Iowa pride/Stephen Bloom discussion thread (updated)

I must be the last Iowa blogger to weigh in on Stephen Bloom's "Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life" for The Atlantic.

Bloom's sneering take on the provincials in flyover country made him an instant punching bag in the local blogosphere. Todd Dorman called the University of Iowa journalism professor "the Michelangelo of hick-punching," and Bloom's essay is quite the takedown. He ridicules the way Iowans walk, talk, dress, eat, and entertain ourselves. Most painfully, he mocks the people who choose to stay in our state's rural wastelands:

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."

I've spent a couple of days thinking about how to respond to Bloom's piece.

University of Iowa President Sally Mason played it straight with a press release distancing herself from the article: "I disagree strongly with and was offended by Professor Bloom's portrayal of Iowa and Iowans. Please know that he does not speak for the University of Iowa." Mason then listed the many qualities she admires in us and our communities.

Others have taken the humorous route: IowaHawk parodied Bloom's writing here, while Mike pretended to be flattered at the RayGun blog:

it made me feel like kind of a bad-ass for living in Iowa. We not only have several "crime-infested slum" towns, but every day we stare in the face of "absolute and utter desperation" (absolute and utter!).

Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register asked Bloom the obvious question (how can you stand to live here?) and chided the lack of fact-checking:

If you're going to skewer the population of an entire state for a publication other than the Onion, please be precise. [...]

He writes of "rifle-toting hunters stalking turkeys in the fall": Using rifles to hunt turkeys is illegal in Iowa - only shotgun, muzzleloader or bow.

Munson should have collected quotes from regular folks showing that contrary to Bloom's assertion, "the aroma of pig shit" is not "absolutely venerated in Iowa."

I didn't care for the way Bloom misrepresented an Easter Sunday headline from the Cedar Rapids Gazette to describe what he considers an "in-your-face" religious culture. The Gazette's editor Lyle Muller posted a good response to that cheap shot:

The headline is not spread across an Easter Sunday front page at any time from 1986 to 2006. We checked multiple years. A small two-column Easter greeting exists in the 1994 edition below the masthead to the left with a Bible verse that contains the phrase "he is risen." [...]

A moment in time from a distant past does not illustrate a larger picture about the present. In The Gazette's case, Easter greetings were on front pages in years past. Not every year, but some, and they have not been there since 1994. Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa have vibrant communities of Muslims and Jews, especially, but also other faiths. We try in our faith and values reporting to understand them all. To use the "He is Risen" example to illustrate the way Iowa, and The Gazette, functions in 2011 doesn't jive with reality.

Looking at that 1994 front page, I'm struck by the fact that two reports from foreign countries made page 1 of an Iowa newspaper. Who are you calling insular?

Bloom set out to tell "geographically challenged" readers of The Atlantic "where Iowa is" and "what Iowa is." Like many commentators, I recognized some of Bloom's stereotypes (the largest and most elegant house in many small towns is the funeral home) and didn't recognize others (we only value dogs as potential hunting companions?).

Many readers were put off by the author's contempt for his subject. Iowa City-loving transplant John Deeth took issue with Bloom's tone:

Bloom falls victim to something I'm sometimes guilty of: letting passion about a topic carry me over the line. All the legitimate points about young people abandoning the state for city jobs and Steve King's politics of xenophobia will be lost to Iowans, and to many others outside the state, because he called Keokuk a skuzzy depressed, crime-infested slum town. The insults -- which they are -- will be remembered instead of the analysis.

Bloom defended his work when Munson called him for comment on the backlash:

"Maybe people are not accustomed to reading those kinds of things," he said. "My message to readers is: Don't take offense, you might shake your head but it behooves you to listen. A different opinion is good for you." [...]

"I don't have to apologize to anyone for my observations in going to each of the 99 counties in this state over the last 20 years and writing my observations," Bloom insisted.

"Gee, what is up with Iowans if they don't have a sense of balance, a sense of humor, a sense of give and take, a sense of debate, if when they read something and it is so far to the fringe that they say, 'That guy, why does he even live here?' This is anti-intellectualism. This is provincialism at its worst, I must tell you."

Bloom seems to be saying he was just kidding, so Iowans should lighten up. And truly, who hasn't laughed at generalizations about a "foreign" culture? Even the SteveIowa blog, which slammed Bloom's sloppy and lazy stereotyping, has indulged in a mocking profile of the archetypal "Tea Party Man."

It's pointless to try to prove Bloom is wrong about Iowans. I'm glad I moved back to Iowa. I know plenty of big city kids who settled happily here. Economists say small-town Iowa is no more depressed than small-town America. An east-coast native who moved to a rural Iowa county last year raves about the fairs and summer festivals Bloom ridicules. None of that negates Bloom's opinion. To each his own.

