“What would Mister Rogers do?”

“He had faith in us, and even if his faith turns out to have been misplaced, even if we have abandoned him, he somehow endures, standing between us and our electrified antipathies and recriminations like the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square in a red sweater.”
~Tom Junod, My Friend Mister Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inspiring and, in the end, a challenging portrayal of Fred Rogers, AKA ‘Mister Rogers’. It took some suspension of disbelief, though. Tom Hanks does as good of a job as is possible, but no one can replace the real thing. Mr. Rogers was distinctive in appearance and behavior. The production team could have used expensive CGI to make Hanks look more like the real man, but that was not necessary. It wasn’t a face that made the children’s tv show host so well respected and widely influential. A few minutes in, I was able to forget I was watching an actor playing a role and became immersed in the personality and the moral character that was cast upon the screen of imagination, the movie presented as if a new episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had just been released.

The way the movie was done was highly effective. It was based on an Esquire article, Can You Say … Hero? by Tom Junod. It was jarring at first in taking a roundabout approach, but it might have been the only way to go about it for the intended purpose. Fred Rogers appears to have been a person who was genuinely and fully focused on other people, not on himself. So a biopic that captures his essence requires demonstrating this concern for others, which makes him a secondary character in the very movie that is supposedly about him. We explore his world by experiencing the profound impact he had on specific people, in this case not only Junod but also his family, while there are other scenes showing the personable moments of Mr. Rogers meeting with children. The story arc is about Junod’s change of heart, whereas Mr. Rogers remains who he was from the start.

This leaves Mr. Rogers himself as an unknown to viewers not already familiar with the biographical details. We are shown little about his personal life and nothing about his past, but the narrow focus helps to get at something essential. We already were given a good documentary about him from last year. This movie was serving a different purpose. It offers a window to peer through, to see how he related and what it meant for those who experienced it. Part of the hidden background was his Christianity, as he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Yet even as Christianity inspired him, he never put his faith out in the public view. As Jesus taught to pray in secret, Fred Rogers took it one step further by keeping his faith almost entirely hidden. He didn’t want to force his beliefs onto others. The purpose of religion is not dogma or outward forms. If religion matters at all, it’s about how it transforms people. That is what Mr. Rogers, as a man and a media personality, was all about.

Some people don’t understand this and so don’t grasp what made him so special. Armond White at National Review wrote that, “Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster don’t show enough faith in Rogers’ remedies—and not enough interest in their religious origins. In short, the movie seems wary of faith (it briefly mentions that Rogers was an ordained minister) and settles for secular sentimentality to account for his sensibility and behavior. This not only weakens the film, but it also hobbles Hanks’s characterization” (Christian Faith Is the Missing Ingredient in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). That misses the entire message being conveyed, not only the message of the movie but, more importantly, the message of Mr. Rogers himself. As Greg Forster subtly puts it, “that is of course the whole goddamned point here” (Pass the Popcorn: Anything Mentionable Is Managable).

To have put Mr. Roger’s Christianity front and center would be to do what Mr. Rogers himself intentionally avoided. He met people where they were at, rather than trying to force or coerce others into his belief system, not that he would have thought of his moral concern as a belief system. He was not an evangelical missionary seeking to preach and proselytize, much less attempting to save the lost souls of heathenish children or make Christian America great again. In his way of being present to others, he was being more Christ-like than most Christians, as Jesus never went around trying to convert people. Jesus wasn’t a ‘good Christian’ and, by being vulnerable in his humanity, neither was Fred Rogers. Rather, his sole purpose was just to be kind to others. Religion, in its highest form, is about how one relates to others and to the world. Thomas Paine voiced his own radical faith with the words, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” I suspect Mr. Rogers would have agreed. It really is that simple or it should be.

