A Cautious Man
October 03, 2008
Norman Rockwell Is Not Smiling
There are a lot of reviews of last night’s Palin vs. Biden debate; this isn’t one of them. This is a review of a review, or at least of part of one. In reading the reviews this morning, one particular passage just annoyed me, and it was by (of course) David Brooks in the New York Times, in his description of Governor Palin’s performance:

Thursday night she spoke like a normal person. It took her about 15 seconds to define her persona — the straight-talking mom from regular America — and it was immediately clear that the night would be filled with tales of soccer moms, hockey moms, Joe Sixpacks, main-streeters, “you betchas” and “darn rights.” Somewhere in heaven Norman Rockwell is smiling.

And I immediately thought to myself, “Norman Rockwell is not smiling”. And its not just because even the average Norman Rockwell illustration is a little more substantive than the folksy veneer presented by Governor Palin and praised by Brooks. No, it’s because of a painting like Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” -

Why is that, you ask? It goes back to Governor Palin’s troubling response to Katie Couric when asked if there were any Supreme Court decisions (other than Roe v. Wade that she disagreed with:

Couric: What other Supreme Court decisions do you disagree with?

Palin: Well, let's see. There's, of course in the great history of America there have been rulings, that's never going to be absolute consensus by every American. And there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade, where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So you know, going through the history of America, there would be others but …

Couric: Can you think of any?

Palin: Well, I could think of … any again, that could be best dealt with on a more local level. Maybe I would take issue with.

When I hear a conservative talk about issues that are “best held on a state level” or “best dealt with on a local level”, I can’t help but think of the long struggle to bring civil rights to every person in United States. From school desegregation to voting rights to treating people as human beings in places of public accommodation, these efforts were always fought by people arguing that the federal government was interfering with a “local issue”.

As in the painting, which depicts Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by Federal marshals in New Orleans in 1960. A Federal Court had ordered that the New Orleans schools could no longer remain segregated. There was local opposition, to put it mildly:

Charles Burks, one of the U.S. marshals who escorted Bridges and her mother into the school building, remembers the little girl who became a hero.

"She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn't whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier. And we're all very proud of her."

The first year, all the parents of Frantz Elementary pulled their children out of school to protest the integration. As a result, Ruby Bridges spent her first year in a class of one. The teacher, a woman from Boston, was one of the few white instructors who was willing to teach a black child. She and Bridges showed up for school every single day that year, and they held class as if there were no angry mob outside, no conflict over a little girl attending first grade.

Norman Rockwell illustrated the violent reaction of those who opposed this Federal interference with a “local issue”, not only by showing a wall splattered with a thrown tomato, or the “N word” scrawled on that wall, but by the need for the four, tall, resolute and ready Federal marshals surrounding the young Ruby.

In depicting a stoic little girl, being escorted through a phalanx of hate, Norman Rockwell vividly illustrated that the real American values were those of Ruby Bridges and her champions, and not the people who thought that the Federal government was interfering with their “local issues”. So, on balance, I do not think that Governor Palin’s use of a few “betchas” or “darn rights” would make Norman Rockwell smile.



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