Across the River from Iowa

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story recently about the travails of Stephen Bloom, a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, who, in a piece he wrote for The Atlantic, all but said that Iowans are unfit to participate in presidential elections.

Bloom’s “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life,” published just before the Iowa caucuses, begins by noting—with apparent approval—that “Obama catapulted to the top of the Democrats’ dance card when he captured 38 percent of Iowa voters in 2008” and that, “[w]ithout such a strong initial showing in Iowa, Obama might not have been able to steamroll through subsequent state primaries to win the presidency.”

But then, apparently having forgotten how it began, the piece ends on a much different note, a note about “how screwy it is that a place like Iowa gets to choose—before anyone else—who may become the next leader of the free world.” Bloom writes:

I can’t tell you how often over the years I’d be walking [our dog] 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.

I think Bloom deserves a full hearing: one does fairly to read the whole essay before joining the chorus of dissenters, which, by the way, includes his university president.

But I don’t think I err in saying that Bloom, though not incapable of affection for his current native state, seems to account it a mark in Iowa’s disfavor that “the graduating classes of most rural high schools are so small that an Iowa tradition calls for silk-screened T-shirts with the names of all classmates on the back,” or that detasseling corn “has become an absolute rite of passage for rural Iowa kids.”

And it does seem to me that Bloom accounts it a mark of approbation that, given what Iowa has become, its “greatest export isn’t corn, soybeans, or pigs; it’s young adults.” “Of the students I teach, writes Bloom, “relatively few will stay in Iowa after they graduate. The net flow of Iowans is out, not in.”

Again: other readers may come to a different conclusion about these remarks. I think the general drift of Bloom’s essay supports my reading of them. And the direction in which the piece generally drifts is this: you’ll find people better suited to choosing the next leader of the free world in states that have larger cities, larger schools, and better work than detasseling corn. Some of the people in those other states are now qualified for such choosing because they have had the good sense to leave places like Iowa.

We’ll see what kind of second stink, if any, arises from the Chronicle piece. It notes that Bloom is visiting for a year at the University of Michigan but that he is defiant about his return to Iowa, notwithstanding a significant backlash to his article in The Atlantic: “Yeah, get used to it,” he says. “I will be back.”

But if there is a stink, I rather hope it issues from this steaming dog pile: “I know Iowa really well,” Bloom has said. “It is my laboratory.”

It is true that Bloom has traveled in and written about Iowa extensively. (I myself have paid some attention to his books and articles, and a year ago I attended a public lecture he gave in Davenport.) But I think rhetoricians might say that claiming to “know Iowa really well” is an example of question-begging. That seems to be what’s currently at issue.

Be that as it may, however, the real problem, at least from my end of the porch, is in the proprietary remark: Iowa “is my laboratory.”

Forget that someone from the coast has come to fly-over country to hold a mirror up to the backward and benighted Midwest. Forget that those actually from Iowa, who have roots in Iowa, whose grandparents and great grandparents live in Iowa, are wondering why they’re being asked to hold hands and sing the nunc dimittis, as if none of them “knows Iowa.” Forget all that.

A home is not a place where, with cool objective detachment, you observe others as they wiggle and squirm under your microscope. It is not in any way—except to its detriment—a laboratory, and certainly not yours. And you don’t get to hand down decisions, invented from afar, about the reasons to own a dog here.

And if you think you may legitimately enjoy the physical benefits of a place—its food, say, or its air or water or sunshine or the goodwill of those around you—while dwelling in the airy regions of judgment above it, you’d better think again. And I think you’d better do so before presuming that you yourself are fit to participate in a national election.

