In Defense of Iowa

Early this week former University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom published a rather derogatory piece about Iowa in the Atlantic- essentially claiming that, as whole, my home state amounts to little more than every bad stereotype that has even been uttered about “fly over country” and that we therefore have no right to host the nation’s first caucus.

While I may agree with him on that last point – and would also argue that it’s time we have a frank discussion about the value of our electoral processes entirely – the manner is which he went about making said point was just a tiny bit tasteless. Oh yeah, and totally untrue. And ridiculous.

Bloom managed to use just enough anecdotal “evidence” to string together a slew of stereotypes and make them seem like a legitimate story. In truth, anyone who has spent any time in Iowa knows that his “insight” is about as accurate as one of those “You Know You’re An Iowan If…” chain mails that we all used to receive in the 90s. And although I’ve been an Iowan for the majority of my life, I can’t really relate. Seriously, I’ve never driven a tractor and I didn’t grow up on a farm.

But maybe I don’t really count as an “Iowan.” After all, my entire extended family lives on the east coast. My dad was born and raised just south of the Canadian border – my mother just south of the Mason-Dixon line. I was born in Boston.

Since moving to Iowa when I was seven years old, my family has dealt with our fair share of Iowa-based stereotypes. Trips to visit relatives always involved lots of questions from cousins – “What do ya’ll do for fun out there?” And teasing from aunts and uncles – “Wait? Do you even know how to use a fork?” But at the end of the day I have to admit, I felt a bit smug about my Iowa upbringing when I compared it to my relatives in Virginia. There was no doubt that my public education was better than theirs, that my group of friends was more diverse, or that an Iowan “accent” just sounds more intelligent than a Southern one. Or a Boston one for that matter.

So yeah, I suppose I’m pretty proud to be an Iowan. In fact, after spending my summer driving across the country I was pretty thrilled to be home. People are just generally nice and reasonable here. In fact, after spending the past two years in Minnesota I have to say that there’s little difference between the two. Are we vanilla? Sure, but everyone loves vanilla. And it goes with just about anything.

I’ll concede that Bloom does get one thing right – his depiction of Iowa as a state divided is pretty spot on. For the most part the eastern portion of the state is intensely progressive, the west intensely conservative. And yes, there are lots of Asian students at the University of Iowa – but please provide me with an example of one major state university where this isn’t the case.

I guess my biggest beef with this article is that while Bloom claims to be making generalizations about the state as a whole, most of his “examples” are more representative of the rural areas of the state (Bloom worked and lived in Iowa City, so I’m going to guess that his first-hand experiences with the “hicks” of Iowa are more imaginings than real lived experiences) and I can’t help but feel like they’re more his musings on what these people would actually be like than what they actually are.

Finally, I have to say that the points that Bloom brings up to demonstrate why Iowa is a worthless, disgusting plot of land are exactly why we are the perfect place to host the nation’s first primary contest. We’re moderate!

We have a little bit of everything. We’re not extreme.

I mean, have you even looked at the shape of Iowa? It’s like a mini USA, and it’s right in the center…

Below I’ve addressed a few of the most particularly annoying stereotypes the Bloom harps on in his piece.

Go ahead and read the real thing if you feel so inclined:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/12/observations-from-20-years-of-iowa-life/249401/1/

1.) We’re not all farmers.

Most of Bloom’s comments (and his more humorous one-liners) are centered around the assumption – and in his case assertion – that all Iowans are farmers, know farmers, or are in some way involved in “farm culture.” In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Had I not ridden horses (which I did for sport, mind you, not for transportation purposes as Bloom would probably suggest) I would probably had as much interaction with farmland as someone from any metropolitian area.

Additionally:

I’ve never been on a tractor.

I have no idea what a Tractor Pull or Combine Demolition Derby is.

I first heard of Future Farmers of America in college.

I’ve never hunted anything and to my knowledge I don’t know anyone who hunts.

I was a junior in college the first time I tasted deer meat. It was from a friend who lived in Minnesota.

2) Laid-off factory workers exist…um, everywhere.

Aren’t you teaching in Michigan now, Bloom? Enough said.

But seriously, how does this make us any different from any other state?

3) Immigrants aren’t an “Iowa-thing”

But maybe tolerance is.

The fact that Iowa has a sizable population of immigrant workers would seem to fly in the face of Bloom’s there’s – no – diversity – in – Iowa – anywhere and they’re – totally – isolated – from – any – of – the – issues – that – most – states – face arguments, but apparently he didn’t quite piece that together.

As an undergraduate at my tiny, insignificant Cedar Rapids-area college I did work in Postville, IA to help local businesses better cater to their new Spanish-only speaking neighbors. But you know – Iowans are bitter, ignorant hicks who hate diversity. These small town inbreds (as Bloom would characterize them) may not have known how to speak Spanish, but they weren’t clinging to their “English-only” ideals either.

4) Religion is the same everywhere.

I was raised Catholic. Most of my friends were born-again Evangelicals or Lutherans.  We all went to church with each other and I don’t think anyone really ever saw much of a difference.  There’s a mosque down the street from my parent’s house. I had a good friend in middle school who was Hindu (he later when the Catholic high school and we lost touch). My first ever soccer coach was a Jew from Poland.

