Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Predictably provincial?

As Howard Fineman put it in his 2005 column "Lessons in unity from Pittsburgh,"


Pittsburgh is the Bigs, but is hundreds of miles from the biggest of the big leagues (New York and Chicago). Set off alone in Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburghers are united in their splendid isolation and in pride in being better than those other more famous places. When I was a kid, it was both a boast and a curse that everything in our city was the biggest or best "between New York and Chicago." All that really meant was that we had it over Cleveland.

This is more or less true, and borne out by my experiences as an (ex-)Pittsburgher spending time with people from other parts of the country, whether in Houston, in a study abroad program, or with other Peace Corps people. In these groups — unlike, for instance, my middle school — the vast majority of people are not from Pittsburgh and don’t know and haven’t heard, much less care, about whatever provincial concerns or experiences I may have had there. (Though I will say that out of my Peace Corps training class of 50, there were four — a full eight percent! — of us from Pennsylvania, and one other guy from Allegheny County, so the ratio is a lot better there than at Rice.)

So while it’s rare that I come across someone who hasn’t heard of the Steelers (or, as I’ve taken to calling them in my pride-in-absentia the “World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers”), for many of my friends and colleagues, their knowledge of the Steel City begins and ends there. Maybe they’ve had a layover at PIT or driven through (or bypassed on I-76 or I-79), but I’ve met precious few actual visitors to Pittsburgh. (Though to be fair, only recently I met a guy in Santa Rosa, here in Honduras, whose college roommate was from Pittsburgh and had apparently gone home with him for a weekend or something, and could was excited to no end when I introduced myself as being from there, ranting and raving about Primanti Brothers’, among other things he spent the weekend doing.)

So you may imagine my surprise when I finally read through the August 21/28, 2006, edition of Newsweek, and found no fewer than four references to my hometown! (Newsweek’s Latin American International edition is distributed to all Peace Corps Volunteers in Honduras though it often takes a little while for them to filter through to all the different sites.) I don’t think it’s fair to attribute it to any bias on Newsweek’s part — though Fineman is a Senior Editor of the publication — because in the three other editions that most recently came, there were exactly zero references.

So here they are, with a bit of context.

  1. In an article about the War on Terror five years after 9/11, a reference in passing about other prospective terrorist plots:
    "A few weeks after 9/11, for instance, authorities in Pennsylvania received a frightening tip from an FBI office overseas: terrorists had a nuclear device on a train somewhere between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. ... Within a day it had been traced back to a conversation between two men overheard at a urinal in Ukraine.

    Characteristically, some time later, Bush made a mordant joke of the scare. "Is this another Ukrainian urinal incident?" he would sarcastically inquire when some alarming but shaky intelligence came across his desk.
  2. A Top Ten list (extended down to 45th place) accompanying an article by Yale President Richard Levin on internationalism in higher education mentions that the University of Pittsburgh is the 32nd best “global” university (whatever that means, though the feature’s blurb says it takes into account openness, diversity and distinction in research).

  3. Talking about his experiences at Juilliard, Itzhak Perlman says that he was surrounded by Yankees fans in New York, but didn’t jump on the bandwagon.

    One of my most memorable experiences isn’t musical; I made a terrible mistake and said I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan when everyone was a Yankees fan. For me, the name "Pirates" just sounded kind of nice. As it happened, the Pirates actually won the World Series that year. Of course everyone was very upset (laughs): I almost got killed!
  4. Mark Kamlet, the provost of Carnegie Mellon, is quoted about CMU’s branch campus in Qatar. The article never uses the name “Pittsburgh,” but discerning minds will know that the former Carnegie Institute of Technology is located in an ambiguous area between Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Oakland.

Some of these are tangential, I realize, but c’mon. It was almost like I was reading the Post-Gazette! A copy of the Post-Gazette that had been delivered to me in Honduras.

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