That childlike directness of his message, the simplicity of being fully present and relating well, that was the magical quality of the show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I didn’t appreciate it when I was a kid. It was a fixture of my childhood, a show I watched and that was all. But looking back on it, I can sense what made it unique. Like the man himself, the show was extremely simple, one might call it basic, demonstrated by the same ragged puppets he used his entire career. This was no fancy Jim Henson muppet production. What made it real and compelling to a child was what the people involved put into it, not only Fred Rogers but so many others who were dedicated to the show. Along with the simplicity, there was a heartfelt sincerity to it all. The scenes with the puppets, Daniel Striped Tiger most of all, were often more emotionally raw and real than what is typically done by professional actors in Hollywood movies.

That is what stands out about Tom Hank’s performance in bringing this to life. He is one of the few actors who could come close to pulling it off and even his attempt was imperfect. But I have to give Hanks credit for getting the essence right. The emotional truth came through. Sincerity is no small thing, in this age of superficiality and cynicism. To call it a breath of fresh air is a criminal understatement. Mr. Rogers was entirely committed to being human and acknowledging the humanity in others. That is such a rare thing. I’m not sure how many people understood that about him, what exactly made him so fascinating to children and what created a cult-like following among the generations who grew up watching his show. As a character says about the drug D in A Scanner Darkly, “You’re either on it or you’ve never tried it.”

Some people claim that “sincerity is bullshit” (Harry Frankfurt), a sentiment I understand in feeling jaded about the world. But I must admit that Fred Rogers’ sincerity most definitely and deeply resonates for me, based on my own experience in the New Thought worldview I was raised in, a touchy-feel form of Christianity where emotional authenticity trumps outward form, basically Protestantism pushed to its most extreme endpoint. Seeing the emotional rawness in Mr. Rogers’ life, although coming from a different religious background than my own, reminded me of the sincerity that I’ve struggled with in myself. I’ve always been an overly sincere person and often overly serious, that is how I think of myself… but can anyone really ever be too sincere? The message of Mr. Rogers is that we all once were emotionally honest when children and only later forgot this birthright. It remains in all of us and that core of our humanity is what he sought to touch upon, and indeed many people responded to this and felt genuinely touched. The many testimonies of ordinary people to Mr. Rogers’ legacy are inspiring.

This worldview of authenticity was made clear in one particular scene in the movie. “Vogel says he believes his dining companion likes “people like me … broken people.” Rogers is having none of it. “I don’t think you are broken,” Rogers begins, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I know you are a man of conviction, a person who knows the difference between what is wrong and what is right. Try to remember that your relationship with your father also helped to shape those parts. He helped you become what you are”” (Cathleen Falsani, Meditating On Love and Connection with Mr. Rogers and C.S. Lewis). That dialogue was not pulled from real life, according to Tom Junod in his latest piece My Friend Mister Rogers, but even Junod found himself emotionally moved when watching the scene. The point is that what mattered to Fred Rogers was conviction and he lived his life through his own conviction, maybe a moral obligation even. The man was exacting in his discipline and extremely intentional in everything he did, maybe even obsessive-compulsive, as seen in how he maintained his weight at exactly 143 lbs throughout his adult life and in how he kept FBI-style files on all of his friends and correspondents. He had so little interest in himself that even his wife of 50 years knew little about his personal experience and memories that he rarely talked about. His entire life, his entire being apparently was focused laser-like on other people.

He was not a normal human. How does someone become like that? One gets the sense that Mr. Rogers in the flesh would have, with humility, downplayed such an inquiry. He let on that he too was merely human, that he worried and struggled like anyone else. The point, as he saw it, was that he was not a saint or a hero. He was just a man who felt deeply and passionately moved to take action. But where did that powerful current of empathy and compassion come from? He probably would have given all credit to God, as his softspoken and often unspoken faith appears to have been unwavering. Like the Blues Brothers, he was a man on a mission from God. He was not lacking in earnestness. And for those of us not so fully earnest, it can seem incomprehensible that such a mortal human could exist: “He was a genius,” Junod wrote, “he had superpowers; he might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved” (My Friend Mister Rogers). Yet for all the easy ways it would be to idolize him or dismiss him, he continues to speak to the child in all of us. Maybe ‘Mister Rogers’ was not a mystery, but instead maybe we are making it too complicated. We need to step back and, as he so often advised, remember what it was like to be a child.

