Alright, let’s try this out. Last week I read a piece from The Atlantic that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. The piece was written by a University of Iowa professor, Stephen Bloom, describing Iowa to outsiders who are interested in the state’s role as an important player in the presidential nominating process. The piece has been a lightning rod to Iowans in and out of the state. It’s been all over my Facebook news feed, and in Iowa newspapers.
There have been a lot of responses, that have probably said it all, but I was talking to a friend of mine from Iowa, who suggested I write a response. I’m self deluded enough to think that I should take a shot at it as well.
Honestly, even if you don’t have any ties to Iowa, it’s worth the read.
For full disclosure, I am from Iowa. I grew up in Iowa City, the liberal college town, where Bloom has lived for 20 years. I went to the University of Iowa, graduated with a Communications degree, then lived for a couple of years in a small, mostly farming, town. So, I’ve lived in both a liberal city, and rural Iowa, and I am definitely biased, things that need to be said. However, I think it takes someone from Iowa to respond. If the piece was written about New Hampshire, I suppose I would take the writer at face value, and wouldn’t have the knowledge to take any umbrage with particular points. Also, I’m an ex-pat. Since moving from Iowa, I’ve lived in New York City, Missouri, Los Angeles, and internationally. Currently, I’m back in Missouri, but I will forever consider myself an Iowan.
Respect and Fair Points
I loved Bloom’s books on Postville and Oxford. I found them really intriguing. So much so, that I thought, “This can’t be the same guy that wrote the beautifully nuanced look at diversity in Postville, can it?” I think he is a great writer. He is a guy who has published books. I just have a blog. I love it that he’s spent so much time in Iowa City, my hometown. We could share gripes about the timing of the stoplights on Burlington Street, a subject only locals could relate to. I like that. I can also appreciate the culture shock of moving from San Fransisco to Iowa. I’ve moved a variety of places and I even had intra-Iowa culture shock when I moved from Iowa City to Traer, the small farming community. I can definitely recognize that his experience would be different and more drastic than mine and that even after 20 years, it would still feel a little different. He gets the benefit of the doubt on all that.
I’m also in Bloom’s corner on some of the responses to his piece. Apparently, he has received threatening e-mails in response to his piece, which is never appropriate, especially in this case. If he starts his piece with an unfortunate Obama quote about rural America clinging to guns (and religion), and then gets responses that are physically threatening, I can’t help but think, “Guys, stop it, you’re not helping things.” Another common response is something to the effect of, “If you hate Iowa so much, why don’t you just leave?” I don’t think that’s fair, as there are so many factors that play into where a person lives, and I don’t think he said anything about disliking his personal experience of living in Iowa. I’m sure he’s a great and interesting guy.
In addition, there are some negatives about Iowa that Bloom discusses that are fair and unfortunately true. They’re hard for Iowans to look at and acknowledge, not because Iowa is different, but because Iowa is the same, people just don’t like to look at negative truths about themselves, and some responses have reflected that. Along those lines, I don’t buy into the coastal elitism, or professorial elitism as a major divider. I’ve lived enough places to know that people are, if not the same, strikingly similar. Yes, I’ve had to explain to people on both coasts where Iowa is and how it differs from Ohio and Idaho, but elitism? I don’t know if it’s a defining characteristic. Individuals are elite, large people groups are a mixed bag. I’m sure there are people from New York that are, and I’m sure there are professors who are, but it’s not a fair broad stroke.
University of Iowa president, Sally Mason wrote a thoughtful response to his piece, which she started by saying that she disagrees with his opinion and he doesn’t speak for the University of Iowa. She also says, “…the Iowa I see is one of strong, hard-working and creative people. In this cynical world that can harden even the greatest optimist, the citizens of Iowa continue to believe.” That is great, and probably true. However, to respond to a negative generality with a positive generality, is still swimming in the realm of generalities. It’s a little bit like saying, “I disagree that all oranges are hard to peel with seeds, I think they’re all juicy and nutritious.” They’re both true, it’s just choosing a positive generality over a negative one. The issue is with forming definitive conclusions based generalities on the whole.
