Norman Rockwell and the Town Meeting

One of my favorite Norman Rockwell images is called Freedom of Speech, which shows a working man standing up at a New England town meeting and speaking to the assembled citizenry. The man appears to be a laborer of some sort with a jacket and woolen shirt.  As he speaks he is surrounded by men in suits and ties, apparently the elite members of the community. It is clear that  Rockwell is seeking to show that freedom of speech is for everyone, not just the well born and well connected.

But the Rockwell image also shows something else – the people around the working man are listening intently to what he is saying. There is no anger on the faces in the painting; no one is shouting; everyone is civil and respectful. This is what a town meeting is supposed to be like, not some scene out of the French Revolution where radicals shout, ” off with their heads.”

I have been to enough town meetings in my lifetime to know that what is happening to members of Congress as they seek input on health care reform is not out of a Rockwell painting, but is rather a disgusting disfigurement of how democratic practices like the town meeting are supposed to be conducted. No town meeting that I have every attended would feature shout outs, physical intimidation and even death threats. Yes, there would be raised voices and tough questions for public officials, but always presented in a civil manner and never with boorish behavior.

Republicans claim that the pandemonium present at these health care town meetings is just democracy at work – that’s plain and simple baloney.  Town meetings are about finding out information, asking questions and demanding answers; it is never a forum for disinformation, wild accusations and mean-spiritedness. These wingnut offshoots from the tea bag and birther movement have now shown up at the health care town meetings claiming to be exercising their right of free speech. Well they ought to take a look at Norman Rockwell’s picture of freedom of speech to see how a town meeting is really conducted.

What’s disappointing about the destruction of the town meeting by the radical right is that just like negative advertising, these shout outs work, as they are shown 24/7 on cable and influence the uninformed and the political novice. Liberals, true to form, fight back with reason and calm presentation of the facts, rather than taking on these phony citizens and pushing them off the national stage. If this is a fight to save health care in this country, then liberals have to fight back. Unfortunately, in this case Norman Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech image at a New England town meeting does not represent reality.

3 Responses to Norman Rockwell and the Town Meeting

  1. David Wilson says:

    How true — watching the evening news and hearing the anger in the voices of those few screaming individuals at various town meetings shouting at their congressmen and congresswomen is not only jarring and unpleasant but frightening. This is mob behavior. Is this all being orchestrated from some central location or do these people act so outrageously because they hope to be on MSNBC? (Perhaps they just want the accolades of their fellow town hall attendees who applaud their behavior).

  2. Doug Smith says:

    I realize this is an old post. I found it in looking for the Rockwell painting, which I love as well. I also appreciate your comment about the man’s neighbors listening to him. I wonder, thru the prism of time, though, how you react to the specter of liberal groups of college students acting as a mob to prevent speakers with whom they may disagree from speaking at all?

    In my mind, we afford the right to speak and be heard to all our neighbors, reserving the right to disagree. The ultimate forum, the ballot, makes our opinions carry the weight of majority. When anyone deprives one he opposes from this most basic right to be heard, we are indulging in fascism.

  3. giniajim says:

    Was there an article in the issue of the SEP that went with this painting?

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