Fred Rogers was a simple man who spoke simply and that is what made him so radically challenging. “Indeed, what makes measuring Fred’s legacy so difficult is that Fred’s legacy is so clear.” Junod goes on to say, “It isn’t that he is revered but not followed; so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves. We know what Mister Rogers would do, but even now we don’t know what to do with the lessons of Mister Rogers.” He might as well have been talking about Jesus Christ, the divine made flesh. But if there was spiritual truth in Fred Rogers, he taught that it was a spiritual truth in all of us, that we are children of God. Rather than what would Mister Rogers do, what will we do in remembering him?

Unlabeled Metaphors

At the blog Against the Lie, Eric Huebeck had an interesting post, How religious esotericism is really just a form of lying.

I’m not sure what I think about his views on esotericism, as Lynne Kelly argues that mnemonic practices (that could be interpreted as esotericism) were how oral cultures maintained vast stores of complex knowledge across generations, centuries, and sometimes millennia. But ignoring that, here is the passage that was most relevant to my own views on related matters:

“As an additional point, consider the way in which the communication patterns of schizophrenic persons are characterized by Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, in their paper, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”: “The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors” […]

“By endorsing the use of such “unlabeled metaphors” in the Old Testament by claiming that God “speaks” through them, Paul is effectively promoting communication that appears to be schizophrenic in nature. And that in turn means that Paul—and, presumably, the other authors of the New Testament as well—would have seen no reason to avoid the use of “unlabeled metaphors” in their own writings—which means that they would have been making no effort to avoid communicating in ways that appear to be schizophrenic in nature.”

I’ve never come across that notion of “unlabeled metaphors”, in reference to schizophrenia or anything else. Yet the general idea is familiar. To a contrary position, some argue that metaphors are built into our neurocognitive structure and inevitably go unlabeled for the most part. Metaphor, after all, frames our entire sense of identity and reality. It’s not limited to religion, propaganda, or whatever. And it is more complicated when considering metonymy, as discussed by Lewis Hyde.

Maybe the issue here is whether or not these unlabeled metaphors are being used intentionally for deceptive purposes. That is an issue I cover in my numerous discussions of my own pet theory about symbolic conflation. The thing with religion that makes it somewhat unique is the degree that people mistake their beliefs for reality, often on the basis of unlabeled and unconscious metaphors. What we are actually conscious of is a complicated issue considering the human capacity for split consciousness and dissociation.

Esotericism doesn’t necessarily mean the superficial meaning is false. Sometimes, the purpose is looking at multiple kinds or levels of truth. Even if one takes this as bullshit, many hold this double vision with utter sincerity. This returns us to the territory of Harry G. Frankfurt, truth vs false as differentiated from sincerity vs bullshit. When this differentiation is confused, much confusion follows. But the confusion itself is central in one thing being taken for another. That is the trouble the schizophrenic runs into, as do we all to varying degrees.

Sincere Bullshit

I didn’t speak out for a long time but hearing the Skinheads speak was like thunder coming to my brain. And I said ‘Sonia this is why you have to speak out for the people who didn’t make it.’

Those are the words of Sonia Warshawski, a Holocaust survivor and subject of a documentary (Big Sonia). Now 92 years old, she was 13 years old when World War II began. Her father and brother were taken away and her young sister escaped while she and her mother were sent to a concentration camp. All of her family was killed except her sister who hid with others in the forest.

It would be shocking to have someone deny that reality, not only because it is so personal but as history goes there are few events more well documented. This is the territory explored by Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland. And as he makes clear, this isn’t a new phenomenon. America has always been this way, a land of dreams, of fantasies and fictions, a vast canvass to project upon. Europeans were looking for utopian societies, Edenic savages, and demonic wilderness in America before they even got here. “But did it matter whether it was authentic or not?”, asks Karl Ove Knausgård (as quoted by Andersen). “Hadn’t this country been built on the promise of avoiding this very question?”