As a Jew who was born and raised in Iowa, I do feel compelled to respond to this passage, though:

After years and years of in-your-face religion, I decided to give what has become an annual lecture, in which I urge my students not to bid strangers "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter," "Have you gotten all your Christmas shopping done?" or "Are you going to the Easter egg hunt?" Such well-wishes are not appropriate for everyone, I tell my charges gently. A cheery "Happy holidays!" will suffice. Small potatoes, I know, but did everyone have to proclaim their Christianity so loud and clear?

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea. One gutsy, red-in-the-face student told me in no uncertain terms that for the rest of her life, she would continue offering Merry Christmas and Happy Easter tidings to strangers, no matter what I, or anyone else, said, because, "That's just who I am and I'm not about to change. Ever!" Score one for sticking it to the ethnic interloper.

My dad used to say that a rabbi's sermon should have "more teaching, less preaching." I don't see a "Happy holidays" lecture as promoting the cause of religious tolerance. Bloom is trying to make his students feel bad about comments that are intended to be friendly. He could find a less judgmental way to communicate that not everyone in Iowa is Christian.

If a stranger wishes me merry Christmas, I smile. That person means no insult. Sometimes I say, "You too," but depending on the situation, I might say, "We celebrate Chanukah in our house, but merry Christmas to you!" (Or: "We celebrate Passover, but happy Easter to you!") If someone asks my son what he wants Santa to bring him for Christmas, I encourage him to answer by talking about what he wants for Chanukah. I have joked with stressed-out friends that the holiday season is the best time to be Jewish: no pressure to create a magical Christmas experience. There are ways to handle these exchanges without telling other people what to say or not say.

Final link before I open the floor for comments: the e-mail exchange between Garance Franke-Ruta, who edited Bloom's piece, and Bloom's University of Iowa colleague Robert Gutsche Jr. is worth a read.

UPDATE: The Atlantic published Lynda Waddington's response to Bloom. Excerpt:

In the South, my birth-home, many will recognize the reaction as "bless his heart" syndrome. That is, in the South, it is generally acceptable to say pretty much any thing you like about a person provided you follow such an observation with "bless his heart." For instance, "Merv's and Alice's boy doesn't have the smarts God gave a piss ant. Bless his heart." Following such a pronouncement, listeners are most likely to agree with solemn nods and regretful head shakes.

Provided in such context, the statement offers truth tinged with affection -- an acknowledgement that no matter what we may think of each other, how spattered another's life might be when viewed through our eyes of experience, we still understand that a certain level of respect for a fellow human is warranted. Bloom broke the rule.

SECOND UPDATE: Also worth reading: this post at The (Convoluted) Mind of a Single Man.

THIRD UPDATE: At the Columbia Journalism Review, Kirsten Scharnberg Hampton points out the Atlantic's very weak correction of the misrepresented headline:

But elsewhere in its response to critics, the magazine has broken one of journalism's golden rules: errors should be corrected forthrightly, and with as much fanfare as the original mistake was made. The piece erroneously stated that the state's second-largest newspaper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, ran an Easter Sunday headline in 1994 "splashed across Page One" that read, "He Has Risen." The Gazette has since produced a copy of that front page. The top two headlines are actually about a murder in the state and ethnic cleansing in Croatia, with a small (albeit odd and journalistically inappropriate) box above the fold quoting a Bible verse that includes the words "He is risen."

Rather than simply concede the error, The Atlantic added this note as one of a number of "corrections and clarifications": "A 1994 newspaper headline both Prof. Bloom and his wife recall is different from the one on the edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette unearthed by a reporter for the paper from its archives." But there is no debate here: the story was wrong; no evidence has been presented that the dramatic headline exists. And the fact that Bloom remembers that small box as dramatically as he does perhaps says something about the lens through which he has viewed his adopted home state from day one.

THIRD UPDATE: Here's an example of humorous stereotyping about Iowans: Fat Girls in Des Moines by Bill Bryson.

  • Iowans have been very generous

    in that "Iowa nice" kind of way, but I think there's a lot more going on here that deserves scrutiny.

    The first thing that comes to mind repeatedly is abuse of privilege. It's not about whether he effectively promotes religious tolerance, although I would agree that he does not. He is in a position of power over his students. They will be evaluated, presumably only days or weeks after this lecture. Consider that we know from his reaction to the non-headline in The Gazette that he has strongly negative views on what he believes is a lack of tolerance. Kudos to the red-in-the-face student who spoke her mind in the classroom. He even acknowledges that she's "gutsy," so he clearly understands that this isn't a fair exchange of views.

    More serious is that he misrepresented the headline in The Gazette. Much of what is in this article is not new. From p. 19 of Postville, Google books edition:

    On Easter, the big-city paper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette ran a banner headline:


    Other than being offensive and irrelevant to non-Christians, the headline broke all rules of news judgment that I preached to my students. The event was neither breaking news nor could it be corroborated by two independent sources.

