Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life - A Different Take on the Same State

University of Iowa Professor Stephen Bloom wrote an article for the Atlantic online last week that has scores of Iowa natives up in arms. The professors inflammatory words about the state that boasts the first Republican primary in a matter of weeks have created quite the cacophony among bloggers, facebookers, and Iowans of all make, model, and color.

As an Iowan this article has sent me through various stages of anger, defensiveness, acceptance, and dismissal.

I will admit that many of the things said in this essay are completely true. The problem lies in the fact that Bloom paints some of Iowas best qualities with a broad stroke of disdain, mirth, and condescension.

In the end, it is an essay meant to play on the same age old stereotypes that Meredith Wilson caricatured in The Music Man. Wilson simply tells a more compelling story, and does it to music. So I have settled on a reaction of dismissal, choosing to understand the piece for what it is - one mans opinion.

That being said, there is one line that I can't look past:

"Considering the state's enormous political significance, I thought this would be a good time to explain to the geographically challenged a little about Iowa, including where Iowa is, and perhaps more importantly, in both a real and metaphysical way, what Iowa is."

This phrase claims to provide an authoritative opinion of the state to the more than five million online readers of the Atlantic. Arguably most of those readers will take the authors one dimensional view of the Hawkeye state at face value, and that realization saddens me, as there is so much more to my home state than what Professor Bloom so starkly depicts. I tried to identify the specific elements of the essay that didn't sit well with me, but then I realized that there were too many to address individually.

So I'd like to offer an alternative view to balance the article in the Atlantic. While many fewer citizens of our nation will ever view my thoughts, I feel that the positive attributes of Iowa should be represented.

It's not a Hawkeye or a Redbird, It's a Cyclone

Bloom goes on and on about how all Iowans care about is University of Iowa and hunting. But while the good professor is engulfed in Big 10 fanaticism, he fails to mention the westerly neighbor University in the little town of Ames.

Iowa State University, beyond having several commendable sports programs, is a power-house of academic prowess. ISU ranks in the top 100 US universities, and boasts a top programs in  Engineering and Veterinarian sciences. Add in the obvious superiority in the agricultural sector, and the impact of Iowa State University is hardly to be ignored.

Plus, the Cyclones are obviously superior to the Hawkeyes, as is evident in their recent grid-iron match up.
The Creative Streak

The article in the Atlantic highlighted the unfortunate intellectual exodus that has occurred in Iowa throughout recent decades, leaving a gap that has been filled with meth-heads and Slaughterhouse-employed illegal immigrants.

While these elements may tarnish the good name of Iowas workforce, there are several Iowans who have reached national and international acclaim in recent years. Here's a short list of familiar folks from Iowa:

Brandon Routh, Actor - Played Superman and Clark Kent in the 2006 version of Superman Returns, as well as the vegan super-phenom Todd Ingram in the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.

Kurt Warner, Quarterback - Super Bowl Champion and MVP while chucking pigskins for the St. Louis Rams. From one of those scuzzy riverside towns that Bloom refers to in his article.

Elijah Wood, Actor - Known for his vertically challenged role in Lord of the Rings, as well as scores of other notable portrayals, including the brain-numbingly brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

William Elliot Whitmore, Singer/Songwriter - Internationally acclaimed as an Americana and Folk singer. Independent musician, ardent libertarian, and true free spirit.

Ashton Kutcher, Actor - Famous for his role on That 70's Show and his relationship with Demi Moore. He has also recently usurped Charlie Sheen's iconic position as leading man on Two and a Half Men and has starred in several mildly successful films.

Ron Livingston, Actor - Famous for the lead in the 1999 cult nerd classic, Office Space, as well as a number of other sleeper classics.

These are only a handful of notable Iowans who've gained fame in recent years. Going back further includes names such as John Wayne, George Gallup, Herbert Hoover, Donna Reed and Glen Miller. Iowa is also the fictional birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise, for what that is worth.