When I hear alt-righters, Trump supporters, and other similar types, I suspect they don’t believe or disbelieve much of what they claim. Most people want to be told a story, specifically a story that makes sense of the world. For some, the Holocaust is too immense to be made sense of and so it must be denied. It isn’t an issue of true or false, rather sincerity or bullshit. In On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt makes this distinction and explains that sincerity is unconcerned with truth in the world or what is true for others for it is about being true to yourself, being true to your belief system and ideological worldview, true to the story that you tell yourself. It’s about belief disconnected from all else, the cozy and comforting constraints of the moral imagination.

We live in a society overflowing with bullshit, not to say this is a new state of affairs. What has changed, as far as I can tell, is simply we’ve become overly sensitive to it. Travel and media have forced us into contact with more diverse people, cultures, and stories. With so many claims of truth, the war of rhetoric is won through sincerity of belief and story. It is a psychological defense against the onslaught of an overwhelming and dangerous world, as we perceive it in our fear-ridden condition. This phenomenon of bullshit is most blatant among reactionaries. That is because the reactionary by nature is more sensitive, that is what turned them reactionary in the first place. The liberal-minded have more tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, stress and anxiety, but we all have our limits. It’s useful looking at extreme examples, though, for it clarifies the dynamic. So, let me share such an example.

I struggled to make sense of this when I spent a long period visiting the human biodiversity (HBD) blogosphere. As alt-right reactionaries go, racist HBDers present themselves as rational and factually-oriented, as if they were a part of the reality-based community. But it quickly becomes apparent how narrow is their knowledge, how limited their curiosity. It was impossible to have a meaningful debate because I knew the basis of their claims while they didn’t know the basis of mine. Hence, it was a continuous one-sided interaction. HBD ends up being nothing more than a series of just-so stories. The point is that HBDers feel conviction in what they believe or at least act as if they have conviction, a difference that might not make a difference. The point is to make a story feel real by performing the role of a true believer. But it goes beyond this, since they don’t want to be taken as just another group of true believers.

There is one particular HBDer who I had some respect for. She is the cream of the crop among HBDers. And she has a certain amount of intellectual humility or so I thought, until I came to realize that it too was probably a pose to throw off critics. I eventually got the sense that she doesn’t take seriously even her own doubts and hedging, as it is a way of avoiding responsibility for what she promotes. She presents herself as merely speculating, offering morally neutral scientific hypotheses, implying that she can’t be blamed for any consequences of her beliefs in the real world. Others do take her beliefs seriously and she has been a highly influential person. It is because people like her online that we have powerful people like Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, etc. When I confronted her about this, she defended herself by denying she supports or promotes any specific policy. She pretends to be an apolitical, objective researcher and so she can’t be blamed for what others do. I doubt she believes this nor that she is necessarily lying either. It is irrelevant to the role she plays in being sincere. The story told is the important part and that story takes on a life of its own.

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around this. Debates and rhetoric are games to be played, but they are serious games to be played with the seriousness of a child playing make-believe. Trump has immense power, but what gives him persuasive influence obviously has nothing to do with truth. Even his own supporters admit that he is a liar and won’t actually do much of anything he promised. That isn’t the point. What Trump does do is tell a story that makes sense of the world, to be a wrecking ball of outrage that smashes against the facade of politics, a better story to replace what came before. It isn’t mere anarchism but the force of declaring something with all sincerity. Trump was raised in the church of Norman Vincent Peale, the famous positive thinking minister. For Trump, he learned from an early age to assert whatever comforting story made himself look good and feel good, no matter the evidence to the contrary and the consequences to others. Then he made sure to surround himself by people who would never contradict him. He is the ultimate confidence man. The con-man has to first con himself.

