When I was a kid in the 1980s, most of the shows aimed at my age group were half-hour cartoons/toy commercials with names like Sgt. Dirk Fistpunch and the Justice Kommandos. These shows were all the same, and they went something like this:
SGT. DIRK FISTPUNCH: Oh no! General Destructo and the Slime Squad are trying get kids to drop out of school!
CORPORAL GUNMUSCLE: Hey, General Destructo! Don't you know that school helps kids learn new things?
PRIVATE SWORDTHRUST: Yeah! School is cool!
GENERAL DESTRUCTO: I don't care! My Slime Squad will trick kids everywhere into dropping out of school, and then the world will be MINE! Ha ha ha!
SGT. DIRK FISTPUNCH: All right, General Destructo! You asked for it! Justice Kommandos attack!
[The Justice Kommandos attack the Slime Squad with guns, swords, and missile launchers, but since this is a kids' show nobody gets killed or suffers gruesome injuries.]
Shows like this taught the following moral lessons:
- The world was divided into easily-identifiable Good and Evil factions.
- Violence was a fun and consequence-free way to solve any problem.
- The action figures, vehicles, and accessories for Sgt. Dirk Fistpunch®, General Destructo®, and the rest of the Justice Kommandos™ and Slime Squad™ were all Sold Separately, and we needed to Collect Them All unless we wanted to be total losers.
- Maybe something about not dropping out of school? Who cares? Whatever the problem is, the Justice Kommandos always fix it with violence!
These shows may have pretended to be educational but everyone knew they only existed to sell toys by appealing to little boys' power fantasies. And even though my parents--ever wary of the impact of televised violence on impressionable young minds--didn't allow me to watch them, they still influenced me because my friends at school all watched them, and the toys were advertised during the shows I did watch. My friends and I quickly came to view Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as slow and boring, stupid baby stuff. For older kids like us, there was more grown-up fare like Sgt. Dirk Fistpunch and the Justice Commandos.
But fast-forward thirty years or so, and a funny thing has happened. Whenever the latest terrorist attack or mass shooting or natural disaster happens and our social media feeds overflow with outrage and grief, someone always makes a post like this:
Yes, during those times it's not G.I. Joe or the Transformers that give us comfort. It's Mr. Rogers. It turns out that the "lessons" we picked up from those cartoons in our childhood don't translate so well to real life. But Mr. Rogers grows more profound and relevant with each passing year. I'll conclude this article by including a couple of my favorite lessons of his.