Bonus Feature for those of you disinclined to read the articles cited; or, five passages the Chronicle saw fit to excerpt from Bloom’s piece:

“On the state’s eastern edge lies the Mississippi River, dotted with towns with splendid names like Keokuk, Toolesboro, Fruitland, Muscatine, Montpelier, Buffalo, Sabula, Davenport, Dubuque, and Guttenberg. Each once was a booming city on the swollen banks of the river that long ago opened the middle of America to expansion, civilization, abundance, and prosperity. Not much travels along the muddy and polluted Mississippi these days except rusty-bucket barges of grain and an occasional kayaker circumnavigating garbage, beer cans, and assorted debris. The majestic river that once defined the United States has been rendered commercially irrelevant these days.”

“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 shifting; any growth is negligible. 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.”

“In this land, deep within America, on Friday nights it’s not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby (“First they were thrashin’, now they’re CRASHIN’!”). There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen.”

“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). Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated [sic]) 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.”

“They speak English in Iowa. You understand the words fine. … But if you listen closely, though, it’s a wholly different manner of speaking from what folks on either coast are accustomed to. 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.'”

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  1. “There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen.”
    Sounds nice and non commercial. Since when were billboards a sign of civilization?

  2. Wait, was I supposed to read those descriptions of Iowa and think it must be a horrible place to live? They made me nostalgic.

    But then, I grew up just on the other side of the river, over in East Moline.

  3. I didn’t know we still have a “free world.” Didn’t the Cold War end a while back?

    I assume Prof. Bloom is a liberal. His “leader of the free world” thought is another sign that USA-as-global-empire is a bipartisan cause.

    I’m an Iowan and I wonder if Bloom really does know Iowa really well. The flavor-of-life details he gives, that you quote, don’t all ring true (at least to me). Yes, supper is the evening meal and dinner is more likely the noon meal. When I was growing up, detasseling corn and walking beans were good ways for older kids to make money in the late summer. (Some of that is automated now, I think.) We do have parking ramps and we drink pop. Suckers and sacks are preferred. Basements are different from cellars–many cellars are root cellars located on farms. Mudrooms are common, especially in farm houses.

    On the other hand, the appeal of the smell of pig excrement is overrated. It’s an annoyance but one with which you learn to live. Personally, I don’t like the “smell of money” saying; it’s more accurate to call it the “smell of greed” when referring to hog confinement factory farms. Most Iowans are content with their jobs and they aren’t just hanging around waiting to die. I’ve never heard an Iowa boy referred to by the nickname “Bud.” Miniature golf has been traditionally known as miniature golf (not putt-putt).

    There are many non-hunting dogs in Iowa and I’m skeptical how often those questions have really been posed to him by strangers while he’s walking his dog in an urban neighborhood. (Maybe if he lived in the country on an acreage, but even then I’m guessing the driver of a pickup truck would be smart enough to recognize a non-hunter when he sees one.)

    I’ve driven a lot of gravel roads and blacktops in the state and I’ve never seen a boar semen sign. Maybe there’s one a mile or two outside of Iowa City. Perhaps on the way to the airport.

    BTW, I’m neither a meth addict nor a waste-oid.

  4. People in the cities (and burbs) get dogs for protection. So I’m not sure what the objection to getting a dog for hunting could possibly be; it’s about survival for everybody.

    Also, at this point I wonder what the writer likes to eat. Lots of tofu, one presumes….

  5. I’m from Wisconsin. It is right across the river from Iowa, but I live on the other side of the state, closer to Michigan. Growing up here insulated me against “left coast” liberalism, at the same time I breathed in the spirit of Bob La Follette and Eugene V. Debs. We still remember when socialists were people who worked for a living, not intellectuals in New York. We still have a bridge named for the nation’s longest-serving socialist mayor. I also had an instant appreciation for Don West’s “Romantic Appalachia, or, Poverty Pays If You Ain’t Poor,” when spending some time in West Virginia.

    Let’s see… I agree with the Iowans about dogs. Having a dog just to take it for a walk doesn’t make sense. If you have a dog, it should have a purpose. I don’t keep a dog, because its messy, and I don’t have a use for one. If I had a herd of sheep outside my back door, I might appreciate having one around very much. Likewise, if my house were over-run with mice, I might appreciate a cat, but in the absence of mice, I don’t want any animal sharing my home.

