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Freedom of Speech

August 7, 2009, 10:13 am

Paul Krugman writes,

There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom of Speech,” depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting, part of a series illustrating F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms,” shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but they’re letting him speak his mind.

I don’t think a look at the painting bears Krugman out. The expressions are patient, true, but beyond that, neutral. The face we see best, the wrinkled one to the left (the speaker’s right), might even be smiling. (A couple of the more obscured faces seem to be gazing heavenward with an abstract rapture like the speaker’s own.)

In any case the “town halls” that have been disrupted lately are a bit different. In these literal town hall meetings of idealized memory, the town gathered to conduct its business, making decisions on the spot — in the recent cases, representatives are coming home to their constituents, to hear and present arguments about business that will be decided later, in Washington.

But Krugman’s reading of the painting, and his analogy, are not as important, I think, as the historical question. Have we Americans really been so tolerant of diverging opinion as he claims? Reading, say, Judith Thurman’s piece on Rose Wilder Lane, it sounds as though anger at liberals and liberal policy could run pretty high in 1933 — though I’ll admit that writing “I hoped that Roosevelt would be killed” is not the same as physical violence.

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