Friday, January 30, 2009

Bread and Circuses; Pittsburgh Steelers; Super Bowl 43; Dan Rooney

The Pittsburgh Steelers' participation in this weekend's Super Bowl 43 gives me an opportunity to post an item I started to write four years ago. Just before the Steelers faced the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game in January 2005, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a story in which it repeated worn out cliches about the Steelers' success helping to compensate for the city's problems. The point was that the Steelers need to win in order to help the city residents forget the problems resulting from the loss of the steel industry.

Steelers owner Dan Rooney was quoted on the effect the game would have on the City's "psyche":
There was a piece in the paper ... about what the Steelers and this game mean to the economy, which I guess was in the high 20 millions or something," he said. "But what it didn't say and what I think is more important is what the Steelers' success really means to the city's psyche.

The newspaper summed up the City's problems and why the win would be a needed distraction:
In an era when the city's only real growth industries seem to be strip clubs, towing, and Steelers analysis, Pittsburgh's overall mood is not terribly hopeful. Since the last time the Steelers won a Super Bowl [1979], the city has gone from America's most liveable city to one of its most leaveable. Manufacturing and industrial jobs have all but dried up. US Airways, one of the region's biggest employers, is in its second bankruptcy. The Steelers' aging, blue-collar fan base today worries as much about prescription drug prices as about New England's pass defense.

If there's a place that could use the two-weeks-long jolt of adrenalin that a win today would trigger, maybe this is that place.
January 23, 2005

The newspaper and Dan Rooney missed the point. Pittsburgh's problems are far deeper than those listed above. Since the 1970's Pittsburgh has seen its steel manufacturing base mostly disappear. This disappearance has had far reaching consequences for Pittsburgh and the nation. The loss of any nation's industrial base is a grave matter. Most articles and films about the Steelers of the 1970's make a point of stating that the Steelers' success at that time was necessary to restore civic pride, unify the city, compensate for the loss of steel jobs, boost local morale and many other meaningless cliches.

But these cliches and stories have gotten the story backward. In fact, the success of sports teams in our culture has distracted us from the loss of our civilization. Industry, including steel, was a cornerstone of the United States. The loss of such a vital part of our nation should have been greeted with long lasting alarm and resolve to address and reverse the problem. Instead, those most immediately affected were given "bread and circuses" at which to celebrate, while their livelihoods disappeared before their eyes. In any decaying society, bread and circuses serve the purpose of distracting the public while economic and other conditions deteriorate. Our leaders cannot handle the crises that destroy our civilization, but they can pacify the great mass of people with games.

In ancient Rome, gladitorial and other games continued up to the very end of the empire, even as the barbarians conquered Rome's provinces one-by-one:
In fourth-century Rome there were 175 holidays in the year; ten with gladitorial contests; sixy-four with circus performances; the rest with shows in the theaters. The barbarians took advantage of this passion for vicarious battle by attacking Carthage, Antioch, and Trier [provinces of Rome] while the people were absorbed at the amphitheater or the circus.
Will Durant, Age of Faith, p. 31

In our own age, we "tailgate" and play fantasy football while we bask in second hand glory everytime our NFL team wins. Meanwhile, a 900 billion dollar "stimulus" package is passed by Congress, thus eroding our credit and guaranteeing the permanent insolvency of our nation and the inevitable crash of what is left of our economy. Boomsday approaches, while our factories remain idle. The nails are being hammered into the coffin of our civilization while we celebrate another Super Bowl. The games serve the same purpose they served in the 4th and 5th century A.D. They pacify us into accepting the policies that destroy the real source of power, glory and prosperity in any civilization. Never forget that Super Bowl trophies and end zone celebrations are no substitute for factories in this regard.

The Steelers entered the decade of the 1970's never having enjoyed success in their entire 40 year history. At the same time, Pittsburgh was the steel capital of the world. By the end of the 1970's, the roles had been reversed. The Pittsburgh Steelers enjoyed a sports dynasty - having won four super bowls - while the steel industry lay in ruins. The success of the Steelers helped us accept the simultaneous loss of our nation's backbone industry. That emblem on the Steeler helmets [once the symbol of the company that Andrew Carnegie built] is now nothing but a grim reminder of a dead past. The symbol mocks us while we fool ourselves with the fantasy that we root for a "blue collar team from a blue collar town."

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