    At least he recognizes that Iowa once had booming cities. If he is seriously critical of capitalism, he might look at why investment and industry drag people where investors want to go, instead of investors and industry coming to where people live. Or maybe he is not critical of capitalism at all — maybe he just blames those left behind for being left behind.

    Few billboards along the black-topped roads? Sounds like heaven to me. This guy wants to see MORE billboards? I wouldn’t want him back in Iowa with that thought either. I love hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, pumpkins, lemonade… I still remember, inside city limits, being able to buy Indian Corn and gourds in season on my way home from school.

    Pop, suckers, sacks… check, makes perfect sense to me. He didn’t mention that what the rest of the world calls “water fountains” we commonly refer to as “bubblers.” If this guy goes back to Iowa, he better look out or someone is going to sit him on a bubbler. But as I recall, my parents served breakfast, lunch and dinner, while the German Roman Catholic families next door served breakfast, dinner, and supper. This was not a serious impediment to work, play, good neighborly relations, or much of anything else.

    Is any of this relevant to fitness to vote in elections? Any of it? The Iowa caucuses are kind of over-rated. They can give a candidate a good start. Obama was given no chance at all until he pulled off a plurality in a state where almost everyone thought of themselves as “white.” People who think of themselves as “black” didn’t think much of voting for him until then. But 2nd place was John Edwards (which I appreciated at the time), and 3rd place Hillary Clinton (which I also appreciated). As we know, things went differently in other states, which had an impact on the course of the election. People in Iowa have as much right to vote as people anywhere. When all is said and done, the rest of us don’t have to vote the same way, and if we don’t, Iowa doesn’t amount to much.

    Google “Iowa caucus winners elected president” or even start with the Wikipedia article. There is no clear-cut pattern that “as Iowa goes, so goes the nation” even in any given political party’s nomination process. But Iowa has its place. There is a town in New Hampshire with a reputation for always picking the winner of the general election for president, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest we save money by just letting them vote and the rest of us will go along.

  6. P.S. Second time I’ve been referred to Iowahawk. Hilarious. Have to bookmark him. And I learned in West Virginia that “ramps” is a cross between an onion and garlic, growing wild all over the mountains. It is not a parking structure.

  7. Down here in our climes, north Louisiana, supper is that vesper meal with which we close the day, the communion table of the family. Dinner is still, although our agrarian roots are waning, that working meal, big and hearty as we transition from morning work to afternoon work. “Lunch” is a federal government import that crept in through our school “lunch” programs.

    Most men down here, and no few women, still measure a dog, by what it can potentially hunt, although we have acquired no few of the fuzzy-wuzzy breeds, which if one knew more about them would likely have a historical hunting pedigree. My favorite dog is the Catahoula Leopard, the official dog of our state.

    What are referred to in most places as soda, or pop or soft drinks are referred to down here as “coke” with a little “c” or “cold drink.” In my ladhood, so prevalent was the term “cold drink” that it was not uncommon to ask if the grocer had any cold “cold drinks,” suggesting that there were some cold drinks not in the cooler and which were, therefore, hot “cold drinks.”

    We do not have mud rooms; but we do have mud places where one takes off one’s dirty shoes, washes one’s feet and shakes one’s trousers before entering the domain of the lady who still is to the household what a platoon sergeant is to a platoon. The lieutenant is technically the leader of the platoon; that is why they call him the platoon leader; however, the smart platoon leader soon realizes that if he wants to be a successful officer and survive to promotion, he leads through the platoon sergeant. Despite this emasculated age, there are still Southern males who are the heads of their households; yet, like the smart lieutenant, they run the household through the wife: a keen lesson in subsidiarity! One ritual of that relationship is the mud place: no dirty shoes, no dirty feet, and no dirty trousers are to defile the sanctuary of the home.

    Of course, there is a big difference between a cellar and a basement; they are not interchangeable terms.

