In 2005, sandwiched between the Iraq War and the Great Recession, the internet provided Americans a needed respite in the form of Chuck Norris facts. But our hyper-partisan culture has found a new unlikely hero—Mr. Rogers.
Thanks to a running gag on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and a joke website looking for a replacement for Vin Diesel, “Chuck Norris facts” exploded.
The bearded, no-nonsense tough guy became the resilient hero the nation wanted—both as our savior and our representative. Or at least the fictionalized version of the martial arts star became that hero.
Burgeoning social media networks were filled with such facts as, “When Chuck Norris was born he drove his mom to the hospital” and “Monsters worry Chuck Norris lives under their bed.”
Struggling with the unexpected aftermath of the Iraq War and clawing through the Great Recession we wanted to be omnipotent and infallible. So we cast him as one who could not be beaten and never made a mistake.
Like every internet meme, however, Chuck Norris faded away. We put the war behind us and recovered from the recession, so we no longer needed him and his facts.
But we face new issues today. Our culture has grown increasingly partisan and unfailingly angry. Social media is no longer characterized by fun, but by outrage and shrillness.
In this moment, we turn to another person whose most outstanding characteristics we are exaggerating to mythical levels because it’s what we need right now. Instead of the knockout artist Chuck Norris, we are turning to the neighborly Mr. Rogers.
Anthony Breznican, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, tweeted how he watched Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in college during a stressful time and then actually ran into Fred Rogers. If you haven’t already, you really should read his entire story that went viral after the recent Manchester bombing.
People began resharing a story from last year about Mr. Rogers subtly, but strongly challenging racist assumptions by inviting Officer Clemmons, an African-American police officer, to share a pool with him and cool off their feet.
We no longer needed someone who could beat up all the terrorists and never make a mistake. We are grasping for a kind word and gentle spirit that could cut through the chaotic chatter and insatiable outrage.
So now we’re making up facts about Mr. Roger’s goodness instead of Chuck Norris’ fighting prowess.
"Most of my childhood heroes wore capes…but as I grew my heroes changed…anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me." Mr Rogers pic.twitter.com/OwJR7Iivs2
— Steven D. Greydanus (@DecentFilms) June 1, 2017
In both the Marvel comics and films, Thor’s hammer Mjölnir could only be lifted by a person who was “worthy.” In this cultural moment, no one is more worthy of power and influence than Mr. Rogers.
Obviously, no one was capable of the fictional feats credited to Chuck Norris, but we wished it could have been otherwise. Today, the unshakable kindness of Fred Rogers seems almost as impossible.
Everything is filtered through political labels, resulting in more and more name-calling and dehumanization language and behavior. We don’t want someone who is unstoppable in his strength; we need someone who is undeniable in his goodness.
In 2005, we wanted Chuck Norris to inspire courage and keep fighting. In 2017, we need Mr. Rogers to bring comfort and challenge misconceptions.
We still need heroes, but as Mr. Rogers said, not all heroes wear capes. Not all heroes can execute roundhouse kicks either. Some simply do all they can to reflect goodness and light into the world around them.
As an ordained minister, Fred Rogers led the way for others to follow him as he followed Christ. May we follow his example and recognize everyone we come in contact with as our neighbor and worthy of our kindness.
After all, when Chuck Norris goes to bed, he puts on Mr. Rogers pajamas.