He’s Wrong and He’s Right

Iowa isn’t flat. You don’t need Christopher Columbus to prove that. (Sioux City Journal file photo)

I had planned on writing a little letter to Dr. Stephen Bloom, but I felt some perspective was needed before writing about something based purely on reactionary terms.

By now, everyone across the state of Iowa knows Bloom and the write-up he penned for The Atlantic Magazine

A lot of folks here in the land between two rivers are very upset by his “flame-torch” observation of Iowa as the 2012 Caucus approaches on January 3rd.  Much like the Iowa Hawkeyes football season, anything bad that happens, we over-react in a frenzied mode.  It’s easy for Mike Draper of RAYGUN to print up a shirt mocking Bloom, it’s easy for people to send messages to The Atlantic to voice their displeasure and wanting their recourse towards Bloom.

The problem is, when we don’t read the entire text of he wrote, only reacting to the excerpts and quotes that were highlighted, we miss the entire picture, right Mike????

This isn’t going to make people happy, but I’ll say it:  there is some validity to Bloom’s observations, if you get beyond some of his disparaging remarks, which is his opinion, like it or not. 

For everything we romanticize about our fair state, there’s plenty of challenges that we are currently facing, or will face. 

I agree with a large part of his observation of the socioeconomic and political culture of Iowa.  Iowa is facing plenty of issues that we know all too well.  It doesn’t take a professor to figure that out.  (Yeah, I wrote that last sentence.  Sometimes, I have to be a smartass.  I’m too nice.) 

There are some things he wrote that is very true: 

  • Iowa is not flat. 
  • The once-flourishing river towns of Keokuk, Davenport, to name a few, are reshaping an identity for themselves, now that the Mississippi River is no longer a major mode of transportation. 
  • The eastern side of the state is mostly Democratic, the western half is Republican.
  • We continue to re-elect Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley to the U.S. Senate, and we love incumbents

Bloom calls the whole thing schizophrenic, I call it unique and an example of how we operate here in Iowa.  Partisanship aside, I have long theorized that Iowans will elect people who can do their job and ensure that we get what we want from Washington or from the statehouse in Des MoinesIf you can deliver the “goods”, you get re-elected.  Plain and simple.

 I have been an Iowan all of my life.  A black Iowan, mind you, Dr. Bloom.  One of about 50,000 in this state.  You’ll probably find us in the urban areas.  It’s lovely in Davenport, Des Moines, Waterloo, and Sioux City at this time of the year.

The crux of Bloom’s dissertation is this:  why does Iowa gets so much attention by this nation and the political world every four years when it comes to the Presidential election?  Bloom’s ulterior motive, to me, is to tell America about the “real” Iowa…from his own eyes.

Personally, he barely scratched the surface.  There is a lot more to Iowa than “ve-HICK-les”, NASCAR, and the Hawkeyes. 

Bloom described Keokuk as a crime-riddled skuzzy town.  I wonder why he hasn’t visited my hometown of Waterloo, where the continual lingering effect of racial tension and crime rears its ugly head from time to time.  I should know:  my grandparents lived down the street from one of the most infamous crimes in Iowa history.   

Every town isn’t free of criminal activity, Dr. Bloom.  Even in Iowa City, when your students get tagged for underage drinking.  Des Moines, for a long time, was referred to as “Little Chicago” because it was a refuge for Chicago criminals to hide out in the 1970’s. 

I have seen a lot of changes in this state over the past 35 years, going on 36 (on New Year’s Day).  Iowa is not a place where things quickly change for the sake of change.  It takes prodding, convincing, and showing everyone the big picture that we have to evolve and keep pace with the world.  It can be a struggle or very easy, but that’s what we’re doing…together.  That’s the challenge of cultural change, Dr. Bloom:  it takes time and patience to make it happen.  But, it’s will not go at the pace that you want it to be. 

Remember when East Village was run-down and desolate? Yeah, neither did I. (Picture Des Moines)

I do disagree with him on his assessment that Iowans are a bunch of gun-toting, isolationist, God-fearing conservative folks.  We’re more than that.  Look at me, I’ve never lived on a farm, never fired off a shotgun, independent of both political parties, and I attend church when I’m able to, if I’m not visiting family or volunteering. 

As far as naivety is concerned, we use it as a facade at times, but for the most part, we let our niceness and politeness give off the sense that we’re dolts and simpletons.  That is what Bloom is asserting, in my view.  Folks, it’s alright to show a little mean streak if someone insults us.  Lord knows how many times I want to tell Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann to shove it up where the sun don’t shine. 

After years and years of in-your-face religion, I decided to give what has become an annual lecture, in which I urge my students not to bid strangers “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter,” “Have you gotten all your Christmas shopping done?” or “Are you going to the Easter egg hunt?” Such well-wishes are not appropriate for everyone, I tell my charges gently. A cheery “Happy holidays!” will suffice. Small potatoes, I know, but did everyone have to proclaim their Christianity so loud and clear?

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. One gutsy, red-in-the-face student told me in no uncertain terms that for the rest of her life, she would continue offering Merry Christmas and Happy Easter tidings to strangers, no matter what I, or anyone else, said, because, “That’s just who I am and I’m not about to change. Ever!” Score one for sticking it to the ethnic interloper.

-Stephen Bloom, “Observations from 20 years in Iowa” The Atlantic, December 2011

Bloom crossed the line here.  Lecturing his students how to address their holiday greetings was more self-groveling and venting his hatred towards “Merry Christmas.”  Not all people who say “Merry Christmas” are religious.  If someone says “Merry Christmas”, a suffice “You too and Happy Holidays” will do, Dr. Bloom.  No one’s trying to force their religion on anyone.  If they do, they have a problem…with themselves. 

I use both terms.  Not by choice, but what comes easily out of my mouth, if I’m not stuttering to spit it out. 

The Iowa State Wrestling Tournament

Bloom is correct when he says that Iowa is a yesteryear to the past, for good and possibly bad.  The good is that there is still a society and a part of the world that value decency, respect, and humility.  The bad:  the troubling perception from the outside world that Iowa is still a “lily-white” Pangaea that is steadfast in sticking to their beliefs and traditions, that could be seen as politically incorrect. 

Stephen Bloom, for the most part, took an elitist position when he wrote about this state.  Folks don’t like it when someone writes or talks above their heads and subtly mocks them for their way of life and attitudes.  I’m guilty of that myself, so I have to tone down the intellectual guff and make it sensible for everyone to understand what’s being written. 

Trust me, it’s hard for us to drop some of those attitudes as well.  But denigrating people to prove a point does ooze a sense of personal discontent for him. 

Dr. Bloom implied that we’re the ones who are stuck in our ways.  Maybe it’s the other way around. I’m starting to think that he’s the one who hasn’t changed with the times, if we’re solely judging his attitude and his snide remarks.

But make no doubt that our challenge, as Iowans, is to keep showing America that we are culturally intuitive, open-minded, willing to take on new endeavors and lifestyles, and still maintain the integrity and respect towards our fellow woman and man.  Midwest nice isn’t just a catchphrase.

Fear and the unknown are the driving force and reasons for us not to evolve.

I wonder what Dr. Bloom is really afraid of?

Becoming one of us, or realizing that we’re just as smart as he is?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. 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.”


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