I’m not saying that diversity is prevalent in Iowa, but it’s there. And not in the we – have – Jews – in – the – classroom – so – let’s – talk – about – their – holiday – to – humor – them sort of way, but in the we’re – going – to – learn – about – this – so – you’re – not – a – ignorant -fuck – when – you’re – exposed – to – it kind.

In fact, it was was my Iowa-native public school teachers who taught me about the hegemonic presence of Christianity in our society and who encouraged me to think critically about it.

Sure, we have the usual “Pray for an End to Abortion” billboards, but I can assure you that they exist along just about every highway in the country.

In fact, I would have to say that in terms of religious fundamentalism Iowa is pretty moderate. Have you been anywhere in the South? My guess is probably not…

5.) We’re an agricultural state…

I’m not really sure what Bloom’s problem is with the fact that Iowa isn’t Los Angeles – but apparently it’s just that. Among his more ridiculous complaints are things like:

We don’t have smog (What? Good clean air for breathing? The horror!)

A lot of the corn we grow goes to feed animals, not people (Do you eat meat? Shut up)

We have a low crime rate (I know. I hate the fact that I can trust my neighbors too)

We are polite drivers (Road rage is apparently as American as…smog?)

In short, because we aren’t reminiscent of a big city, we suck. Even if the things that make us different actually make our quality of life a tiny bit better too.

6.) We eat like Americans.

Except that unlike most other areas of the country, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Actually, Iowa is one of the few states in the country where it’s plausible to eat an entirely vegan diet of locally grown, organic produce.

But you know, apparently Iowans are all about the pork and deer – and that’s it. And for the record – I’ve only ever tasted either. Contrary to Bloom’s belief, I don’t think my mother has ever served us pulled-pork, and I can’t recall ever eating it.

Bloom concludes his article with a cute little story that I’m going to go ahead and call complete bullshit.

In summary, he went out and bought his kid a yellow lab because “every boy needs a dog” (nice one, you sexist, gender-sterotyping fuck). Then because his kid wasn’t actually responsible enough to take care of it, he was forced to walk it.

I’d just like to point out, for the record, that this little Iowan has always walked her own damn dog. You know, because my hick-Iowa parents taught me about this hick-Iowa thing called responsibility, but I digress…

Bloom’s ultimate complaint, the self-described “crucible” of his problem with Iowa, is that people asked him if he hunted with the dog.

The yellow labrador.

The dog that, according to the AKC, was designed and bred to retrieve game.

THE AUDACITY OF SOME PEOPLE!

You mean Iowans shouldn’t be the first primary state because people are able to see a hunting dog and make the connection and maybe it’s used for hunting?

Idiots.

Let me guess, you had a neon orange hunting collar on her too? 

But, the fact that he bought a hunting dog aside, I’m going to have to go ahead and doubt this story. In part because for 3 years I walked an English Springer Spaniel every day (also a hunting dog) and nobody ever asked me if I hunted with him.

Plenty of my non-hunting friends have labs and they’ve never complained about this.

In all likelihood what happened is that some nice, friendly, Iowan saw a dude walking a labrador and wanted to make conversation. You know, because we’re nice people and all. And instead of going for the generic weather comment, he thought he would compliment his neighbor’s dog. But instead of just saying – pretty dog – friendly-Iowa-neighbor added a question to the end to invite conversation. And what came to his mind when he saw some dude walking a dog that was bred for hunting?

Do you hunt with it?

Bloom concludes with the following:

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.

As stated perviously. I don’t believe his little dog anecdote. Mostly because I’m a dog lover, and I know that most Iowans don’t hunt with their dogs. In fact, I’ve only known one person who does. Even in the tiny town of Algona, IA most people don’t hunt with their pets. I’ve shown dogs, I’ve trained them for  agility and confirmation shows. All of which are pretty common here. Most people don’t hunt with their dogs, and that’s hardly ever assumed.

That being said, I have to ask, what difference does it make?

The reason people don’t hunt in say, New York City, is because there’s nothing to hunt.

Iowa, with its land and agriculture and *gasp* hunting, is just as “American” as anywhere else.

Bloom’s article does little more than play into the argument that there are certain parts of the country that are more legitimate and “American” than others.

That somehow being friendly and moderate means you aren’t qualified to have the first say in who the next presidential candidates should be.

In the end, Bloom’s commentary serves as an unfortunate reminder of just how ignorant and small-minded too many Americans are. It’s a demonstration of that which divides us most.

And finally, it’s a testament to just how bitchy and bitter someone can get when their program is cut from a university and they’re forced to move.

 

Correction: To clarify, the Department of Journalism and Communications and still alive and well at the University of Iowa. My last comment was based purely on rumors that Dr. Bloom took up the opportunity to visit Michigan after the U of I’s undergraduate department lost accreditation last year.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “In Defense of Iowa

  1. Jennie

    You go girl! You wrote what I wish I had time and talent to do. Thank you

  2. Hooray for native daughter Katie Stack, blogging again! As a fellow Midwestener, I agree wholeheartedly.

  3. Personally, I find those who use the term “flyover” utterly provincial. If they had actually been to the places they mocked for long enough to experience immersion, they would not be ignorant enough to try to dismiss those areas.

  4. Shannon McDonald

    He wasn’t cut from the j-school program – he’s a tenured faculty member. Currently just a visiting prof. at Michigan.

  5. 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.”

    http://patv.tv/blog/2011/12/18/talking-with-stephen-blooms-observations-oniowa/

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