For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
— William Stafford
from “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”
I found this piece of history, the video in the middle of this post, the other day. It’s seven minutes long and I promise you if you haven’t already seen it, it will change you. If you have seen it, it’s changed you already. So it’s worth your time. To be precise, it’s worth $20 million.
Mr. Rogers was gone from public television by the time Nick came along, so Nick doesn’t know who he is. Actually, Mr. Rogers was almost gone in 1969, when this scene was recorded.
Congress was threatening not to fund PBS. Mr. Rogers went to the Capitol to read a statement urging them to reconsider. But when his moment with the committee arrived, Mr. Rogers decided not to read what he’d written. Instead, he spoke off the cuff about his work and his beliefs. He spoke for children.
I don’t know what you think of Mr. Rogers. I was already too cynical for his unbearably slow and sincere way of talking when his program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, first appeared. He was an easy target for ridicule among my crowd. But very young children always loved him. There was method in his manner.
He spoke no differently to this no-nonsense group of legislators than he did to children. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
I try to imagine how such testimony would land today—clearly it’s of a simpler time. And yet, as I remember, all around his example of quiet conviction the world was mad with war, and student protesters in this country were being shot at and killed.
So I’d like to think there is something timeless about the essence of what this man did and said—of his standing up for himself, his standing up for children.
In 1994, PBS aired Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City, which openly depicted gay lifestyle. A few months later the Gingrich Congress targeted the network as liberal and homosexual, and public television began its long, sad decline into senescence. Mr. Rogers’ appearance before Congress that day in 1969 had bought PBS a twenty-five year stay of execution.
The tape brings to mind Jimmy Stewart’s dramatic filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But Mr. Rogers’ testimony couldn’t have been scripted–it’s too naked, too simple, too improbable. One polite and humble man speaking the truth to power.
It’s important, Mr. Rogers says, for awake people to be awake.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
A Voice — another take on Mr. Rogers’ testimony to Congress
Save NPR! — The decline of public television
A Ritual to Read to Each Other — Listen to William Stafford reading his poem (of which the last stanza is quoted above.) When I googled the title as an exact phrase, I got 29,000 hits. Which gives you some idea of the effect this poem has on people.
Express yourself! Any thoughts about Mr. Rogers? I’d love you to add your comment below. I always respond here.