As someone familiar with Iowa, I was curious about the recent outrage associated with University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom’s Atlantic Monthly article on his twenty years in Iowa (Bloom,2011). I eventually read the article, assuming that the anger over it was misplaced or exaggerated. Surely, this had to be just a case of overly-sensitive midwesterners not liking flaws in their self-regarded utopia pointed out.
Unfortunately, the article does seem to be a hack job. Mr. Bloom rightly brings up struggles with employment and shifts in blue-collar jobs that the vast majority of other states are facing. However, he laces valid points with snarky remarks that are often either inappropriate or outright slanderous.
For a journalism professor, Mr. Bloom does many other shameful things that would seem to violate the normal code of journalistic conduct. Elsewhere, he uses quotes in misleading fashion. In once case, already corrected by the Atlantic, Mr. Bloom uses a Barack Obama quote from 2008 at length while implying that it was made in reference to Iowa. And, while there is some relevance to the quote’s points, Mr. Obama was really referring to Pennsylvania.
The presumption that any non-Iowan would read the article’s many ill-informed statements as fact is likely the main reason why people are outraged over it. After all, the article has Mr. Bloom asserting that the state’s slummy river towns are the worst that the worldly journalism professor has ever seen and that Iowa is more ‘foreign’ than any overseas countries that he’s ever been too.
That sort of hyperbole is so over-the-top that one has to wonder: If Iowa was really such an awful place, why would Mr. Bloom stay there for twenty years? Baffling I say, baffling. The obvious answer is that Iowa is not really how he portrayed it in the article. No educated, worldly person would stay in that situation if it was.
Like the best lies, many of Blooms statements have nuggets of truth in them. I’m sure that he didn’t fabricate any of the examples of odd Iowan behavior that he provides. The problem is that he states as fact outliers that are actually not the norm. Given that the state’s education system ranks amongst the best nationally and that Iowa often hits the top of ‘quality of life’ rankings, Mr. Bloom is creative in making his contrarian case.
Following the same methodology, one could easily write a nearly identical article about other states, such as California. Examples of ‘in-your-face’ religious zealots can be found throughout California. Shanty towns exist in various California migrant communities. Slummy crime horror stories are easily found throughout that state. And the smell of animal manure is a mainstay all along I-5 between L.A. and San Francisco.
One example of a false norm, of probably a hundred, that bothered me: “On Friday nights it’s not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby.” While I’m sure that some people have had such dates, neither option would be common. Even if a male was misguided enough to try to suggest such a date, it has been my experience that most women in Iowa would consider either option to be a hideous proposal.
Some interesting rebuttals to the article have already emerged, as people race to bury Mr. Bloom. The Republican presidential candidates in Iowa are having a field day with the outrage of the locals. Newt Gingrich, amongst others, have called for the professor to be fired, stating that: “If you have a professor being paid by taxpayers who calls the taxpayers idiots, I think that’s a pretty good argument for getting rid of him. And if he doesn’t want to be in Iowa, there’s a lot of places he can go.” (Abcarian, 2011)
The president of the University of Iowa wrote her own article for the Atlantic website (Mason, Dec 15 2011). In particular, she points out that reality doesn’t match Mr. Bloom’s description of Iowa’s ‘skuzzy’ Mississippi river towns. Although the towns have had to undergo reinvention, they’ve had some successes that are highlighted, including the opening of a Google office in one community.
Mr. Bloom is on leave this year from his University of Iowa post and teaching in Michigan. I’m not sure how he thought he’d write his article and ever return to the state. Perhaps he didn’t plan on returning and the article was his middle-finger to twenty years of living there. For his sake, I hope that he had an escape plan already in mind.
Mr. Bloom’s article makes him look more naive than anything. If he’s disappointed with the quality of life in Iowa, he’s obviously never been to faltering states in other parts of the country. The vast majority of the United States is facing even greater versions of the challenges than Iowa faces. Essentially, the entire article seems like a desperate cry for acceptance amongst the presumably elitist coastal crowd that might read the Atlantic. I suspect that Mr. Bloom will have neither accomplished that goal nor will he have a ‘home’ to return to.