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.


The 27th Comrade said...

“‘Hume scholar’”? I am struggling to link that reliably to “conservative heroes”. Unless the scholar is studying to critique Hume; but Hume critiques himself without requiring anybody else to do that.

I think if you want a conservative hero, look for some douchebag with a vaguely-veiled racist streak, and you will have found one. The best part about Obama is how he makes them shed their make-up and show up for the racist little pigs they are.
So, conservative heros? I think Jean-Marie Le Pen and Eric Zemmour and Nick Griffin and the like in Europe; and (I think) people like Glenn Beck in America. The key is a vaguely-veiled racist streak.

Of course, the conservatives are correct in almost everything; but God gave them this blind hate for other people, so that they may not be the truth, so that they may fail to “love your neighbour”, so that the salvation they look for may be found in God, and not amongst themselves. They say they would never have enslaved the niggers, yet they still to this day condemn John Brown (for example), not realising they are condemning the Moses of their country and times, and their hearts persist in hardness, running in rage against the ex-slaves.

Meanwhile, the progressives have this love, even a love of their neighbour, but they are so shockingly wrong on so many things. They look too much at themselves for everything, being so consumed by an idolatry of the human, that they make themselves the end of everything; they would rather say bullshit like “homosexual marriage” and “abortion rights” if it is to the content and convenience of the god they chose: themselves.
God gave them over to their desires, so that they may reap the reward thereof; as a result, the more-progressive they get, the weaker they get as a people, the more-certainly their death looks them in the face—even their dicks don’t work anymore.

The only guy who mixed both the left and the right—after whom I am on the far right of the far left—was denounced by both sides, and found no home in either breast, so that he is a hero of neither side.

The 27th Comrade said...

“… but God gave them over to this blind hate for …”

John Powers said...

Yay! I was afraid since your loss of RSS feeds I wouldn't hear from you again. I started posting a comment at your blog about airplanes, but couldn't seem to make any sense in a reasonable amount of times, so I quit.

You're right about racism and that's the part that makes me so unsure about this project. I want to try to see a positive vision of conservatism. It's not so straight forward with a movement where the primary motive seems to be against.

Oh and I know that Hume doesn't make sense. The weird thing about American conservatism is the whole business of the revolution making the notion of "Divine Right" hard to swallow. Still American conservatives do look to Britain for a sensible framework for a conservative tradition.

Alas, again I'm afraid you're right that racism is really the glue that holds American conservatism together.

The 27th Comrade said...

I lost the RSS feeds; but I just checked over here and found something new. :o)

You want to see conservatives in a positive light? But that is easy: consider their very sane economic stances, for example, or their very sane regard to culture, or their respect for hierarchy and authority, or their general reverence for qualitative values—like the worth of human life—and most-importantly, their reverence for God as God.
(As thinking tends towards deep narrow-mindedness, even the conservatives, who are usually have shallow wide-mindedness become more and more merely those who lie closer to the conservative side, but solidly within the progressive side. Those who do not so evolve become obsolete, and sound ridiculous.)

Their good side is that they have success in organisation of humans. So, when you find them, you will have found this positive thing about them.
They are fortunate that they do not fall for the temptation to make the mistake of doing the right (really, left) thing: loving their neighbour. If you love your neighbour enough, you are going to do some unsustainably-stupid bullshit, if you also rely on the human for it, as do the lefties (welfare state, freeing the slaves, healing the paralytic on the Sabbath, “give all you have to the poor and follow me,” Medicare), and that makes you easy to hate as a “Marxist”.

As always, redemption is not in the breast of man, because the best of their efforts are like a stinky jacket on a cold day; the worst of their behaviour is like withholding a jacket from an orphan on a cold day. And they swing this way and that, either being foolish lefties, or hateful righties.

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