    Sound familiar? This is a staple in his repertoire which has gone unchallenged up until now. He can't let it go because it defines his life's work, his career.

    What arrogance to accuse Iowan critics of "provincialism." Sometimes things get stuck in our minds as larger-than-life. While I don't really consider this an adequate excuse, given his profession of journalism at the flagship institution of the state he is evaluating in his research, I might have been inclined to give him some benefit of the doubt had he thanked the fact-checkers for recalibrating his memory, shall we say. Instead, he has betrayed that he feels so superior to lowly provincial Iowans that journalistic and academic standards simply do not apply. He is exempt.

    My opinion is that he is guilty of academic misconduct, pure and simple. He'll probably be allowed to slip through, largely because there's layers of checks and balances that clearly have failed through the years, whether the Garance Franke-Rutas, book editors, colleagues evaluating manuscripts and drafts, and so on.

    It is, of course, an expression of the breakdown of real tolerance, rigorous scholarship and the maintenance of standards. I routinely tell people, especially people with young children, to spare nothing when it comes to critical evaluation of just about anything that gets served up, whether an assessment of attitudes in post-colonial countries; the status of black families over the past 150 years or what you see with your own lying eyes. Critical thinking and self-reliance is your only weapon in separating the wheat from the chaff.

    • never read that book

      I had no idea he made the same claim. I'm surprised no one from the CR Gazette objected, demanded correction at that time. He would downgrade students who misrepresented a newspaper headline that way.

      • what I find utterly bizarre

        is the following from Postville:

        I also realized that the Hasidim in Postville were as close to family as Iris and I could muster in our new home state.

        Never mind that there's a shul and a synagogue in Iowa City.

        Moses Bloom (1833 - June 14, 1893[1]) was a Jewish American politician, member of both houses of the Iowa General Assembly, and mayor of Iowa City, United States. Various publications name him as the first Jewish mayor of a major American city.

        Good grief, granted, there isn't a large Jewish population in Iowa, but this act of a lone wanderer in the wilderness is a bit much. If needed, couldn't he find friends in Des Moines?

        • Clearly,

          Moses was made of sterner stuff.  

        • my understanding

          is that the U of I Hillel organizes a lot of programming, not just for Jewish students but for anyone Jewish in the Iowa City area. Cedar Rapids has a Reform Temple as well.

  • I just read the commentary

    by the CRG editor + some links I hadn't already seen. Fundamentally, I disagree with his position.

    If this were a comedy routine, sure, you could distill it down to "different views." However, that's not what this is. Bloom clearly presented himself as an expert, an authority, with his twenty years of study and visits to 99 counties, etc. This is his academic stock and trade.

    The magnanimity on display is that of the majority, or dominant culture. It is hollow. It is a disservice to tolerance. It's the easy privilege of deciding what gets a free pass based on being in the majority, not on actual standards of information dissemination.

    When the governor in your state criticizes atheists for beliefs or expressions of freedom from religion, they should not have to depend on the magnanimity of the majority culture to continue doing so. There is something greater at stake.

    • true

      He does present himself as an expert who has immersed himself in his subject. This is from Lynda Waddington's response:

      Interviewing Bloom in the wake of the immigration raid at Postville, he made clear to me he researched the community thoroughly. He never intended to parachute his research, a reference to national political reporters who tend to fly into Iowa for a week or month to "get a flavor" of what the caucus season is really like.

      • His well-known works

        are Iowa-specific: The Oxford Project and Postville. Even if that weren't the case, heck, he's a journalism professor.

        Back when I was in grad school, there was a professor shunned by all. I won't mention name or sub-field as his immediate family is still alive. Back in the day, he rushed to publish a "breaking" piece of research based on experimental results that he didn't vet properly in his haste. It was research of a caliber that would have earned a Nobel had it stood the test of time, but it was promptly debunked by very public peer review.

        He continued to insist that he was right and everyone else was wrong. He started to cultivate an "Einstein look," particularly his hair. He waited every year by the phone before Nobel announcements. It was sad.

        Was the shunning cruel? He made an error. Unfortunately, there is no confidence in the system if those who violate standards are not held accountable in a very public way. That's why professors are awarded tenure, to ensure that they have adequate protection against unjust accusations, but a responsibility to uphold standards comes along with that protection. Bloom considers himself exempt from the latter while claiming that he's a victim of internet vigilantes. I have no respect for him. Man up!

  • Sad...

    It seems in 20 years, Mr. Bloom rarely got out of his home.

    His whole article reeks of untruths and "made up" facts.  To me, as a lifelong is clearly offensive.

    • not the problem

      He visited all 99 counties, but he viewed what he saw through a negative frame. Feeling separate from and superior to Iowa culture seems to be an important part of his identity (note his pride to be seen as an "ethnic interloper").  

