Norman Rockwell and the Town Meeting

August 11, 2009

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.

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Short Memories

August 4, 2009

As Obama’s health care reform winds its way through the labyrinth that is the American governing system, the key issue framing the debate is not the well-being of our citizens, especially those who live on the edges, but the cost, and particularly the deficits and debts that any reform will likely create.

It is perplexing to note that the American public barely flinched when billions was spent on what most now agree was a needless invasion and occupation of Iraq. When this foreign policy fiasco comes to end it will probably cost the taxpayers of this country well over a trillion dollars ( some say $ 3 trillion) and more importantly the lives of over 4600 brave American men and women.

Just as perplexing is the fact that the Bush administration left the incoming president with a $ 1.3 trillion deficit, largely the result of the war along with some accounting tricks that kept the real cost of the war off the budget books. Americans it seemed were content to shoulder the cost of the war by hiding behind their support for the troops.

Now that the Great Recession has hit, Americans have become born again fiscal conservatives, ever conscious of deficits and debts, even though the Obama health care plan seeks to keep people alive and financially secure rather than send our best and brightest to war.  Much of what you hear in Washington and now around the country is the cost of the plan, the implications for the yearly deficit and the long term national indebtedness.

Of course behind all this concern with costs and deficits and debts is taxes. Americans have bought into the no new taxes mantra that has been around for well over thirty years, and point with pride that during the Iraq war with all its expenses, they got a tax cut not a tax increase. Never mind that the Bush tax policy was a rich man’s bonanza and created yearly deficits of hundreds of billions of dollars, while ignoring valuable infrastructure of all shapes and sizes and leaving  helpless critical spending needs in education, the environment and certainly health care.

So the short hand conclusion that comes from all of this is that Americans are OK with foolish military spending on a foolish foreign war. But when it comes to the health of the nation, every penny has to be watched and the government must be put under the most intense scrutiny because they must be wasting our money.

It is good for a democracy to have citizens that are fiscal watchdogs who take an interest in where their money is being spent; its just that these fiscal watchdogs can’t have short memories and forget how we misspent trillions in Iraq and didn’t get much of anything in return.