Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bloomsday in Iowa

See, I'm not a dumb hick. I made a literary reference.

Despite my birth out of state, I call myself an Iowan, my only residual affection to my first home state being my loyalty to the Green Bay Packers. (There's nothing I hate more than a bandwagon fan whose "favorite" team is whoever won the last Super Bowl. I survived the 1980s with the Pack and I earned it.)

I came here 21 years ago, right around the same time Stephen Bloom did. And as an Iowan by choice, who made that choice at the same time so many Iowans by birth were choosing to leave, I have perhaps a stronger love of this state.

My culture shock may not have been as great as Bloom's was and, judging from his controversial piece in the Atlantic, still is. He came here from a series of major metropolitan areas; I came to Iowa City from similar size college towns in Wisconsin. (Biggest difference I noticed: the lack of corner "townie" taverns in residential neighborhoods that pop up every four or six blocks in Cheesehead Land.)

I intended my stay to be short and academic. But I got sidetracked by journalism and politics, never did finish that degree, and I fell in love with a gem of a city. It breaks my heart sometimes, as love often does, but I've never felt more at home anywhere.

I was welcomed immediately by a tribe of like-minded liberals. They taught me the basics of ward heeling, let me add some refinements to the system, and have treated me like family all this time. (Sometimes treating you like family means you're grounded for two weeks.) Four years ago I married a wonderful woman who was more than happy to return here from another state. We've chosen to raise our children here, with Iowa City excitement and Iowa City values.

Here's what I don't get: How can Stephen Bloom live in the People's Republic of Johnson County for 20+ years and be so isolated that he can't acknowledge that the state is not all monochrome East Jesus and Pole Bean Center? My Iowa -- my home --is the Ped Mall on a Friday night and the Writer's Workshop and RAGBRAI and a world class teaching hospital and one of the most Democratic counties outside a major metro area and yes, Hawkeye football Saturdays. It's a place where I can have a football field sized yard with a vegetable garden four blocks from my office. A three to five minute commute on my bike depending on if I hit the red light (we have more than one in this county). Try that in Chicago.

I recognize some of the insularity Bloom talks about. I spent two of my years here in one of the outlying small towns of Johnson County, and I recognized the We Didn't Know Your Grandpa Look we'd get sometimes at the corner store. I also spent enough time looking at population statistics while I wrote District Of The Day to know that small town Iowa is losing population and jobs, to see an entire rural county's worth of population move into Ankeny in a decade.

A decade and a half ago I door-knocked 20 small towns, in the meatpacking corridor, running unsuccessfully for the legislature. Some of which had lost their school, and you could tell they'd lost their spark with that. Some places, every door that was answered was elderly, and the doors that weren't answered were likely scared that an Anglo man talking about registering to vote meant trouble. Those two trends are long term and Bloom has eloquently documented them in his career here.

Yet these same small towns would throw a potluck fund-raiser (starring the casseroles Bloom so loathes) for a family with a house fire or a critically ill child. Those same people would show up at six in the morning to help you sandbag your house as the flood waters were rising. How does Bloom not remember that from three short years ago?

The mistake Bloom makes in the Atlantic piece is that he paints with too broad a brush. Many arguments start out in the fair and the familiar. But in aggressively pushing his agenda -- and that agenda is very clear, that a state this white and rural, even though we sent the first African American president to the White House, is unworthy of its key political role -- he takes the overgeneralizations about a notch and a half too far. Take for example this paragraph:
But relatively few rural Iowans are employed in the business of wind energy. The bulk of jobs here are low-income ones most Iowans don't want. Many have simply packed up and left the state (which helps keep the unemployment rate statewide low).
So far so good. The analysis of the rural meat-packing economy in the piece is excellent. But keep reading...
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...
Wait a minute. Some validity, but seemingly worded in a deliberately condescending and judgemental way.
...an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth...
Nice sensitivity to the devastation of addiction, there.
or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that "The sun'll come out tomorrow."
And here we are at paragraph's end, in full contempt of the small-town heroes who try against the odds to keep their communities alive.

Bloom falls victim to something I'm sometimes guilty of: letting passion about a topic carry me over the line. All the legitimate points about young people abandoning the state for city jobs and Steve King's politics of xenophobia will be lost to Iowans, and to many others outside the state, because he called Keokuk a skuzzy depressed, crime-infested slum town. The insults -- which they are -- will be remembered instead of the analysis.

Iowa seems to stands guilty, in Stephen Bloom's eyes, of not being Manhattan or Chicago or Berkeley, even if some legislators would have you believe we were.

Two decades ago in Wisconsin I was a TA. I hadn't moved to Iowa City yet but I'd been accepted into my graduate program, so I knew I was on the way. One of my undergrad students was an Iowa native and gave a speech about the beauty of native prairie. I can't phrase it as eloquently as he did, but he said: some scenery, like mountains and oceans, shout at you with their beauty. But the prairie whispers.

After two decades, the beauty of Iowa is a steady sound in my life, a part of me. But sadly, for Stephen Bloom, he seems not to have been listening.

5 comments:

King of SNARK said...

Well written John, Excellent job!

Go Pack Go!

nanoscale00 said...

Don't know why so many Iowans tout the few accurate observations found in the piece, readily available elsewhere. I'm from the east coast, and I find that he's an asshole, plain and simple. We don't want him back, sorry, Iowans.

Me said...

I've read the article and the responses. Bloom appears to think that he's just shining a light into the dark corners of Iowa and we're all too sensitive. In reality, he's only dusted off some age-old stereotypes and tried to pass them off as investigative journalism. I feel that we have as much right to be offended as any other victim of prejudice. That said, I hope it gives some of us a tiny taste of what it must be like to be stereotyped every hour of every day.

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.”

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

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.”

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