I spoke this afternoon at a rally in Pittsfield, Massachusetts my (almost) hometown (I live one town north, in Lanesboro.) The rally honored the four freedoms, articulated in his 1941 state of the union address by FDR: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Along with a range of Massachusetts politicians – Senator Ed Market, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer – I was part of a group of community leaders invited to reflect on the four freedoms and our particular moment in time.
We had a remarkable turnout for the event. The Reverend who hosted us told me the church held 1400, and it was filled to capacity, with people sitting in the aisles, and 300 in an overflow seating room. The population of Berkshire county is only 129,000, so the folks who came out to march and listen to speeches total more than 1% of our total citizenry.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the four freedoms in his 1941 state of the union address, the world was at war, and the president wanted Americans to support the government in spreading these freedoms around the world. We’re in a very different world now, where decades of international cooperation and unification are giving way to isolationism, nationalism and the demonizing of migrants and marginalized groups. These scary trends aren’t limited to the US – we see them everywhere from Britain to Hungary, France to Russia, Poland to South Africa.
Roosevelt saw the US government as the guarantor of these freedoms around the world, first through war with Japan and Germany, then through the Marshall Plan and through decades of American hard and soft power. That’s another way in which we’re in a different world. In the 1960s, when you asked Americans if they had trust in the federal government to do the right thing, more than 75% said that they did. These days, that number is under 20%. The four freedoms matter more than ever, but even despite the hard work of our representatives here on the stage, many of us don’t believe the government can bring them about. Instead, it’s up to us, individually and collectively.
When Norman Rockwell painted Freedom of Speech, he depicted an Arlington, VT man standing up to dissent at a local town meeting. That’s about as public as most speech could be in the 1940s. But now, every one of us has the power to speak, potentially to a global audience, using nothing more than the phones in our pocket. If you don’t like how the media covers this march, film a video, write a blog post, make your own media.
Our challenge now is not just to speak, but also to listen. When everyone is speaking, it’s too easy to listen just to the people we want to hear. We’ve got to listen deeply and widely, to people in other countries and to people in our own who we don’t agree with.
We’ve got to listen, because people are scared: children whose parents brought them to the US who discover they are not citizens when they apply to college, our Muslim brothers and sisters who are unfairly blamed for acts of terror, human rights defenders who are threatened and challenged around the world. The way we achieve freedom from fear is through solidarity, through listening hard to what people have to say, then using our speech to support them, defend them and stand with them.
This is a scary moment, a time where it looks like the progress we’ve made around the world might reverse, where we go from a world that’s gotten much bigger to one that shrinks. The good news is that we get to decide how big a world we want to live in. We get to decide how to speak, how to listen and how to stand together against fear.