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How to Be Progressive Without Being Divisive

The lessons of Dolly Parton and Fred Rogers.

December 9, 2019
 
 

I’ve been struck that in the middle of America’s polarization vortex, the unifying figures of Dolly Parton and Fred Rogers appear to be everywhere.

Both of them are progressive in the way that I think progressivism matters most. They believe in fairness, decency, sticking up for the underdog, creating a society where people can be their true selves, be their best selves and be that together.

The writer Jeanne Marie Laskas says that the best way to think about Fred Rogers is an artist of atmosphere. His program (he never referred to it as a show, always a program) was about designing a space where it was easier for people to be good and to cooperate. Fred Rogers always had an eye to lifting up the marginalized (he was sickly, overweight and teased as a child, called "Fat Freddy" by neighborhood bullies).

Consider the themes of the program (I like you just the way you are, you are good and worthy just by being yourself) and think about how those map directly to progressive ideas today -- like the importance of “being seen.”

Fred Rogers took on topics both personal (death, divorce) and social (racism). But there were no in-your-face protest chants on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, just a better way of living together. In an era of segregated pools, Fred Rogers did a show where he and a black character dangled their feet in a tub of water together. See, he was saying, isn’t this the way you want to live? Isn’t it just so obvious that this is better and more beautiful?

You get a similar vibe from Dolly Parton’s songs. There are probably hundreds of millions of people on the planet who were introduced to feminism not by bell hooks or Gloria Steinem, but by Dolly Parton. It is a feminism that doesn’t spend its time denouncing the patriarchy so much as it creates a world that you want to dance to, to sing to, to join.

A few years ago, Dolly Parton joined Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin on stage for a celebration of the movie 9 to 5. Fonda and Tomlin used it as an opportunity to denounce Donald Trump. Dolly Parton made some female body jokes and moved the event along. “She missed an opportunity,” I thought to myself when I first heard about that.

That’s exactly what the podcast host Jad Abumrad thought when he brought the incident up with her. Why not say the obvious: Donald Trump reminds you of the male boss in 9 to 5. So many people would have felt affirmed by a comment like that.

Perhaps Parton didn’t want to say something because it would cost her fans, and therefore money, Abumrad wondered.

But then she says something that floors him. Dolly Parton says that she wished she could have stopped the event and had everybody in the audience pray for Donald Trump.

This, Abumrad decides, is Dolly Parton’s core ethos and her signal genius. In Dolly Parton’s world, everybody belongs. No one is cast out. You sing your way to a better and more progressive world rather than denounce your way to that world.

Fred Rogers opened up a political event with George H. W. Bush and Arlen Specter around the 1992 election. He told a story about the importance of prayer, said his dream was to turn cries of despair into rays of hope, and then he left the building before either politician could say a word.

He had left because he thought contemporary politics centered too much on accusation (this in 1992!) and that’s not the work he wanted to do. “Other people may be accusers if they want to; that may be their job. I really want to be an advocate for whatever I find is healthy or good. I think people don’t change very much when all they have is a finger pointed at them. I think the only way people change is in relation to somebody who loves them.”

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