I’ve also read a lot of letters to the editor about people taking issue with particular anecdotes Bloom shared. They counter his anecdotes with their own anecdotes that paint a rosier picture. We could trade anecdotes until we’re blue in the face and not get anywhere. Have you ever done that with someone? It’s exhausting and by the end you’ve only managed to reinforce your opinion while convincing no one. I would argue that Iowans are all of those things, and that’s what makes it great, and in fact, that’s what makes it a fine place for the first caucuses each election.
With all of that said, let’s dive in.
The tone and linguistic choices of the piece are my biggest gripe. Bloom seems to go out of his way to paint things negatively. There are negatives and there are positives in Iowa, and Bloom seemed to mostly focus on the negatives. However, beyond that, it’s his choice of language that is the most troubling. It points to an intentionality.
“Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow.'”
You can’t tell me that the illustrative language of “waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth,” isn’t entirely intentional. If you want to be taken seriously as a journalist informing the rest of the nation of the state of Iowa you don’t choose those words. It’s like if you have a friend that is single, an impartial thing they might say about their singleness is, “I don’t know, I just haven’t found that many women I’m attracted to.” It would be altogether different to say, “I’m surrounded by girls who are either fat, or are ugly, or are an assortment of vomit breathed unibrowed hairy beasts.” No one likes that friend. That friend clearly doesn’t respect women. That friend loses all validity on future discussions of the issue of dating. That is exactly what Bloom did to himself time and again in this piece. How can I read what you say next as a serious journalist when you have so obvious an axe to grind?
My point is, the words didn’t happen, he made choices, choices that point to an active disrespect of the people he is writing about.
In a short response to the fallout, Bloom said, “Good journalism isn’t just reporting. It’s making observations, trying to make sense out of the world and its shadows — even if readers don’t agree with those observations.” I would contend that Bloom went further than “observations,” and readers aren’t disagreeing with the heart of his observations, they’re disagreeing with the malice and intentionality behind the tone of his words.
When Bloom’s language wasn’t overt, it was deceptively ambiguous.
“In this land, deep within America, on Friday nights it’s not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby…”
“It’s not unusual,” is an example of the linguistic tightrope he often walks. I imagine that Bloom would argue that, strictly speaking, it’s “not unusual,” okay, but it’s rare, exceedingly rare. In all of my Iowa years, I never heard of anyone doing that. Does it occasionally happen? I’m certain it does. But man, that sounds like an awful date. If I had had that notion when planning a date, my dating life would have been worse than it already was, and I wouldn’t have even known where to find a Tractor Pull, Plus, I’ve never even heard of a Combine Demolition Derby. I just took dates to a movie, you know, like they do, everywhere else.
In reference to Obama’s “clinging to guns and religion” quote, Bloom said:
“I imagine many in the rural Midwest must have said a variation of this — “Whaddaya expect from a Harvard-educated, black city slicker who wouldn’t know a John Deere tractor from an International Harvester combine?”
Sure, many in the rural Midwest may have said that, depending on what you’re idea of many is. Those of you from outside of Iowa, I beg of you to hear me when I say, nearly no one in Iowa speaks like they’re on Green Acres. Bloom portrays caricatures, journalists portray real life characters. I can’t say that no one said that, or some nearby variation, but Bloom presented it as though it is so easy to imagine that sentiment because it is so prevalent. “City slicker?” Come on, the last time someone said that was in reference to Curly’s gold.
“Hunting accidents are common, perhaps spurred by the elixir of alcohol, which seems to be the drink of choice whenever a man suits up in camo or orange overalls.”
Hunting accidents are common, okay, sure, they happen, I’ll buy that, but then, Bloom starts in with his purposefully leading language. Perhaps spurred by the elixir of alcohol? Which seems to be the drink of choice whenever a man suits up…” I’m not going to argue that alcohol doesn’t play a tragic role in some hunting accidents, but Bloom slyly moves from alcohol playing a part in accidents to alcohol “whenever” a man goes hunting. Anyone can use that language to direct people to erroneous conclusions. Car accidents are common, perhaps spurred by the elixir of alcohol, which seems to be the drink of choice whenever a man straps on a seatbelt and driving gloves. That wording would make you think that most car accidents are due to alcohol, which we all know is not true.
