BETHESDA, Md. -- I have a coffee cup on my desk that I bought some years ago at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

It illustrated one of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin D. Roosevelt noted were essential to America's democracy. They are freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom to worship God in your own way and the one that my Rockwell cup illustrates so wonderfully: "Freedom of speech and expression."

Rockwell's illustration shows a young citizen standing at a town hall meeting and speaking his mind. The audience is looking at him and listening intently. Some may agree with him and others totally disagree, but no one is jeering -- or cheering. They are hearing him out.

The painting to me reaffirms a syllogism that H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore and wordsmith par excellence with The Baltimore Sun, put so simply and so wonderfully.

"The other fella may be right!"

If we want our democracy to function effectively -- even in this time of divisive partisan stress -- it seems to me that those six words should be our standard bearer.

Rather than automatically shouting down or shutting out, all Americans should listen and process what people who we may automatically disagree or agree with actually are saying.

The other fella may just be right. But if we don't listen to and process those words, how will we know.

Listening and thinking about different ideas is a fundamental part of a functioning democracy. Give it a try. The great men and women who made our country what it is today, will nod their heads in agreement.

John E. Peterson is a former Washington correspondent with The Detroit News. Write him at Peterson Pro Media, 4835 Cordell Avenue, # 1102, Bethesda, MD 20184. 

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