Debate Over the Iowa Oeuvre

The Iowa Caucuses are coming up next week and that means from now until then the country will be wondering what Iowans think and what, exactly, Iowans are. These are subjects I have opinions about, and two other people’s opinions, published in the Atlantic magazine, have created a very interesting and high-profile debate. 

One opinion is written by a University of Iowa professor named Stephen Bloom, and it’s called Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life.

The other is written by a senior producer and morning host for Iowa Public Radio named Bernard Sherman. It is a response to Bloom called A Look to Iowa’s Future, not its Past. 

Bloom’s critical essay is not the kind of thing the chamber of commerce or the tourist board wants to hear. In fact, the president of the University of Iowa wrote another response, headlined Stephen Bloom Does Not Speak for the UniversityBloom obviously pissed a few people off.

Bloom described the state as politically split, with the eastern half Democratic and the western half Republican. To be specific, he calls the east “solidly” Democratic and the west “rabidly” Republican, making it pretty clear where his political sympathies lie.

Bloom is a 20-year resident of the state and claims to be “a third of the way toward becoming an adopted Iowan.” But he often describes the state in way you’d expect to hear from people whose Iowa knowledge is based on stereotypes. He says it’s common for Iowans to take a date to a tractor pull. He seems alarmed by the fact that people talk so openly about religion and about going to church. Iowans may or may not be bound to the church. But it’s Bloom’s perception and he doesn’t seem to mean it as a compliment.

He claims when he walks his pet Labrador Retriever he’s often approached by people who ask him how she hunts and when he’s next going to take “his bitch” back in the field. It’s true that a lot of Iowans like to hunt but, remember, this guy teaches at the University so he lives in Iowa City, which is a lot more like Berkeley than Fresno. I seriously doubt he’s surrounded by gun-toting rustics in a place like that.

Most remarkable to me, Bloom refers to Barack Obama’s very controversial comment about small towns in the middle of the country. Obama talked of rural Americans suffering economic hardship and said, “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.”

Obama struggled for weeks to pull his foot out of his mouth, after that comment, as people saw him as an educated snob. Bloom, on the other hand, says in his essay that Obama hit it right on the mark, and his words apply very well to Iowans. Bloom also goes on at length describing how the Iowa economy is shrinking, dying or stuck in the doldrums.

I have lived in the West and the Midwest but when asked where I’m from, I tell people I’m from Iowa. I only lived there for about 13 years, total, but they were formative years. I went to Jr. High and High School there. My first job in public radio was in Iowa City, and I still have family connections and many acquaintances in Iowa.  

I know well the clichés that people outside the state rely on when they think about Iowa, and I experienced the defensiveness Iowans share when other people put them down. The best thing I could say for Stephen Bloom’s article is it was honest, and he must have known that sharing his views honestly would bring him some grief.

Fact is, some Iowa stereotypes are pretty close to the truth and others are way off base. Bernard Sherman’s response to Bloom does a good job of setting the record straight on some points. Yes, his essay is defensive, but it’s a good and reasonable defense.

Sherman’s article is laced with demographic data and links to other articles. While Bloom portrays Iowa as a state on the economic decline, Sherman points out the state’s unemployment rate is seven percent, less than the national average and a hell of a lot less than my new home state’s (California’s) jobless rate of about 12 percent.

Sherman responds to Bloom’s description of Iowa as a rural state full of hunters by pointing out that Iowa is quickly becoming urban. Mind you, Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are a lot smaller than urban areas in the East and the West. But they are urban.

Sherman writes, “Just 6.3 percent of Iowans are ‘farm operators,’ and in the last decade Iowa’s metropolitan population grew by 9.1 percent while its rural population decreased by 7.4 percent.”

While Bloom talks about taking a date to a tractor pull, Sherman notes that Iowa is home to seven professional orchestras; orchestras whose members are paid to perform.

“I count seven in a state of 3,000,000, one per every 435,000 citizens,” he writes. “That is several times the national average.”

Read the essays yourself and come to your own conclusions.

As an Iowa expatriate, I am also defensive of the state. No, it is not flat and homely. It is green, rolling and lined with elegant river valleys. No, it is not full of poorly educated, backward bumpkins. The educational system is strong and the politics of the state are very diverse. Even Bloom acknowledges the latter point.

But I do have to answer the question, “If Iowa is so great why did you leave?” I left because the small population offered limited job opportunities. I left because… even though Iowa is pretty and has a good quality of life, it’s a bit dull when compared to bigger population centers.

People have complained for years that Iowa should not be the first state in the nation to have a presidential caucus/primary. We’ve heard the arguments. It’s too rural, too white, etc. If you look at its track record, it’s done a good job of choosing Democratic presidents but a lousy job of choosing Republicans.

Maybe Bloom did have a point when he talked about the Iowa GOP being “rabid,” given how far outside the political mainstream Iowa’s evangelical Republicans are.

But Iowa is changing. If anything, I lament the loss of the rural and small-town culture. It’s something I grew up with and something that’s becoming more and more rare in every American state. I’m guessing that 50 years from now, Iowa will still be there. It’s cities will have grown and become more diverse.

But what about the farm? Will they all be owned by corporations? Will Iowans no longer want to hunt and attend tractor pulls? That would be a sad loss to all of us.

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One Comment on “Debate Over the Iowa Oeuvre”

  1. On our TV show last week – filmed in Iowa City – four native Iowans talked about the depiction of them and the state they call home in Bloom’s controversial article, 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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