I have every reason to believe that Bloom is an excellent professor, that’s partly what surprises me. His use of language is either lazy, you could find out what the reported rate of alcohol involvement is in hunting accidents, purposefully leading, to fit into a larger point of the other worldliness of Iowa, is dishonest, or is a mix of all three. I would imagine that Professor Bloom would harshly grade journalist Bloom in terms of journalistic integrity on this piece.
Here are some other nuggets:
“…and boys under the age of 16 are commonly referred to as “Bud.”
I will buy that if “Bud” is followed by a comma and the phrase, “in the 1920s.” In my life, my grandpa’s nickname was Bud, and almost nobody else this side of the Greatest Generation.
“The reason everyone seems related in small-town Iowa is because, if you go back far enough, many are, either by marriage or birth.”
That is entirely misleading. If you go back far enough, and many are the troubling words here. What is your definition of many? How far back are you going? These are simplistic and easy words used to attempt to clothe a naked stereotype.
“Bar fights might not be weekly occurrences, but neither are they infrequent activities.”
Somewhere between weekly and infrequent, you know, the same place that wars exist, and Batman movie releases, and dental cleanings. It’s a sentence that says nothing, other than, “I would like you to believe bar fights happen more often in Iowa than where you live.” Yes, if you take the totality of all the bars in Iowa, I’m sure that statement is true, but it’s just as true in every other state.
“Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom, so you don’t track mud or pig shit into the kitchen or living room, even though the aroma of pig shit is absolutely venerated in Iowa: It’s known to one and all here as “the smell of money.”
On this one, Bloom speaks in absolutes, saying the aroma of pig shit is absolutely venerated and it’s known to one and all as the smell of money, so I can answer in an absolute. No. When Iowans are driving in the country and they smell pig shit, they say, “Close the window, it smells like pig shit.”
“Religion is the glue that binds everyone, whether they’re Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian. You can’t drive too far without seeing a sign for JESUS or ABORTION IS LEGALIZED MURDER.”
I believe it is true that more Iowans identify as religious than the national average. Fair enough. Again, it’s the not the idea so much as it is the language and vague anecdotes he chooses to use. “You can’t drive too far” gives the impression that it is frequent, when in fact, that is not my impression. I can confirm that I’ve seen anti abortion signs, but it is far from frequent, as Bloom suggests. It would seem that this rare example is presented as common in an attempt to say that Iowa is different, radically so.
That’s what gets me. Bloom rests on stereotypes and leading language to paint Iowa in the color of “other.” It rings of a tired and hack political move, paint the other candidate as “other” and “different” to diminish their trustworthiness. Fine, maybe that was his point, he can write that, but you can’t write that under the guise of informed impartiality and not expect people in the know to react. The thing is, as Bloom points out, he should know better than the easy, overplayed stereotypes, he’s lived in Iowa for 20 years. Iowans are used to the dumb, farmer hick stereotypes from people outside of Iowa. That’s the thing, it seems like this piece was written by a journalist who traveled through Iowa a few times, maybe covering the caucuses, not someone who has lived there for so long.
Indeed, Iowa is homogeneous racially. In an ever diversifying country, that’s a negative, but it doesn’t mean that the mostly white people of Iowa lack the ability to see outside of themselves and their demographic. In fact, it was Iowa who first sent an African American on the historic road to the White House, which is an easy fact to access, arguably easier than the fictionalized Iowan voice Bloom conjures, saying, “black city slicker.”
I would argue that Iowa is not that radically different, especially when it comes to deciding the president. Here are the general election (not caucuses) numbers from Iowa in the last 4 elections:
2008 Obama: 54% McCain: 44%
2004 Bush: 50% Kerry: 49%
2000 Gore: 49% Bush: 48%
1996 Clinton: 50% Dole: 40%
In other words, Iowa voted the same (popular vote) as the United States on the whole in each of those elections. Having lived in Iowa, and nearby Missouri, I can tell you that, amongst people I know, there is a difference in political involvement during the primary season. I don’t think this is due to any difference fundamentally in the people, so much as the date of the respective caucus and primary. Missouri’s primary is in February, and in my experience, Missourians I know aren’t as vested in the Missouri primary (probably due in large part to the amount of time candidates spend in Missouri) as Iowans I know are in the Iowa caucuses. Again, Missourians are great and care, the larger point is that the caucus is a big deal in Iowa that people take very seriously, it’s a point of pride that it’s the first state, and people I know treat it with great responsibility. My rurally rooted, not just waiting to die, grandmother spends a great deal of time hearing candidates speak in order to form a well informed opinion. Is Iowa flawed as the first state to hold caucuses each year? Sure, fair point, but which state isn’t? I think the best you can hope for in the first state is that state’s population taking the responsibility seriously, which Iowa does.
