“Freedom of Speech”

Norman Rockwell seemed to me to be an artist and illustrator who would appeal to members of a group like the Daughters of the American Revolution. Ignorance is difficult to dislodge. Preconceived notions sometimes fill the mind with blinding misconceptions.

On the first trip to the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I sat outside while family members toured the museum. It was only on the second visit to the museum that I was able to put aside old prejudices and actually take a look at the art that Rockwell created. And what a surprise! Here was an artist who conceived works of art with a genuine open-mindedness that shone a light on some of the major social issues of the 20th century.

Among Rockwell’s art that catches both the eye and imagination are “The Problem We All Live With,” about school desegregation, “Freedom of Speech,” illustrating the courage to stand and speak out at a town meeting, and “Do Unto Others,” a striking statement on religious tolerance.

This past May, Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” one of his Four Freedoms paintings, struck home in a way that art seldom does! Massachusetts towns follow the cherished heritage of meeting once a year, in the spring, to discuss issues that are important to townspeople and the work of the government in those towns. The meetings are somewhat of a marathon, lasting into the early hours of the morning. And just as in “Freedom of Speech,” members of the community rise and debate the important issues that face them. This form of governance is as close to republican democracy as I’ve seen since the endless meetings during the peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, during which the need to follow parliamentary procedures often trumped the participants ability to remain focused on issues.

As the night grew long in early May, one of the issues on the town meeting “warrant” (the list of issues to be addressed at the meeting) involved the naming of a small park in the town after a veteran of the Iraq War who was killed in 2004 when the helicopter he was piloting struck an electric line. The debate about the naming of the park went back and forth between those who wanted to name the park after the soldier who had died and those who wanted to place a monument in the park dedicated to the veteran and leave the park with its current name. One speaker objected to naming the park in the veteran’s honor, noting that future wars might create a need to dedicate similar spaces in town in honor of veterans of future wars. Following a fairly long debate on the issue, it was decided that a monument would be dedicated in the soldier’s memory and the park would remain dedicated to veterans of all wars. I was surprised to learn that no veteran from my town who served in any other war that this nation has fought died while on active service. During the lengthy debate, no one rose to speak to discuss any of the other issues relating to the Iraq War and the human costs of that war.

As I drove through the night toward home among the lush mountains and hills of Western Massachusetts, I was struck by how cowered I had been to not have risen at the meeting and requested that the soldier be remembered in a way that would get others to think about the human toll of the Iraq War and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died since the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq War of 2003 that continues in the deaths from sectarian violence; or the tens of thousands of veterans who wait “in line” for care from physical and psychic injuries from that war; or the $1.7 trillion that has been spent on that war; or the 4,486 U.S. soldiers who have died and the 22,625 who have been wounded; and well over one million Iraqis who have been displaced by the war.

While monuments serve to remember the dead, another lasting way to remember those lost and injured in war could have been a scholarship dedicated to the memory of this soldier given to a student who graduates from the high school where the town meeting was held and from which the veteran had graduated, or recognition for an essay that recognized the different and contending views about war and about those who have served and died or were injured in war.

“Freedom of Speech” is a beautiful expression by the artist of a working man standing before his fellow townspeople to address an issue of importance. The speaker stands out among the older group of suited men and single woman in the crowd at the town meeting. The town meeting’s warrant is tucked into his pocket as he fearlessly speaks to the issue. I knew I had failed to rise and speak to the issues of war and peace that have occupied so many decades of my life and have been left unresolved by this nation and its towns and cities. As unresolved as the war now waged against other veterans in the cause for truth and justice through speech in persons such as Manning, Snowden, and Assange.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.

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