Sunday, January 23, 2011


I'm not sure how it happened, but I'm not a sports fan, and never was one. Nonetheless the local football franchise the Pittsburgh Steelers are headed into a big game on Sunday. It's a game against the New York Jets to determine the Conferencre Champion and who will go to the Super Bowl. It's sad that I'm so lost when it comes to football because the excitement around here is palpable.

Seven or eight years ago I went regularly to the African Student Association meetings at the University of Pittsburgh. A few of the friends I made there have stuck around this area but most have moved on. But it's fun to see on Facebook what big Steeler fans some of them are.

John Michael Greer has a recent post, The Onset of Catabolic Collapse. Catobolism is the breakdown of molecules, it's also the name used for wasting to death. Greer uses the notion of catabolic collapse to describe the process of empires falling, especially in connection to peak oil. Greer provides a very readable account of the process in the post and then makes a good point:
That being the case, the question is simply when to place the first wave of catabolism in America – the point at which crises bring a temporary end to business as usual, access to real wealth becomes a much more challenging thing for a large fraction of the population, and significant amounts of the national infrastructure are abandoned or stripped for salvage. It’s not a difficult question to answer, either.

The date in question is 1974.
Wow, he hits the nail on the head for people in the Pittsburgh area. The collapse of the steel industry here was huge and began right about then. More than two hundred thousand people were directly employed in the industry in the early 1970's in Allegheny County--where the city of Pittsburgh is--by 1980 there were less than five thousand employed. One of the results is there are Pittsburghers all over the country, they moved away to find employment. Lots of them are Steeler's fans to this day.

One of my brother's daughters is a huge Steeler fan. She's never lived in Pittsburgh and I bet that most of her school chums are Miami Dolphin fans. It's hard to account for it. My brother has a more normal interest in sports than I have, but he was never a rabid Steelers fan. My little niece could qualify as one though.

I was looking for a picture for this post and one way I was searching was to search photos marked as Creative Commons at Flickr. It was fun looking at the results, but I didn't find just the right picture. Lots of the pictures seemed related to particular people's experience. There were many pictures of new born babies dressed in Steeler branded clothing. We're maniacs around here for the Steelers. Wherever I've gone this week there have been folks dressed in Steeler clothing. The baby pictures at Flickr reminded me of Steeler Baby. It's a fun site to get the flavor of our town.

I have been reading up on conservatives. Nothing really to report yet, except my heart's not in it. One nice thing about enthusiasm for sports is that it seems to infect liberals and conservatives alike. Ha! And there's a certain working-class sensibility about the Steelers. People all over the USA are Steeler fans--probably many more loathe them. Still, tell someone anywhere in the USA you're a fan and it means something solid, maybe even a bit stodgy.

Go Steelers!

Update: The Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the New York Jets to become the 2011 American Football Conference Champions. The Steelers will face NFC Champions the Green Bay Packers in the 45th Super Bowl February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

American Portraits

It's been a month since I've posted here. That just goes to show that however addicted I am surfing the Internet, and I am addicted, blogging is not addictive. It's more a slightly nagging sense that I'd like to.

As a kid I liked the card game Authors. The game is simple: there are 13 authors and the object of the game was to collect sets of the individual author cards in each suit. The cards name some of the major works of the authors and include a little picture of a character from the books. It was a quick and fun way to learn the names a few authors and what they were most famous for. The game has a certain appeal to imagination planting the seed to want to read the books to find out more.

Long before I ever used a computer, I was excited by the idea of hyperlinks. I suspect that the game of Authors provided an analogy for how I thought about hyperlinks. I liked the idea about learning that seemed so different from books with a beginning middle and end. I liked the idea that people could collect and curate a set of links to share with others. I really had no idea how cool hyperlinks actually are then without exposure to computers. I'm still a bit behind the curve when it comes to making and curating collections of them. I like collections, but my lack of organization appalling.

