did not create these scenes to sell kiddie pools or an Officer Clemmons action figure. It was included to teach children compassion and to express our common humanity. To model building a community for them.
At the core of Mister Rogers Neighborhood was a simple, if radical, Christian ideal: Love thy neighbor. Fred Rogers did not invite you to simply love people who shared your values or politics or to set the world up in an “us versus them” dichotomy. Instead, the Neighborhood was a place that provided comfort and structure (is there a routine in television more famous or comforting than Fred Rogers coming home and changing into a sweater and putting on comfortable shoes?) that allowed children to explore themselves and the world in a safe place where questions were not just encouraged but were necessary. You did not need to have any special in-group status to be part of the Neighborhood. In fact, Mister Rogers constantly reminded children that he loved them just the way they are.
NRATV is the antithesis of Mister Rogers Neighboorhood. If Fred Rogers believed in common humanity and the need to hear one another, Dana Loesch wants to remind you that “the only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” The programming on NRATV is the perfect conflation of right-wing politics and culture with gun sales. Their programming is sponsored openly by gun manufacturers and makes no pretenses about what they want you to do– buy more guns. Their programming ranges from the mundane (the histories of various firearms) to the silly (Dom Raso’s inane “NRA Media+Lab” recreation of the heist scene from the movie Heat is a prime example) to the outright profane, like Defending Our America.
This show, which James Parker calls “Sort of an NRA version of The View” is a group of men who present America as being in a state of unpreparedness and conflict, where the conservative, pro-gun American is under siege from a hostile media, government, liberal Hollywood, immigrant criminals, and modern life itself. In the fear-addled minds of these radical preppers the only thing that can keep you and your family safe in such troubled times is a gun (and a stock of non-perishable foodstuffs).
Let me give you an example. America, we are told in Season 1, Episode 21 “Things Fall Apart,” is too comfortable. We are ill-prepared for natural disasters and civil unrest. Even though most of these guys are cops and other assorted LEO/National Security personnel, they warn that in times of unrest you cannot count on civil servants to protect you. You have to protect your own. Common sense, people! Responsibility!
Because you just know the dangers of society breaking down can be totally mitigated by a few cases of bottled water, some canned goods, and your pistol. That is very reasonable.
That is all beside the point. The goal here is to continuously portray America and the world as a dangerous place full of people who can and will try to hurt you. The only sensible response is to be prepared. In other words, it is not only desirable to own a gun it is the ONLY responsible thing you can do.
NRATV is hardly alone in this. Right-wing cable news and talk radio is awash in similar fear-mongering. FoxNews whips their viewers into a frenzy over how liberals, Muslims, Mexicans, and other enemies of America threaten to destroy society before going to commercials that suggest gold is a safe investment in the case of the economy collapsing. Hell, Glenn Beck used to sell gold directly during his broadcasts. Obviously, you will need a bugout bag. Or two. Or three. The crew at Fox and Friends will even show you how to pack one!
(Rachel’s point about being able to use her trunk space is pertinent and a classic example of Fox and Friends accidentally undercutting their own absurd premises with an off the cuff remark. They are especially good at this during President Trump’s weird phone calls into the program)
If this seems like one-sided bashing of the right it is. For now, there are no good comps on the left. Conservative infotainment is simply light-years ahead in fusing their original content and their marketing. And it has worked. Which means the left will likely adopt it as well (they certainly are warming to the Tea Party never compromise approach that gave us Donald Trump and his dysfunctional majority in Congress).
