Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dear Professor Bloom

For YEARS I have been irritated, and oftentimes infuriated, by the coastal mindset that the Midwest is "flyover" country.  Today I read an article, written by a professor at the University of Iowa, that really set me off.  

Stephen Bloom moved to Iowa City 20 years ago from San Francisco.  He went on to write the landmark book, Postville, which chronicles the divide between the Postville, Iowa residents and the Jewish community that moved to the small town to establish a successful kosher slaughterhouse/meat processing plant.

My quarrel with Prof. Bloom is not because of this topic.  Rather, it is with the way he regards, and writes about, what he calls his "adopted" state.  20 years later, he still seems to view Iowa and Iowans as beneath him.

Today I read an article, published in The Atlantic, and written by Prof. Bloom, in which he attempts to explain to non-Iowans why our country's presidential nomination race begins in Iowa.  After 20 years living here, he feels well qualified to make observations about Iowa and its residents, especially residents of rural Iowa.

The gist of the article seems to be that all Iowans, particularly rural Iowans, are gun-toting, tractor-riding, poverty-stricken, uneducated hicks.  How in the world can such people be qualified to begin the process of picking the next Democratic or Republican presidential nominee?

Let's see if I can find some choice quotes from the article, titled Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life.

"I've written a couple of books on rural Iowa, traveling to all 99 counties, and have spent much of my time when not teaching, visiting with and interviewing Iowans from across the state. I haven't taken up hunting or fishing, the main hobbies of rural Iowans, but I'm a fan of University of Iowa Hawkeye football, so I'm a good third of the way to becoming an adopted Iowan." 

"Keokuk, is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they're some of the skuzziest cities I've ever been to, and that's saying something."

"Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state like Iowa should host the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president isn't at issue. It's been this way since 1972, and there are no signs that it's going to change. In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it. Iowa's not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and the state's about to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House because its population is shrinking so precipitously. Still, thanks to a host of nonsensical political precedents, whoever wins the Iowa Caucuses in January will very likely have a 50 percent chance of being elected president 11 months later. Go figure."

"Indoor parking lots are ramps, soda is pop, lollipops are suckers, grocery bags are sacks, weeds are volunteers, miniature golf is putt-putt, supper is never to be confused with dinner, cellars and basements are totally different places, and boys under the age of 16 are commonly referred to as "Bud." 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."

"Friday fish fries at the American Legion hall; grocery and clothing shopping at Wal-Mart; Christmas crèches with live donkeys, sheep and a neighborhood infant playing Baby Jesus; rifle-toting hunters stalking turkeys in the fall (better not go for a walk in the countryside in October or November). Not many cars in these parts of America. They're vehicles, pronounced ve-HICK-uls -- 4X4's, pick-ups, snowmobiles). Rural houses are modest, some might say drab. Everyone strives to be middle-class; and if you have some money, by God you'd never want to make anyone feel bad by showing it off. If you go to Florida for a cruise, you keep it to yourself. The biggest secret often is -- if you still own farmland -- exactly how many acres. Ostentatious is driving around town in a new Ford F-150 pickup."

"Rules peculiar to rural Iowa that I've learned are hard and fast, seldom broken: Backdoors are how you always go into someone's house. Bar fights might not be weekly occurrences, but neither are they infrequent activities. Collecting is big --whether it's postcards, lamps, figurines, tractors, or engines. NASCAR is a spectator sport that folks can't get enough of. Old-timers answer their phones not with "hello," but with last names, a throwback to party-lines. Everyone's phone number in town starts with the same three-digit prefix."

"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'm forever amazed by how often I hear neighbors, co-workers, shoppers, and total strangers talk about religion. In the Hy-Vee grocery store, at neighborhood stop-and-chats, at the local public school, "See you at church!" is the common rejoinder."

"For our son's eighth birthday, we wanted to get him a dog. Every boy needs a dog, my wife and I agreed, and off we went to an Iowa breeding farm to pick out an eight-week-old puppy that, when we knelt to pet her, wouldn't stop licking us. We chose a yellow Lab because they like kids, have pleasant dispositions, and I was particularly fond of her caramel-color coat. Labs don't generally bite people, although they do like to chew on shoes, hats, and sofa legs. Hannah was Marley before Marley.
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."

And there you have it.  My question is, why in the world is Prof. Bloom still living in Iowa if he feels such disdain for his "adopted" state and its residents?   He proclaims to know Iowa and Iowans after living here for 20 years, but I disagree.  It's obvious he clings desperately to the stereotypes that formed in his mind before he even moved here!  

Every state, not just Iowa, has small towns and rural areas.  Farmers.  Language that is regional.  Traditions and rituals that are specific to that area.  Hunters.  People who own guns and hunt with them (whether I am a fan of this is a topic for another blog).  Dog owners who may or may not hunt with said dogs.  People who talk about religion and go to church and enjoy the socializing that goes with it.

Pigs.  Although the saying in Iowa is that there are more pigs than people.  

NASCAR fans.  People who drive trucks.  People who collect things.

I'm thinking Iowa IS representative of quite a lot, Prof. Bloom.   In addition to the things you mock and regard with disdain, Iowa is also representative of hard work, kindness, generosity, education, and honesty, to name just a few.

What your article shows, Prof. Bloom, is that you don't know your "adopted" state very well, even after 20 years.   Check your stereotypes at the door and really open your eyes to what does make this state and its residents special.  You have so much to learn.

1 comment:

Talking With said...

Here’s our show about Bloom’s article:

“Yale talks with four native Iowans about the depiction of them and the state they call home in Stephen Bloom’s scathing and controversial article in The Atlantic Monthly, his motives for publishing it, the response its generated across the state, and its national implications with regards to Iowa’s first in the nation voting status.”