From the Chairman’s Desk: Freedom of Speech

From the Chairman’s Desk: FREEDOM OF SPEECH

The time-honored and revered phrase- “Freedom of Speech”- has leapt to the news forefront with all of the protest marches, ceaseless strident shouts and random rudeness in opposition to President Trump. In the 1941 State of the Union Address, President Franklin Roosevelt, spoke of “four essential human freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The renowned artist, Norman Rockwell was inspired into creating “four freedoms” paintings over 75 years ago. Today they reside in an unassuming white building on Route 183 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

In a WSJ article entitled “Ode to Civil Discourse” by Bob Greene, he artfully describes his favorite painting, Freedom of Speech: “The setting is a town meeting. One man, in work clothes has risen from the audience to speak. There is nervousness, and courage, in his eyes; Rockwell makes it evident that the man is likely not accustomed to talking in the public. Other citizens of the town, the men in coats and ties, are in the seats around him. Their eyes are focused upward, toward him. They are hearing him out; they are patiently letting him have his say. His eyes, their eyes…. that is the power of the painting….But as he talks, they are listening, giving him a chance…For now, they owe him their full and polite attention. Such a simple concept. And it is one that sometimes seems to be disappearing in this era when angry words hurdle past each other like poison-tipped arrows.”

Greene continued: “Today, when so much public discourse is not just brutal but also faceless, when the back-and-forth is increasingly digitally driven, with invective and mockery flying from screen to screen, dispatched by people with made-up names, there is a constant impulse to shout down, to belittle, and to gang up on. A gentle voice has scant chance in the rising din. You look at the Rockwell painting, and you ask yourself if that man could expect to find a respectful hearing in our electronic versions of group colloquy…. When Rockwell was distilling America’s aspirations into his Four Freedoms paintings, there was no internet, there was no social media, and television sets had not yet taken over the country’s homes.” Greene was obviously very impressed with the appearance of the speaker’s eyes and his reverent facial expressions as well as those listening to the speaker.

Public debate about candidates and issues is healthy and part of the political fabric of our county, state and nation. But I agree with Greene and his assessment of how the social media and electronic media have drastically altered discourse. I am reminded how I was treated as a rare Republican in the county in the 1960-1970s. Many might be surprised to learn that one of my political friends was the Democrat County Chairman, who frequently answered questions I had about the election code. We often agreed on more than we disagreed. I had immense respect for him. But there was no social media and no 24-hour TV news coverage. We all should be alert to the fact that everything that appears on social media and internet may not be true and accurate and that there should no place in political campaigns for rudeness, shouts and violent protests.