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A response to Stephen Bloom


December 13, 2011
Carrie Olson , The Daily Freeman Journal

"Iowa is a throwback to yesteryear and, at the same time, a cautionary tale of what lies around the corner." - Stephen G. Bloom, "Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life" The Atlantic, 9 Dec. 2011.

An online article published in the Atlantic is causing quite a stir in the Heartland. Stephen G. Bloom, a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, has written a piece called "Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life," describing just that.

With the Iowa Caucuses just around the corner, East and West Coast residents will question the relevance of hosting such an important political spectacle in "Fly-over Country." With the state's dwindling population, loss of a U.S. House seat and rising unemployment - people ask what is so special about Iowa (which is frequently misplaced on a U.S. map or confused with Ohio and Idaho.) Bloom is readily available to provide such answers.

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A first read-through of his portrayal of my home state caused my blood to boil, as stereotypes are carefully placed throughout the article to confirm a place where backwards thinking is the norm. He says "I've lived in many places, lots of them foreign countries, but none has been more foreign to me than Iowa."

But after printing off the article, I began to mark instances that weren't true. There weren't many. Eloquently written, Bloom's essay describes rural America accurately enough, with a few instances of embellishment. Although the manner in which he wrote the piece is entirely debatable. Finishing, it had the turned-up nose quality that many Midwesterners associate with East and West Coast elitists.

The farm crisis, the flood of undocumented immigrants - the frustration is precise. He described those realities truthfully.

Bloom spoke of the closing factories with skill. "The nightmare of reality is tens of thousands of laid-off rural factory workers, farmers who have lost their lands to banks and agribusiness, legions of unemployed who have come to the realization that it makes no sense to look for work, since work pretty much no longer exists for them." Words hard to swallow, but true, nonetheless. My hometown of Webster City, has experienced its own hardships recently, with the closing of Electrolux and the loss of hundreds of jobs.

He also made an observation on comments that the president made about the loss of job creation in rural Iowa. Obama said, "So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Bloom explains the anger residents felt with hearing those comments. Again, true.

It's the portrayal of stereotypes by Bloom that perplexes me. He figured some Midwesterners would say: "Whaddaya expect from a Harvard-educated, black city slicker who wouldn't know a John Deere tractor from an International Harvester combine." Reflecting Iowans as stubborn and uneasy of change is somewhat accurate, but as hicks?

"Them's fightin' words," he says mockingly at one point - a definite attack on the slow dialect that rural Iowans have become associated with. I waited in anticipation for some "Dat dere dog, she sure is a perty little thang."

In a second instance, though, he describes the accent of Iowans as coveted. "You understand the words fine," he stated. I'd have a hard time believing that with the drawl he described rural Iowans as having earlier.

It's always a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about any population, no matter how small it may be. Not only are there always exceptions, but some of the characterizations pointed out are just that, instances in a society.

He talks about Friday night entertainment of tractor pulls and combine demolition derbies. Being from rural Iowa, I think it is factual to say that those events happen a couple times a year during the county fair - yes, a very exciting time for Iowans. And those hand-drawn signs along blacktop roads for advertising things like lemonade and sweet corn? Few in the area come to mind. Everyone drives pick-ups? Well, in rural Iowa, they are a necessity for farm work. But, in increasing numbers, Iowans have been trading gas-guzzlers for energy-efficient vehicles, in an effort to save money - just like many other Americans. Detasseling corn "an absolute rite of passage for rural Iowa kids"? Yes, a few of my cousins performed such a rite, but not me or the majority of my town's young adult population. That is definitely an assumption of yesteryear.

From my 28 years as an Iowan, I'm also confused about the food he describes. Yes, casseroles rank supreme in farm kitchens, but gelatin molds filled with cottage cheese? Most kids would cringe. A red Waldorf cake? I haven't heard of it yet, must be a regional thing. Sounds delicious, though. Bringing such foods to a wedding reception is a must? My mother would shudder at the thought of having to bring food at all to such an event. Here, in rural Webster City, a catered affair is the norm.

Professor Bloom instructs his students to wish others "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." He is amused that young people use the term "Come to Jesus" to describe an impending lecture from their parents. He mentions the abundance of signs stating "Jesus Saves" or "Abortion is murder." And he laments the lack of religious diversity, stating of the Hindu population "if you could find any in Iowa."

I concede that "Happy Holidays" is a more inclusive greeting. But "Come to Jesus" moments do happen to young adults, a lot (occasionally to yours truly.) The signs? In my travels, I have only seen them a handful of times, usually outside of conservative communities. And the lack of Hindus? Near Madrid, in central Iowa, is the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Iowa. In my hometown, doctors who practice the Hindu faith are well-respected residents of the community.

Perhaps this will be seen as a rant against the professor. But stereotypes aren't something to take lightly. This isn't just a defense against my home state, but a fight against prejudices any where.

As people from the East and West Coasts read Bloom's article, they may nod their head and say, "I thought so." One of their own, someone respected can showcase their viewpoints, and suddenly it becomes accepted as factual.

So, if this is an accurate portrayal of rural Iowans, is saying that cast members of "Jersey Shore" represent New Jersey? That tree-huggers are the only people that exist in California? No.

Walking a Labrador through Iowa City and hearing "Where you hunt her?" or "Bet she hunts well" may happen (I have a hard time believing it.) Many of my family members have Labradors and some are used for hunting. But while walking a dog in rural Iowa (Iowa City does not qualify for such a term), I have never heard such phrases uttered. That would be seen as ignorant and, honestly, a bit weird.

Although Professor Bloom covers a lot in his article, I feel it shows how little he has absorbed in his 20 years as a resident. It seems he has used his time here to gather cliches. We don't ask that he embrace the "foreign" culture, but not to spew his intellectualism from his ivory tower.

One inflammatory point he makes is this: "Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) 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.'"

I caution against making such incendiary remarks. Yes, many young people are moving out the state - but many, like me, are staying put. Not because I'm too timid or lacking education. But because of some of the stereotypes that he points out. I like that you can find a level amount of liberals and conservatives in the state (and many moderates, too.) That you can leave your car on outside of a Casey's General Store without fear of a car jacking. Some of the things he makes fun of, we Iowans embrace.

It's not the lack of courage or opportunity, but being a part of a family-oriented community of people who support one another. If you have had a traumatic illness, expect a fundraiser with gigantic returns. You've lost something? It likely will be returned to you. Iowa is a place with people you can count on - a simple, and yes, quaint location.

Stereotypes, coming surprisingly from an accomplished teacher and journalist. That's what concerns me about this article. Not only does this piece portray Iowans in a negative light to others, but it also reflects poorly on the author. And in a political sphere where conservatives view professors as smug and self-important - out of touch with reality, insulated from the real world - Bloom has reaffirmed those viewpoints as well.



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