Our Opinion: Our Four Freedoms require vigilant defense

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Today marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms," specifically the first in a quartet of works based on the January 6, 1941 State of the Union address to Congress by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Originally commissioned by the Saturday Evening Post, they are among Mr. Rockwell's most celebrated paintings, and the embodiment of American ideals as expounded upon by President Roosevelt: Freedom of Speech; Freedom of Religion; Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

While only the first two are referenced in the U.S. Constitution, Mr. Roosevelt highlighted all four in his exhortation that Americans begin putting themselves and their economy on a war footing. The speech was at once a scold to isolationists, an appeal to patriotism and an attempt to shock listeners out of their apathy.

In 1941, when Mr. Roosevelt first introduced the Freedoms in his speech, the Pearl Harbor attack lay almost exactly 11 months in the future — yet Europe and Asia had already plunged into a war that threatened, once again, to suck the United States into its bloody vortex. Mr. Roosevelt was frantically trying to awaken a supine and quiescent America to the clear existential danger it faced, and to dispel the comfortable misconception that the nation was protected from harm by two oceans.

By 1943, when Mr. Rockwell was producing the images that would eventually claim their rightful place in the pantheon of American illustration, America was deeply embroiled in a war whose outcome remained anything but certain. Looking back through the lens of history, some critics have dismissed them for their over-the-top treacly appeal to patriotism; what these detractors fail to understand is how appropriately and effectively Mr. Rockwell addressed the contemporary zeitgeist. The paintings struck such a consonant chord with the public that they were eventually sent around the country in a specially-designed rail car as an effective booster of war bond sales.

Seventy-five years after the first Freedom painting was published, America finds itself once again in peril — this time not from foreign aggressors but from threats within. The institutions and protocols that served the nation so well and ensured its political stability for over 200 years are now under sustained assault from an executive branch enabled and abetted by members of Congress who, rather than perform their sworn duty to protect the Constitution, have out of fear of retribution placed their own political futures and those of their party ahead of America's best interests.

The ordinariness of the scenes depicted by Mr. Rockwell in these masterpieces underscores the fact that it is the very essence of what defines American life that is at risk — those minimum conditions of a functioning society that constitute the only context within which true, dynamic democracy can flourish. They also remind us of the fundamental personal guarantees Americans can and should expect from a responsive government. Thanks to policies initiated by the current administration that can be characterized at best as callous and at worst as inhumane, there are many Americans who no longer enjoy freedom from fear or want; there are non-Christian Americans who fear the open practice of their religion. Thanks to the polarization of politics and the proliferation of violent demonstrations of late, even free speech has suffered curtailment as law enforcement authorities seek to prevent riots from occurring.

There is one more freedom not mentioned — perhaps because President Roosevelt didn't think it was, or ever would be, under threat — that is essential to the preservation of a working democracy: freedom of the press. Mr. Rockwell subtly alluded to it in the copy of The Bennington Banner that the father holds at his sons' bedside in "Freedom from Fear." This bedrock freedom is also under attack, in a most insidious way; the president has actively sought to undermine the media's credibility with the very same public that they exist to inform, educate and help prepare to be involved citizens and masters of their own fate.

In other words, rather than quaint artifacts responding to the fears of a bygone era, the Four Freedoms stand as a stark reminder that those freedoms we have come to take for granted need continuing protection, protection that comes at a price. In 1943, that price was the blood American troops left on foreign soil. Today, the battlefield is less clearly marked; the forces arrayed against our democratic experiment are not easily-recognized foreign armies; rather, they are among us — some unwitting, some deliberate in their destructive purpose.

At this time of crisis for our country, we should give the Four Freedoms another good look to remind us what we may lose if we stand by and choose not to be involved in our self-government.

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