A Neighborly Nod

I remember riding alongside my grandfather in his beat up old pickup truck, and wondering why, as we'd pass another car or truck, he'd lift his gnarled hand off the top of the steering wheel. I noticed it time and time again, and as I grew older, I realized that this was an unwritten rule of automotive courtesy among farmers in our community. Even as I travelled back to Iowa this past weekend, the same simple sign of acknowledgement was shared on gravel roads and highway blacktops. It is a simple gesture, but the farmer wave is a testament to a greater sense of wizened courtesy that is lost in more densely populated areas. It seems that drivers in bigger cities are so focused on their destination, their phone, or their all important selves that they don't notice that they are sharing the roadways with other humans. When someone lets me into their crowded lane, I am sure to wave a hand of thanks in their direction, but seldom is that gesture returned when I allow a driver to move before my car. It is as if there is a sense of entitlement among city drivers, that they deserve that spot, so there is no need to humble themselves by wasting excess energy on a tiresome wave.

But the wave is a sign that, although one might be in a hurry, they are not so rushed as to discredit the needs of those around them.

Starry Night, Harvest Moon

Every time I go back home, I get lost in the inky black sky that hangs above Iowas twilight. My wife will walk outside to find me standing perfectly still, my head rolled back, chin pointing straight up into the atmosphere. I crane my neck to see every sparkling diamond, and get lost in the depth of that breathtaking menagerie of galaxies and planets.

Couple that with the sight of a blood red moon creeping through the atmosphere and over the cornfields on a sultry August night, and you'll understand the beauty of Iowa. It is the simple natural beauty of this sky that I often miss the most while I am in the smog-laden city. A general orange haze lurks above head, never revealing the beauty that I know lies beyond. This haze has yet to reach the majority of Iowas skies, and with any luck, it'll stay that way.

Iowa Stubborn Work Ethic

My grandfather is seventy five years old. Despite being a decade past the age that most people retire, my grandfather still works from seven to seven, with few exceptions. No, he does not work quite as fast as he used to, and his eyes are not nearly as clear as they once were, but he refuses to let the physical restrictions that have landed upon him define his work ethic. While in college, I spent summers working for my grandfather, and though he had fifty years on me, the man was still harder, stronger, and quicker witted than I could ever hope to be.

This work ethic was born out of necessity. Agricultural life is hard, and does not always yield a strong return on investment, which leaves a brutal toll on the body. Even though many young Iowans are not returning to the farms where they began, they are carrying with them that same work ethic that their fathers and grandfathers instilled into them. The result is that Iowa yields strong, sharp, hardworking young people who realize that they are the only ones who are responsible for their lives. In an age of entitlement and handouts, this is a rare commodity.

False Start or Stark Reality

Bloom argues that Iowa is a poor litmus test for the national political climate. He cites the unemployment levels, a depressed economy, and an influx of immigration as a few of the reasons that Iowa should not be counted the first-blood arena of our presidential contest. But in a nation that is seeing stagnant job growth, beleaguered spending, and an ever growing ethnic diversity, I see all of these elements as simply a microcosm of the greater national stage. He mentions that the Western half of the state is largely Republican, while the Eastern half leans Democratic. Two party deadlock? Sounds like a familiar narrative. There may be dissimilarities when compared to coastal states, but what state would better represent the entire nation? I would argue none, which would mean that Blooms entire thesis is moot.

In the end, Iowa has it's fair share of problems. But if anyone is equipped to persevere through this troubling time, it is the hard working people of Iowa. For that reason, I am confident in my home-states ability to carry on.



  1. Here’s our show about Bloom’s article:

    “Four native Iowans talk 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.”


  2. Another great post, Chris!
    And may I add that this year's CNN hero of the year is a midwife from Fairfield, Iowa who serves poor women and families in Indonesia, and Ina May Gaskin, also a midwife, is a leading advocate of maternal health and normal, gentle birth is originally from the Marshalltown area.