    • It clearly is

      But as a 40-year Iowan I choose to not be offended.

      Too much offense being taken these days and too many apologies being demanded. Nothing the guy wrote, and I do agree that apparently he displays some seriously undesirable personality shortcomings, has hurt me or my Iowa-born and raised offspring nor has it affected my feelings about my residence of choice.

      Besides, our Constitution allows some of us to be jerks. Calls from the more conservative for him to lose his job are just dumb.

  • IMHO

    I read his article with a great big yawn, noting to myself many of the errors and inaccuracies in the original piece. It didn't seem particularly well written. I remember thinking "how can this guy be a journalism teacher?" Then, I quickly forgot about it, which I think most people will do.  The piece, and the writer, are of little consequence. Just another self important blowhard from UIowa.

    Consider what the late, great Christopher Hitchens could do with the topic of Iowa !  God bless Hitch, tho I don't think he would sit still for it.  🙂

    • Thoughts

      Bloom is a good writer.  He just clearly wrote this piece to belittle people.  He had an ax to grind at Iowa and he did so.  I am a Keokuk resident and I know my town is dying.  I will say that I've never seen anyone here do meth, I know it is prevalent however. I support Mr. Bloom's First Amendment rights, but I don't think my town needs more people attacking it, we get that from a lovely number of our own citizens.  

      I did not like how he lumped people in with the Obama quote about guns and religion.  I think that alone was just sloppy.  

      • Unfamiliar

        I am not familiar with his previous work, but this piece is not even worthy of one of his undergraduate students. Pretty weak, just from a literary standpoint.  A lot better writers than this guy have taken their shots and have left me entertained.

        I love Iowa river towns, including Keokuk.  They aren't run down - they have character. If you look around, you can see and appreciate their rich history. I guess it all depends on your perspective.  :=)

        • True

          The guy won the Iowa writer of the year award.  I think his lack of effort on this piece may have been due to his anger and just need for attention.

          I have a hard time criticizing the guy who won the Iowa writer of the year award.  I don't think people would take any criticism of this piece seriously, the people who agree with him just sit back and snicker about how uneducated I must be.  It's sort of like criticizing Paul Krugman, how dare you?  He won a Nobel Prize!

          • why?

            so the DSM Public Libraries gave him an award. Pretty standard stuff if you're an academic.

            That's the problem here. Any institution that has issued its vote of confidence is now loathe to scratch the surface.

            You are well-qualified to judge the veracity of the piece.  

            • I went to U of I

              You don't challenge professors period, if you want to survive there.  I realized that and left.  

              • some professors

                sit around waiting for awards and prizes like Iowans waiting to die 😉

                Any professor who isn't enthusiastic about an honest challenge isn't worth a damn. I don't know anything about your specific experience, but it is true that standards are on the decline everywhere.

        • when I lived in the UK

          and told people I was from Des Moines, Iowa, the most common response was to cite Bill Bryson. His book on small-town America was very popular in the UK, and the opening chapter was called something like "Fat Girls in Des Moines." It was full of stereotypes, but he was obviously exaggerating for humorous effect.  

          • I agree

            The Bryson book was well-done...some gentle humor, not mean spirited. No offense meant, and none taken. I enjoy m a good laugh at my own expense.

            That's Bloom's problem...his thing just wasn't that good.  The gay marriage repeal is a pretty big fact error. And I don't care who named him "Iowa writer of the Year".

    • the original piece

      said a referendum to repeal gay marriage is scheduled to be on the ballot. You don't have to follow Iowa politics closely to realize that's not true.  

  • 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."

    • Good show

      Yale, just watched it.

      I'm glad the issue of Iowa taxpayers paying tuition/salary for young Iowans to be taught sloppy journalism by someone who'd already acquired a reputation for same came up.

  • Well...

    I see nobody is asking why Mr. Bloom left his native New Jersey.  How is it that someone from that state would even DARE to toss a stereotype around.  And since I have no evidence for the reason behind Mr. Bloom's departure, let us conjecture.

    Was it due to the stench of the rotting corpses killed by Mafia goons emanating from The Meadowlands?  

    Tell you what, Mr. Bloom, why don't you just go home, toss on a wife beater t-shirt and and hang out on the Jersey Shore with your Guido pals.

    Speaking of which, I'll gladly make a deal with you.  I am sixth generation Iowan, spent the first decade of life on a farm.  I only have a ninth grade formal education, and am a product of the Iowa Public school system.

    Why don't you get Snooki, J-Wow, and the entire rest of the Jersey Shore cast together. Just to be fair,  I'll take them all on in a policy debate singlehanded.  And I will let the audience decide who deserves "First in the Nation" status based on the outcome.  Sound fair?  

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