Let me be clear, though. I want to emphasize that this can be found across the political spectrum. One of the greatest bullshitters who has gained power was Bill Clinton (with the financial support from Trump, by the way). He did more than any other president in United States history to push the political spectrum toward the far right. And having learned from him, Hillary Clinton has always played to the crowd telling them whatever they want to hear. No rational, informed person can take the Clintons seriously in most of what they say. The same goes for Barack Obama, the affable false prophet of hope and change.

The only point that matters to the true believers is that the rhetoric, the stories make them feel good. It is of no concern the millions of people (mostly poor brown people, US citizens and foreigners) oppressed and harmed, imprisoned and killed by the policies promoted and supported by the Clinton Democrats and the Obama administration. Those people simply aren’t real in the moral imagination of the (pseudo-)liberal class. And the moral imagination never has to do with anything so minor as objective facts. All that is required is to be told stories from an authority figure, inspiring speeches about the good that is being done or will be done. People want to be told that they are good people, that they are on the right side of history. Story trumps all else and, in America, story runs deep.

If everyone who claimed to know the Holocaust was real took it seriously, it really never would happen again — yet the reality is that multiple genocides have happened since and these good people have continued to do nothing. Even the Jews in Israel persecute and ghettoize the Palestinians, as happened to them in the buildup toward the Holocaust, with no lesson learned or insight gained. The story of Holocaust, if anything, justifies all else and so the victim becomes the victimizer. But if the majority of Israelis believed their own Holocaust story, they would be overwhelmed with a sense of shame and hypocrisy. A story is to be told and believed, whether to expose or hide the truth.

As people deny the Holocaust, there are also those who deny climate change. But even for those who claim to believe the truth, they don’t act as though they genuinely believe. The majority, when asked by pollsters, state that climate change is real. Yet the looming devastation threatens an unimaginable apocalypse. We don’t have the psychological and cognitive capacity to deal with it and so we don’t. We go on living our lives as though nothing has changed or ever will change. The dominant narrative of our society, that of progress is too powerful for it to be contradicted by mere facts. We know and don’t know, the very soul of our humanity ripped apart in a collective state of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It’s not about believing in any particular truth claim. The power underlying the moral imagination is belief in belief itself. We seek to ‘will’ our preferred reality into existence. No story gains a hold on the collective psyche without the force of sincerity behind it. We live in a world of bullshit, but utterly sincere bullshit. We tell ourselves what we believe we must. Otherwise, we fear we would fall into despair. And maybe we are right about that. But we need to fall into despair, to admit the dark truths all around us. If there is any possibility of hope, it passes first through darkness.

Driven by fear, our sincerity is insincere, our pose is pretense. Ever more sincerity won’t save us. As Harry Frankfurt puts it, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” We don’t need another inspiring speech, pep talk, or story told with full confidence. What we need is harsh truth and the courageous persistence of those who will speak it.

On Accusations of Bullshit

Thinking about bullshit, I was reminded of the standard interpretation of the Greek sophists. The sophists tend to be seen through the eyes of Socrates which is to say through the words of Plato. But we are using a lens of understanding that is covered in more than two millennia of dust and grime.

I’ve long known that trying to grasp anything in the ancient world can feel like a near impossible task, even if too alluring to refuse the attempt. Understandably, we feel compelled to pull back the curtains of the past, hoping to get a glimpse. It isn’t entirely fruitless endeavor, as we have accumulated much evidence, although more scanty than is preferable.

The problem is less the evidence itself and more about how to make sense of it. After millennia of accrued interpretive traditions, it is hard to see the past with clear eyes and new insight. We inherit biases about texts and history, it being hard to separate the one from the other.

David Corey has a book on the topic, The Sophist’s in Plato’s Dialogues (see Lee Trepanier review). If he is correct, that upends the standard view. It would mean Plato’s motives in writing were more complicated, but it more importantly would mean what he wrote about was more complicated.

