For March 2, 2016:
“If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Yesterday was Town Meeting Day here in Vermont. I know, it was also Super Tuesday, where several other states in the U. S. participated in the presidential primary process, but Town Meeting is special enough to warrant separate mention. It may not seem like this has much to do with writing, but I think it does because we writers are important to the health of our country. As I noted in a post a week or so ago, someone wrote that ‘artists are the gatekeepers of truth.’
You may be familiar with Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting ‘Freedom of Speech.’ The image depicts a man standing up among his neighbors to speak at a Town Meeting in Arlington, Vermont in 1942. Rockwell lived in that town for a while, and some of the people shown in that painting and a few of his others were actual residents.
This beautiful little town in southwestern Vermont, by the way, is the setting for my new novel, and it starts at a Town Meeting gathering. The setting itself was somewhat arbitrary, but I chose to dedicate the first two chapters to a fictional Town Meeting because I love the way Vermont does its political business. Everyone has a voice, even if they’re too young to vote, and every voice is important to the process.
Most towns, cities, and municipalities in Vermont have gone to a two day system, a floor meeting Monday night and voting by Australian ballots or paper on Tuesday. I think this is unfortunate, but I understand the need to adjust to modern times and accommodate modern needs. A few towns, though, still function the old-fashioned way, with a communal floor meeting – like the one in Rockwell’s painting – a potluck lunch, and floor and/or paper votes all on the first Tuesday every March.
Even in the bigger municipalities, people still get excited about Town Meeting Day. ‘Are you going to Town Meeting?’ they ask each other days in advance. ‘What do you think of so-and-so for Select Board?’ Perhaps some of the excitement is because there’s the possibility we might see folks we haven’t seen much over the winter, but I think it’s mostly along the lines of Washington’s statement above.
We may argue with others at the floor meeting, but Vermont voters treasure the opportunity, the independence, to speak their minds in this time-honored way. No matter how fierce the argument or how much we might disagree on one or more issues, we know we’re among friends and neighbors. We know these are the friends and neighbors who will give us the coats off their backs or be the first to help with casseroles or housing or transportation in times of trouble, and we them.
Our political representatives, from the local level through to the national level, come directly from this model. The statehouse is a legislature of citizens first, representatives and state senators who hold separate jobs in addition to their political ones. It is truly a citizens’ legislature in every sense of the term. Almost every single person in the deliberative body is there, first and foremost, to represent the people in his or her district because they care about them and want to work on their constituents’ behalf and for their betterment. This is one reason we call all our legislators – even our U. S. representative and senators – by their first names, both in casual conversation about them and when talking with them in person.
Vermonters are rightly proud of this tradition, this model of civics done well. I came to Vermont 20 years ago from other states with other models, and I’ll take Vermont’s way any day. I only wish other states – and other politicians – would, too. Maybe then this whole political mess we’re in right now would be a little more thoughtful, a little more civil.