By John Kass
The lanky man in Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom of Speech” is part of Rockwell’s series “The Four Freedoms,” produced in 1943 as part of the war effort. (The image above is of a postage stamp of the painting.)
Some on the left will dismiss it as propaganda. Others might get that Norman Rockwell feeling, that craving for the glow of nostalgia that encourages people to crave for what they think were simpler times.
But there wasn’t anything simple about the time. The world was at war and millions were being slaughtered.
Hopes and dreams weren’t expressed to complete strangers on social media. Those dreams were intensely personal, about not catching a bullet and falling in the mud of France, or having enough to eat, dreams of not freezing to death in the mountains of Albania, dreams of surviving the winter forests of Germany, the deserts of North Africa or those bloody islands in the Pacific.
Some wept at what they found in the Holocaust Death camps, until there were no more tears to give, only nightmares to come.
And there were hopes and dreams that a father, a husband, a son would come home in one piece, or that families over there in the war zones might survive the bombs and the famine and the Iron Curtain that would shut all dreams and speech down tight.
But for all that, the Rockwell painting was all America, once. It expressed what was wonderful about America. It was a simple thing, really.
A man standing up.
But I wonder, now, with all that’s going on with us, in our time, can America recognize itself in the painting?
Or is the America of the painting that many of us would find foreign and inconceivable, where the people in that world held strange ideas of who could talk, and where, and what they could say,?
In the illustration, the man is tall and tired, but purposeful. My friend, the political scientist Charles Lipson finds something of beardless Lincoln in him. I can see it. The man is thin, he seems exhausted of body and spirit like some veteran home from war.
But a man who stands up at a town hall meeting because he has something to say.
We allowed that once. We welcomed Americans speaking their minds, even protesting, without dropping the federal hammer on them as if they were terrorists, without cancelling them, or harassing them at work or at home, without killing their careers. Then it would have been unseemly to ferret through the odd scraps of the lives of others to find some weapon with which to ruin them or their children.
The novel concept was called Freedom of Speech, the freedom to express your thoughts, to think out loud.
It developed slowly, over hundreds of years through the great American Experiment. And it was uniquely American.
It is one of the freedoms that they died for, over there, so we’d have it, here.
Then, we didn’t have a White House that would send the Department of Justice and the FBI after the man in the painting for expressing an unpopular view. But we have that now.
Then we didn’t have a Patriot Act written to protect us from terrorists, but now used by the Biden Department of Justice to silence parents at school boards meetings with the implied threat they themselves might be domestic terrorists, as if parents who don’t like what their kids are being taught in school are no different than al Qaeda.
We once understood that thought crimes existed only existed in a dystopian novel. But America’s parents who object to neo-Marxist cant taught to their own children, in the government schools they pay for with their own tax dollars are, in effect, thought criminals.
What are these crimes?
They dare object to racist curriculum of Critical Race Theory, where kids are divided by the color of their skin in government schools, to be treated differently race by race, decades after Brown vs Board of Education and decades after many dreamed of equality of opportunity for all. That’s gone now. In it’s place is “equity,” which not about equality, but about discrimination on racial grounds. And those who notice the difference and speak up are branded as fragile racists.
Parents committing such thought crimes may be accused of another sin: Objecting to their children being taught to loathe their nation, and turned away from them, turned against them as the kids had been taken by some cult.
Understand me on this: violence of any kind should never be tolerated. But I haven’t yet heard of dissenting parents at school boards making bombs.
Because these are local school boards, local law enforcement authorities should be involved, not the federal police with the awesome power of the federal government to threaten people into silence. They are not insurrectionists. They are not terrorists. They are parents.
All of this, CRT and its offshoots, the sheer racism of it, the arrogance of the educrats and the White House putting the federal squeeze on dissenting parents, would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. If you had prophesized the things I’m writing about now, you’d have been considered a madman with a tin-foil hat.
But all this is certainly thinkable now, isn’t it? Because it’s happening now. And there is an effort by legacy, corporate media–which tells itself it speaks truth to power but serves as the thought guardians of the regime–to downplay what’s going on at school boards.
That’s where Xi Van Fleet comes in. I watched some video of the suburban Virginia mom giving the Loudoun and Fairfax County school boards a piece of her mind, talking about what she’d seen and how it relates to now, and that’s how I started thinking about the painting.
She isn’t tall, lanky and white. She’s short. She was born in China. She’s heroic. But Ms. Fleet and others like her aren’t at the top of most network newscasts or make the front page of the papers.
I suppose those of us who see the world through the prism of race, ethnicity and gender might have missed the one thing that connects Ms. Van Fleet to the man in the painting:
They’re Americans with something to say.
She had something to say but it wasn’t at a town meeting in Rockwell’s Vermont. It was a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Va., one of the wealthiest counties in the country, where the influential members of the federal bureaucracy live and play and raise their families. I’ve linked some of the video so you could hear her for yourself.
“I’ve been very alarmed about what’s going on in our schools,” she told the board. “You are now teaching our children to be social justice warriors and to loathe our country and our history. Growing up in Mao’s China, all this seems very familiar.
“The communist regime used the same critical theories to divide people, the only difference is they used class instead of race. During the cultural revolution I witnessed students and teachers turned against each other. We changed school names to be politically correct, we were taught to denounce our heritage. The Red Guard destroyed anything that was not Communist…. statues, books and anything else.
“We were often encouraged to report on each other, just like (today’s) students’ equity ambassador program and a biased reporting system. This is indeed America’s version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Critical Race Theory has its roots in cultural Marxism. It should have no place in our schools.”
She walked away and there were cheers.
I found another interview of her linked on Real Clear Politics. She spoke of growing up during the Cultural Revolution, and knew of the infamous “Struggle Sessions.” We have them here now, too. If a journalist dares write something that triggers the leftists that dominate a newsroom, the offender may be invited into talk things out with a committee of concerned peers. I was invited to join such a struggle session for my sins, but I refused. Now I’m happily out on my own.
“When I was in China, I spent my entire school years in the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” she said. “So, I am very familiar with the communist tactics of how to divide people. How they canceled the Chinese traditional culture and destroyed our heritage. All this is happening here in America.
“Now they are labeling parents and concerned citizens like me as domestic terrorists. What can that do? You may lose your freedom?
“What next. Is a Tiananmen Square crackdown the next? Will parents one day risk their lives just to speak out for their children? That’s why I’m here.”
Though we don’t have an illustration of Ms. Van Fleet, we have her words and the videos.
She stood there, bravely, with the Justice Department searching for terrorists among parents just like her, an American taking advantage of the Freedom of Speech that was celebrated in the Rockwell painting.
It is a freedom we are giving away here, almost daily, at universities, even comedy clubs, in our civic and even our private lives. Just the other day, the president of the Chicago police union was muzzled with gag order to prevent him from speaking out against the mayor’s controversial vaccine mandate. But the mayor has no such restrictions of her speech.
We let that freedom wither, because so many are afraid to speak up. We let it shrink away with our exhausted shrugs.
But Xi Van Fleet didn’t seem tired. She didn’t shrug.
She was direct, this mom who had seen it and lived it as a girl in Communist China. She had something on her mind, she stood up like the man in the painting.
Because she’s an American, with something to say.
(Copyright 2021 John Kass)