I won’t go into Bloom’s manufactured connection between the secular colloquialism “come to Jesus talk,” equally used many places outside of Iowa, to point to the prevalence of religion in Iowa. I won’t talk about his lack of acknowledgement of differences between Iowa City and the rest of Iowa, or his dig on Iowa City based on his first impression, when 1/3rd of the population (students) were gone over spring break. I won’t go into his label of Keokuk as a “crime infested slum town,” or a host of other colorful descriptions, you get it.
I want to end the way Bloom ended his piece. To end, Bloom described getting a yellow lab, Hannah, as a family dog.
Then, he concluded:
Our son, of course, got tired of Hannah after a couple of months, and to whom did the daily obligation of walking the dog fall?
That’s right. To me.
And here’s the point: I can’t tell you how often over the years I’d be walking Hannah in our neighborhood and someone in a pickup would pull over and shout some variation of the following:
“Bet she hunts well.”
“Do much hunting with the bitch?”
“Where you hunt her?”
To me, it summed up Iowa. You’d never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball for her to fetch. No, that’s not a reason to own a dog in Iowa. You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat.
That’s the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president.
I trust that those things did happen to Bloom, and I guess I’ve seen hunting dogs before, they’re definitely out there. Yet, every person, every family, every friend I know has gotten a dog for the very same reason that Bloom did, “because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball for her to fetch.” Okay, I guess I have one friend who had a hunting preserve on his land that had dogs for hunting. Outside of him, I don’t know anyone who has a purely hunting dog. I don’t have one mounted animal, and I get most of my meat in slices, which come from unnatural loaves, grossly overly processed, like most Americans. Bloom could have used his slippery language to say “most” or “many” in his talk of dog ownership, instead he decided to go a step further and just include all Iowans in his statements. Then, he uses that, his biggest leap yet, to hammer home his point that it is this backwards place that may determine our next U.S. president. Any semblance of journalistic integrity went out the window in favor of sensationalism.
As I said, I have a ton of respect for Bloom, I just have major misgivings about his piece. I can’t argue his experiences, but I can argue his tone and conclusions. If he and I were to have a “write-off,” the guy would crush me. If he and I were to grab a drink together, I would like it. I just can’t fathom why a man with his reputation would have written such a tired, purposefully stereotypical opinion piece under the guise of a fair, evenhanded, insider documentation of Iowa.
Previous to that, Bloom gave his list of things people have shouted out truck windows to him while he walked his dog. I would like to give a specific retort from my own life. You see, I too had a dog in Iowa, that, I too, would occasionally walk. I’m going to try this, like Bloom, where, if you start it with “I can’t tell you how often,” then you can say whatever you want, no matter how infrequent the occurrences.
And here’s the point: I can’t tell you how often over the years I’d be walking Mugsy in our neighborhood and someone in a pickup would pull over and shout some variation of the following:
“Can you help me with directions? I’m late for a MENSA meeting.”
“Do much cuddling with your dog? She looks like a cuddler. Dogs are great for that.”
“Your dog is pooping in my yard, you’d better clean that up. I have a nice small yard in this neighborhood, that is not unlike any other neighborhood in America, and I take pride in things, including my yard. You can understand, I had a long day at work, I’m going to go inside and get caught up on the news of the day, kiss my wife, and not plan a hunting trip for this weekend. I respect people who hunt, I just don’t do it personally.”
To me, it summed up Iowa, you’d rarely get a dog just to hunt. No, that’s not a reason to get a dog in Iowa. You get a dog for a variety of reasons.
That’s the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president.