Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stephen Bloom's fighting words

Although it seems to be a minority position this morning, it just doesn’t seem to me like we should tar and feather Stephen Bloom and ride him out of Iowa on a rail quite yet.

Bloom, a professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Iowa, got himself into deep shit (pardon the expression, but Bloom brought it up) by writing an article entitled “Observation from 20 Years of Iowa Life” published Friday in the online edition of  The Atlantic.

This has been wonderful for The Atlantic, which I’ll betcha has gotten enough Iowa-based online hits in the last few days to brighten the season substantially for its marketing staff. Not so wonderful for Iowans with blood pressure problems --- those have shot up a few notches. And maybe not even good for Bloom himself, who told The Register last night that the feedback has been “frightening” and that he feels threatened.

If he feels threatened now, just wait until the Iowa Legislature reconvenes in January and those good old boys latch onto his leg and start shaking.

What Bloom did was air before a broader public (with substantial exaggeration in several cases and some outright misrepresentations) many of those things us Iowans already know, even joke about sometimes, but prefer to keep quiet about in the presence of strangers. Maybe not even think about.

I mean, how dare he? He's only lived here 20 years. And what’s worse, he came here from San Francisco of all places.


Admittedly, I’m a little miffed. Take this, for example --- “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." Well, not exactly. I don’t have a mud room.

And if I were a resident of one of Iowa’s picturesque Mississippi River cities, I’d be a little cross about this: “… Keokuk is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they're some of the skuzziest cities I've ever been to, and that's saying something.”

I do think it’s fair to fault an instructor in journalism for playing fast and loose with the facts here and elsewhere.

Bloom finds, for example, “absolute and utter desperation in America's hollowed-out middle, in particular in the state where I live,” which is just a bit of an exaggeration.

Potshots at Republicans, including the whacky Steve King, and organized religion are unlikely to gain the poor guy that many friends in the Hawkeye state, despite the elements of truth incorporated into them and the fact I tend to agree.

What’s happening, I’m afraid, is that overstatement combined with a degree of inaccuracy has undermined the whole and distracted attention from statements that are alarmingly accurate.

For example:

"The nightmare reality is tens of thousands of laid-off rural factory workers, farmers who have lost their land 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."

"An illusionary, short-term salve has been the proliferation of casinos in the state."

"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, 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,' "

(That’s a really tough one to take and, in truth, our percentage of waste-toids and meth addicts probably doesn’t exceed the national average.)

"It's no surprise then, really, that the most popular place for suicide in America isn't New York or Los Angeles, but the rural Middle, where guns, unemployment, alcoholism and machismo reign."

"Of the students I teach, relatively few will stay in Iowa after they graduate. The net flow of Iowans is out, not in. Iowa's greatest export isn't corn, soybeans, or pigs; it's young adults. Many born in rural Iowa grow up educated due to the state's still-strong foundation of land-grant universities (although, that too is eroding) and abiding familial interest in education (on a per-capita basis, Iowa has more high school graduates than 49 other states). But once they're through college, they leave. Iowa is the number-two state in the nation in losing college-educated youth (only North Dakota loses more)."


 Now there’s going to be even more hollering in the next few days and quite a few who suggest that if Bloom doesn’t like it here, he should move back to San Francisco --- or RUSSIA!

But I think we should keep him (I admired his widely-acclaimed book, Postville), see if maybe we can turn this old Iowa boy around a bit and enlist his help in figuring out some solutions to those problems he so dramatically pointed out.

To do otherwise kind of reinforces some of the less-flattering things Bloom said about the folks who for better or worse are his people  now.


Norm Prince said...


Interesting thoughts about this ‘foreigner’ from San Fran who does not seem to have acclimated
well to the wonders of Iowa. As you stated, there is some truth to many of his thoughts but to
stand in the middle of a sty and throw manure at your fellow inhabitants is truly insane. These
statements are coming from a person who lived in a city which did not even wish to live with
their died, as all the graves were dug up nearly a century ago and moved south to the next
county, including many of my relatives. Being a native of the Golden State I was proud of all it
had to offer, nature wise, but once the rest of the world moved in to much of the beauty was
hidden from view by the hoards of bodies. For the past dozen years my early retirement to Iowa
has been full of life, good folks, such as you are mentioning often, and some great trips along the
back roads of a slower and more peaceful way of living. I could be one of those in the line to
send Stephen back to California but in reality they already have more than enough strangeness in
that state so, as you mentioned, perhaps some good old boys taking him down the Cinder Trail
and showing him what life could be is a better option.


Frank D. Myers said...

Bloom also bit the hand that feeds him (never wise unless you’re prepared to look elsewhere for meals) with a side dose of getting so involved in his own cleverness with words that he lost touch with reality. I was reminded of the little kid who got in big trouble at school, forgetting that someone was going to tell Mama and that there would be even bigger trouble when he got home. If he was trying to write with tongue in cheek, he proved he didn’t know how to do it; and if the goal was purely journalistic, as he suggested later --- to cast light into dark places --- he needs to hone his skill by re-enrolling in a school of mass communications rather than teaching at one.

Ken said...

Actually, what struck me about Mr. Bloom's article was how much he got right -- particularly for someone who's seen Iowa only from the rather artificial viewpoint of a college town. True, some of his comments were ill-chosen (glad I don't live in a Mississippi River town), but his misses were greatly outnumbered by his direct hits. That's not to say I agree with his overall point. Iowa is as good a state as any (and better than most) to kick off the presidential selection process. And like it or not, Iowa Republicans are no nuttier than Republicans in other states.

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.”