In early spring, there’s really nothing better than taking a weekend away to the hills of western Massachusetts. My husband and I are staying at the Red Lion Inn, which is on the historical register for U.S. hotels. Yesterday, before the rains started, we sauntered through the Berkshire Botanical Gardens. Both are sites that give us glimpses back into the genteel eras of the U.S., when grace and civility reigned strong as a national consciousness.
Today we toured the Norman Rockwell Museum. Of the many Saturday Evening Post covers and full-sized illustrations we saw, none was more powerful than a series known as “The Four Freedoms.” Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech delivered to Congress at the onset of World War II, Rockwell was inspired to convert Roosevelt’s abstract concepts into four paintings depicting concrete U.S. experiences. As simple family scenes, they also encapsulated the freedoms that U.S. citizens often take for granted.
And, as I studied each of the portraits, I was struck by how the vision of the U.S. that FDR described seems quite distinct from the one we are currently experiencing in 2017.
The first portrait, titled “Freedom from Want,” shows a family before a bountiful Thanksgiving holiday meal. According to The Atlantic, as of 2014, (the most recent year on record,) 14 percent of all U.S. households were not food secure. That’s means at least 17.4 million homes across the U.S. are populated with more than 48 million hungry people.
The second portrait, “Freedom of Speech,” seems a no-brainer. Aren’t we all taught as U.S. schoolchildren that we have the freest speech in the world? Then why do protesters risk jail? Why are students stymied when they speak out about what they see as unfair educational practices K-16? And, conversely, why are hatemongers like Ann Colter supported in their discourse as a sick redefining of free speech principles?
The third in the series, titled “Freedom from Fear,” shows a mom and dad tucking in their children after a long day. Dad is holding a picture that describes devastation in war-torn WWII Europe. Yes, living where bombs fall is fearful. But, so, too, were the expressions on faces of people of color when I traveled immediately after Donald Trump’s election in November, 2016. I met someone in the airport who told me she and her young daughter had been yelled at on Rhode Island streets to “go home where you belong.” Of Pakistani heritage, she was born in the U.S. Why should she and others have to be in fear in their own country?
The final portrait is “Freedom of Worship,” which is a scene that captures different types and cultures of people in prayer. (Rockwell expressed frequently how stymied he felt by the editorial limitations he worked under until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when he was allowed to depict new social situations that spoke to egalitarianism.) Would such a melange of worshippers really be accepted in today’s Trump society? Just today, the Huffington Post reported that the Trump administration a federal judge has ruled that they must turn over a memo and other documents from a commission led by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that is believed to have laid out ways to “legally” ban Muslims from entering the country.
I came away from the Norman Rockwell Museum feeling as if our country has regressed instead of progressed.
But some groups are using the Four Freedoms ideals as a way to bring together people across non-partisan lines. The Four Freedoms Coalition, which is an alliance of over 150 organizations, institutions, and citizens in the Berkshires, is way for many people who felt they needed to stand up for basic values to take action. Here is their mission:
“We will work with any groups, individuals, elected officials, and policy makers who share the goal of protecting the Four Freedoms and rejecting bigotry and prejudice. Opposing the threats to these Freedoms, these values, is not a matter of left or right, conservative or liberal, Democratic or Republican, but a matter of right or wrong.”
If we are to believe that the U.S. is a country that protects our freedoms, then maybe the Four Freedoms Coalition model is the way to start to reach across divides and to unite people on the set of common principles on which our country places its collective identity. It is a hopeful beginning point.