He points out that Plato references multiple times that Prodicus, a sophist, was Socrates teacher. His argument is that the sophists are often portrayed in positive light and that a close reading shows that there are many commonalities between Socrates and the sophists. They share methods and purpose in philosophical debate. They share a view of a manifest world that is relative and uncertain. And they share a commitment to human virtue that challenges tradition.

In one dialogue, Socrates makes a fairly direct defense of the sophists, in arguing against an unfair and unfounded criticism of them. What is interesting about the criticism, corrupting society, was later used against Socrates. And this is when it is good to remember that Socrates was also sometimes referred to as a sophist.

If sophists were bullshitters and their bullshit was a threat to Athenian democracy, then what does that say about Socrates? He too was judged as a threat and it is a fact that he did associate with some people who actually did threaten the society by enforcing authoritarian rule. It was a time of instability and so it’s clear why so many Athenian citizens feared anything that further destabilized the vulnerable democracy. But when is guilt by association a justified judgment?

The punishment for Socrates was only banishment and yet he chose death, which basically made it an act of suicide. He willingly drank the poison, instead of simply leaving. I don’t know that there is any evidence that his accusers wanted him dead. Socrates remained a well respected philosopher and public figure, even after his death. Banishment wasn’t even always permanent. So, why did he choose suicide which is permanent?

The main perspective we get on all of this, of course, is from Plato. In the Republic, Plato presents a utopian vision that is non-democratic in nature. That is the earliest inspiration for republican thought, at least in the American tradition of political philosophy. What occurred to me is that this republican ideology was articulated by someone living in a democracy and so, if implemented, this republican society would have followed after a democratic society.

Maybe such republicanism could only ever have been imagined in a democratic society. Because of modern revolutions, we define republicanism in opposition to the monarchy that it replaced. But that isn’t the context of that earliest republican thought. Instead of republicanism primarily being a revolution against monarchy, maybe it first and foremost is a reaction against democracy.

That could be seen in the American colonies where democratic self-governance had been developing for decades prior to the American Revolution and later the co-opting of power by the (pseudo-)Federalists who believed republicanism was opposed to democracy. So, the fight for democracy preceded the enforcement of republicanism. And, yes, it was an enforcement… ask those involved in Shay’s Rebellion who were violently put down.

So, what is Socratic dialogue and sophistry? And what are their relationship to rhetoric and bullshit? If Socrates or Plato had been alive in the revolutionary era of the American colonies, what would they have given voice to and whose side would they have taken? Or if they were here in America today, what role would they play? Do philosophers have much role to play at all in our society? When was the last time a member of the philosophical elite was perceived as enough threat to be deemed treasonous?

One last thought. Harry Frankfurt, in “On Bullshit,” argues that bullshit is more copious in a democracy. Is that really the case. I’ve argued against this. Whether or not there is more bullshit in a democracy, there is no doubt plenty of it. And bullshit ends up undermining democracy. Similar to an eye for an eye, bullshit for bullshit leads to us all being covered in it. There is no moral high ground on top of a pile of crap.

But how do we know what is bullshit? According to Frankfurt, that is to ask about intentions, in terms of sincerity and insincerity. Some of the critics of Socrates and the sophists claimed to know their intentions and that their intentions were not good. That apparently was a serious charge to make against someone back then. As for charges of treason these days, the issue of bullshit is irrelevant. What our society idealizes is the truth and hence what the powers that be fear is those who tell the truth. The most treasonous are the whistleblowers who leak government documents showing inconvenient truths, even if they had the best of intentions such as revealing illegal acts and moral wrongdoing.

For Socrates and the sophists, along with other Greeks, sincerity was of penultimate importance. Bullshit was seen as a threat because it was insincere, a value considered central to their small intimate democracy. We now take insincerity as the norm. Sincerity is too personal of a concern for such an impersonal society as ours. It’s harder to have personal concern for hundreds of millions in a large modern nation-state than to have personal concern for a few thousand in an ancient city-state. We are more tolerant of bullshit maybe for the sake of simplicity, as we can’t go around worrying about the moral intentions of so many strangers who we will never meet.