December 29, 2010

Self Governance in a Diverse Community

Justin Katz

I got a little philosophical on the topic of small-town New England democracy for my column this week:

At such times, one marvels at the brazen perpetuation of democracy in a society so diverse that even some few dozen square miles contain irreconcilable lives. New England, with its proud tradition of town meetings, raises that dogged practice to the status of an organizing principle. In his classic 1942 painting "Freedom of Speech," Norman Rockwell portrays a grubby-handed working man standing among his fellow electors at the annual financial meeting of an unidentified Vermont town. The styles of those around him suggest that they inhabit distinct social strata.

As different as the WWII-era lives of the town banker and the dairy farmer may have been, however, they still bore commonalities that technology has largely erased.

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I have to disagree, slightly, with Justin on this one. Although, I might agree if the comparison were made between "upper middle class" and "working class".

I have known a number of very wealthy, and a larger number of workman. Although their phraseology and manner of expression may differ, they share a common knowledge. They both know this; if a working guy is severed from his hands, or, a capitalist is severed from his capital, they are as nothing. So the working guy labors to preserve an economy that values his hands and the capitalist labors to preserve the value of his capital. This is not as disparate as it may seem, and leads to similar values expressed differently. From this comparison, I have to exclude the diffident wealthy and the angry working man who thinks the "system" targets him.

The "upper middle class" does see themselves as people of greater worth, quite different from the "working class". Those people didn't win the race, they weren't even contenders.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 29, 2010 3:10 PM

I too don't get Justin's point. How has technology erased our town-level connections among the entities that keep it going? If anything, the opposite is true. The fact that we are having this on-line discussion demonstrates that freedom of speech is alive and well on the Web.

There is some irony in the speaker's presence and clothes. He is not entirely homespun. You don't normally see a zippered pull over flannel shirts in Vermont. And his leather jacket smacks of NYC. But he does have teamster's hands. Don't forget that many of Norman Rockwell's neighbors were farmers by choice.

For all we know, he may have graduated from Princeton.

Posted by: Richard Langseth at December 30, 2010 1:54 AM


I'm not sure what you mean by "entities that keep it going," but my point isn't that we aren't able to communicate and interact, which obviously isn't the case. My point is that our daily lives are different in ways that they weren't back then. We're more mobile and able to communicate great distances with many people. It once was the case that folks were bound to a few square miles for their daily lives, no matter their wealth.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 30, 2010 5:53 AM

We are on the same page. The greater difference point is obvious. How the Web enhances the way we communicate at city council or town meetings may be less obvious. The speaker illustrated by Rockwell was actually protesting the Arlington, Vermont school budget at the 1942 town meeting. The "suits" were probably school officials and not bankers.

Now we can all look on line at the school funding plan for Arlington, Vermont that will come up at its spring town meeting. The cost per student is at least 25 percent lower than Warwick's. This comparison demonstrates the power of the Web.

Posted by: Richard Langseth at December 30, 2010 4:55 PM
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