    We have two kinds of suckers down here: those on a stick and fools.

    Our sacks are sacks, and our putt-putt is putt-putt.

    We do distinguish between weeds and volunteers. A weed is an unwanted plant critter which stings, sticks or chokes out. A volunteer is a normally desire plant critter which unexpected comes up on it own. I have some volunteer mustard greens from a planting over three years ago. They survived a long drought and came up, well, volunteer, without a bit of help from me. I cook up a mess with cornbread, onion and buttermilk. Of course, there is that “high” weed that some folks harvest in these climes; but it ain’t no volunteer. It is well tended and well guarded.

    A ramp in these parts is what “you go up” to get on a ferry or what you try to get your boat down to get to the fishin’ hole.

    The good Dr. Bloom should come down here. I would love to take him snipe huntin’ in the Black Bayou Basin. It would be fun, laboratory-like, to “observe” him. It would be the equivalent of a Louisiana fox hunt with him as the fox. We’d build a big fire, spin yarns and tell tales, drink whiskey and eat cracklins while he yelled and whined off in the distance. Come mornin’, he could share his version of the laboratory experiment.

  8. The recent release of his emails sent and recieved just after his article’s publication confirm that, above all else, Stephen Bloom is in the Stephen Bloom business and that he wrote an intentionally provocative piece (first it was “journalism” then, when multitudinous error, omissions and fabrications were discovered it became a “satire”) with nothing in mind so much as trying to get his “15 minutes of fame.”

    He lied in his piece and lied in his response to the firestorm of criticism it generated.

    He did, of course, and will now be living with a far longer period of infamy and professional scorn and disgrace.

    We discussed his polemic on a recent episode of our show:

  9. This Stephen Bloom character is so full of it, its seeping out his eyes. This is the typical attitude of big city elitists who move to the middle of America or any small town in America for that matter, I saw it in my hometown of Mt. Shasta, CA when people from San Francisco and Los Angeles would stop by on the I-5 on their way home. They think their above everybody else around them, I guess its some sort of inferiority complex. If he doesn’t like Iowa why doesn’t he move back to the big city? Nothing is stopping him, in some ways I think this guy likes looking down his nose at people and that is the reason why he doesn’t leave. I feel sorry for this guy that he actually can’t enjoy what is probably a beautiful place with good people all around him. Sad, sad, sad.

  10. “the graduating classes of most rural high schools are so small that an Iowa tradition calls for silk-screened T-shirts with the names of all classmates on the back”

    This guy needs to get out more. My high school graduation class in San Antonio, TX was more than 600 kids and the class tea shirts had every single name printed on the back.

  11. Looks like he needed some publicity and knew how to get it. Me… I’d love to get back that way and miss it terribly (originally from across the River from Clinton).

  12. Alas, in better days [the oft derided 1930’s], the University of Iowa was the center of a regional literary and artistic revival that celebrated the special virtues of the state. The young Paul Engle, Jay Sigmund, and Grant Wood grounded their work in the very qualities that Mr. Bloom deplores.

    The rule should be: ALL academic posts at the University of Iowa shall be held by persons born and raised within the state… who also own dogs which hunt or herd!

  13. Everyone is right – Bloom is a self-promoting lefty who loves looking down at others.

    AGREED – why are academic post given to those from other states, when it is the state’s money (actually the taxpayers). Furthermore for those who don’t have this experience, I have been flown all over the country to inteviews at universities I’d never heard of until they advertised. This also means a night or two in a hotel, etc. I ultimately chose to take a more modestly paying job without tenure in order to live in the place I loved. God bless Iowa, I once interviewed there but I would not want to live there or a lot of other places. But I needed a job and once I got there (and other places) realized it was not for me (either because of the location, or some real nutjobs on the faculty but that’s another story).

  14. His assertions about Iowa were so over the top it was hard to take any of it seriously. Like Snooki, I think Professor Bloom is just a self-absorbed narcissist looking for attention any way he can get it.

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