Consider these two approaches side-by-side. Mister Rogers Neighborhood attempts to teach through structure, reason, compassion, empathy, and discussion. NRATV attempts to manipulate through flashy graphics, dramatic music, emotional (fear) appeals to a sense of duty to your family in a dangerous world. Fred Rogers asks kids to accept and understand differences. NRATV tells you that people who are different are a threat to your existence. Mister Rogers Neighborhood was a safe place to ask some of the most important questions in life. NRATV is a place for answers to questions that are bizarrely specific and highly unlikely. Mister Rogers challenges you to be brave and to help people whose circumstances make life tougher for them. NRATV tells you to cower in fear from a world of constant danger, prioritizing protecting yours and leaving others to fend for themselves. Mister Rogers Neighborhood was funded, produced, and disseminated by public broadcasting and viewer donations for the purpose of bettering society. NRATV is funded, produced and disseminated by a gun-lobby, its members, and gun companies for the purpose of promoting pro-gun policy, loyalty to pro-gun political candidates/parties, and gun sales.
The distinction is this simple: Fred Rogers preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. NRATV wants to sell a lot of guns.
Returning to the review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the filmmaker Morgan Neville points out that the Christian ideals behind Mister Rogers’s philosophies have been warped and perverted by the conservative movement who complain endlessly about the generations of “snowflakes” raised on Mister Rogers ethos that each one of us is special and deserving of love. They sneer at this idea and call it entitlement. They mock it for being a fantasy that leaves us unprepared for the dog-eat-dog world of adulthood. And every time they do so they mock Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. Nothing could be more important to adulthood than having a healthy love of oneself and others.
People who are empathetic rather than suspicious of others are happier and kinder. They are armed with self-assurance rooted in self-reflection that helps them obtain work, retain it, and advance in their careers while creating meaningful and lasting bonds with others. It helps them see the other side of an argument and enables them to produce compromises that further both causes (or at least minimizes harm to each side). Far from leaving young people ill-prepared for society, it actually arms people to deal with challenges and opportunities in healthy and effective ways. Yes, these are the kids protesting things you like and being overly zealous in advocating for ideas they have recently encountered (and are only starting to digest) at college. But they are also the people teaching your kids, starting urban farms, providing social services to at-risk kids, and pastoring your church among thousands of other examples. Snowflakes they are not.
What world do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a world where our information is consumed entirely through consumer ads, where it is almost impossible to tell where the original content ends and the commercial begins? Are we too far down the path– is trying to fight against this a quixotic endeavor?
I don’t think it is. But it will require tremendous and intentional effort. Most will concentrate on how to combat the nonsense of NRATV– how to dispell their myths, point out their flawed logic, or mock their viewers. I certainly want to. Perhaps an alternative approach would work better. One more in the mold of Mister Rogers.
Fred Rogers was explicit in his goals. His ethical and moral positions formed the basis of his educational programming. His mission was both simple and good. Rather than fighting an uphill battle to take consumerist children’s programming off the air he went out and made something that dwarfed their feeble and fleeting efforts. Mattel just wanted to quickly capture your attention and sell you a toy. They made a lot of money until something else came along in the endless pursuit of children’s notoriously short attention spans. Mister Rogers aired for decades and impacted how millions of Americans saw themselves and the world they lived in. It wasn’t flashy. Hell, he did it in a cardigan. But it was lasting. HeMan may have won the battle, but Mister Rogers won the war.
The era of zero-sum, fear-based politics will not be overcome by liberal or conservative hysteria. We are not one wave election away from forever vanquishing the other side. If you need proof, look at how little the Trump administration has accomplished while controlling all three branches of government. You can also look at how little traction liberal policy planks that have employed scare tactics in marketing, like global warming, health insurance, and school shootings have gotten. Liberals have made very little progress on these issues despite decades of warnings and recriminations. On issues that appeal to the morality, ethics, and love of others, like LGBTQ and civil rights, the record has been significantly more successful. Like Mister Rogers Neighborhood, these issues made complex differences into simple questions like this: How can it be wrong for a black man and a white man to cool off in a pool together? How much more powerful is this approach than shaming the deplorables or triggering the libs? This is the key, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, to creating real and lasting change in our country. Even now, fifteen years after his death, Fred Rogers has something left to teach us.