I recently discovered Robert Shetterly's Web site Americans Who Tell the Truth. Shetterly's collection has it all: The portraits are real and travel as an exhibit. There's a book and well printed cards of his portraits of Americans. A Web site to view the portraits and biographical information about the subjects. On the Web site is a curriculum and space for teachers to talk about how they've incorporated the work into their lessons.

Robert Shetterly's project began as a response to the 9/11 events in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. I hadn't got to his Artist Statement yet when I went to Amazon to look for the book (on sale now). I noticed there were 15 5-Star reviews and 8 1-Star reviews and nothing in between. This puzzled me, wondering: What's not to like?

Here are a few snippets from 1-star reviews:
The book does not inform readers of the extremist backgrounds of the personalities upheld as heroes when in fact they are all simply Anti-American radicals upheld as 'role models for citizenship.'
This book cannot be taken seriously and I hope it remains within the inner circle of the hard left crowd. The sad thing is that they're trying to pander this off to children. For shame...
The title of this piece of dreck should be "Marxists Who Can't Tell The Truth".
I was startled, not so much by the negative reactions as my not anticipating them. People in the USA have polarized views. I make some effort to encounter views from the other end of the spectrum, especially online. I guess my surprise was simply seeing that my rather unconscious notions of a consensus view of things hardly lacks a consensus.

The question that came to mind was what would an analogous book from an American conservative perspective look like?

I'll admit that the first thoughts were a devious collection of portraits of Americans of a conservative persuasion with one quote or another that I find odious. That's childish and it also misses an essential element of Shetterly's project. Portrait painting takes quite a lot of time and effort, not to mention his considerable craft. To do just one portrait takes a considerable commitment. Shetterly has done a hundered or more by now. To sustain that, the subjects of his painting have to hold his interest; he has to love them. And if the portraits work then people seeing the portraits will love the subjects too. Artists know that the best portraits are complimentary in some way, and it's only great artists who've ever gotten away with painting unflattering portraits. Looking at my question about a book of portraits of conservatives from the perspective that I might be moved to love them seemed much more interesting than my initial take.

I thought of Wendell Berry as a sort of conservative I admire. Ah, but Berry is on Shetterly's list. I was born in Virginia and my formative years were spent in the South, but my parents were both New Englanders. Yankees are conservative and Southerners too, even a boy can see. But in my childhood animosity against Yankees was a recurrent theme, and I felt it. Anyhow, I do think Berry represent a strong thread in the conservatism of the American South. Also on Shetterly's list of portraits is Margret Chase Smith who was a long-serving Republican senator for the State of Maine. Shetterly lives in Brooksville, Maine and has since he moved there right out of college. Several of his portraits are of Maine folks and there's a strain of Yankee conservatism is familiar to me visitable in those portraits. The old New England philosophy, "Use It Up, Wear It Out, Fix It or Do Without" would be just as familiar to Wendell Berry and his southern kin, but it tends to be ascribed it to New Englanders.

Realizing that I wasn't getting close to the sorts of portraits that American conservatives would love nowadays I tried to come up with another tack. I did some Internet searches with terms like "conservative heroes," "Republican heroes," "Hume scholar," etc. I couldn't seem to come up with productive search terms.

Milton Friedman did come up quite a few number of times. Progressivism sorts would probably find Friedman hard to love, especially after the Naomi Klein's popular book The Shock Docrine. But I think Friedman is a person who left-leaning folks can at least understand in a sincere and charitable way why conservatives love him.

It gets complicated because as much as conservatives love Friedman it seems to me that Ben Bernake, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and a disciple of Milton Friedman is reviled by most conservatives.

I would like to compile a list of American conservatives that conservatives would recognize as a list of admirable people. I'm not very confident I can come up with such a list. Despite political differences it seems to me that with possibly a few exceptions that American conservatives could see the people Shetterly has painted portraits of as decent and in a positive way why others might admire them even when on balance they might not feel admiration.If I expect that of others, I ought to be able to do something analogous. My lack of confidence that I can do it suggests I've got a problem, so I want to try.