Last week, University of Iowa professor and former New Jersey resident Stephen G. Bloom published this essay in The Atlantic, in which he argues that Iowa maybe should not be the political bellwether it is. At least, that’s what he promises to argue. The impending Republican caucuses are the occasion for Bloom’s remarks, but the execution is a series of anecdotes indicting his adopted state and the grim hicks who populate it. An example:
Rural America has always been homogenous, as white as the milk the millions of Holstein cows here produce. Many towns are so insular that farmers from another county are strangers.
Can you imagine living in a town so insular that the people who don’t live in the town are strangers to you? It’s inconceivable, but that’s the kind of uniquely absurd place Iowa is. I should know. Like Bloom, I lived in Iowa for about 20 years, starting around age zero. Those who know me know that I am no booster, and Iowa remains the only place I have ever lived that I didn’t like. I like honesty and clear thinking, though, which is where Mr. Bloom and I diverge. His observations about the state where I grew up paint a startling picture of resentment, provincialism and proud ignorance. Unfortunately, it is a portrait of Stephen G. Bloom. It’s useless as a landscape, since Bloom’s rendering of Iowa oscillates between nonsensical and untrue. First of many after the jump.
The corn grows so fast in Iowa—from seedlings to 7-foot-high stalks in 12 weeks—that it crackles nonstop throughout the summer months. The sound is like popcorn popping slow-motion in a microwave.
Corn does not make a sound as it grows. This sensory detail, which I have not encountered in a lifetime’s traipsing through cornfields, is one of many that Bloom evokes to establish the otherworldiness of Iowa. They’re pretty successful, in that they describe a place like none I have ever seen. As one reads, however, one gets the sense that they describe no place Bloom has seen, either.
Just about everyone wears a hat; farmer’s tan is a condition every Iowan knows—a blanched forehead above a leather-cured face.
As part of the larger project of exempting himself from the category, Bloom cites several concepts “every Iowan” knows which he himself seems to be wrong about. Where I come from—also in every place I have ever been, including Australia—a farmer’s tan is one that covers the arms but not the torso. Bloom is describing a hat tan, or maybe just a tan line.
Such lexical distinctions are ultimately a matter of opinion, though. While Bloom absolutely flubs his local color, the more distressing inaccuracies of his essay address quantitative data and concrete events. Consider his numerous references to Barack Obama’s infamous “cling to guns or religion” comment during the 2008 campaign. He was speaking about small-town Pennsylvania, as he stated explicitly, but Bloom repeatedly presents the remarks as being about the rural Midwest. As a professor of journalism, Bloom knows not to let the truth get in the way of a good story. Perhaps that’s why he confidently offers this recollection of events:
Obama’s comments went over without a second thought, until they wafted back to the Heartland.
Obama’s comments did not go over “without a second thought;” from the moment he made them, they were regarded as one of the most significant blunders of his campaign. But Bloom is a themes guy: he is less concerned with the factual details of a situation than its Larger Meaning. Consider his assessment of why slaughterhouses moved from urban to rural areas in the mid-20th century:
In a fundamental shift in how meat was processed, industry leaders decades ago realized it made more sense to bring meatpacking plants to the corn-fed livestock than to truck livestock to far-off slaughterhouses in expensive cities with strong unions and government regulators poking their noses into the meatpackers’ business. Mobile refrigeration allowed processed meat to be trucked without spoilage.
See, business owners knew they could get around unions and regulation in the good-ol’-boy countryside. Also, refrigerated trucking made it cheaper to transport cut meat than live animals for the first time in history, but whatever. Mostly it was a vague cultural resistance to government oversight. Bloom’s sense of the cultural-political alignment of things is all-encompassing:
You’ll also pass “wind farms,” surreal grassy outposts with row after row of huge white turbines, their blades spinning. It’s the windmill updated, but this time for the masses.
Earlier windmills were the sole province of a wealthy elite—unlike today’s industrial wind turbines, which anyone can own.
But relatively few rural Iowans are employed in the business of wind energy. The bulk of jobs here are low-income ones most Iowans don’t want. Many have simply packed up and left the state (which helps keep the unemployment rate statewide low).
I dare you to make all the words in those sentences mean something. According to Bloom, “the bulk” of jobs in Iowa are, paradoxically, jobs that Iowans don’t want. Normally, the majority of residents refusing the majority of jobs would lead to disastrous unemployment if not mathematical contradiction, but the problem is resolved by people leaving the state. Iowa’s declining population keeps unemployment—oh wait.
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.”
In the same way that Bizarro Superman loves to be sad, people in Iowa venerate the smell of hog feces. I have never heard anyone refer to it as “the smell of money,” but then again, I never saw a mud room until I got to New Jersey, either. I can say that the practice of tracking mud and feces through the house is inexplicably frowned upon by the strange people of my homeland, though.
In Iowa, names like Yoder, Snitker, Schroeder, and Slabach are as common as Garcia, Lee, Romero, Johnson, and Chen are in big cities.
Demonstrably false on the first Google search.
If rural Iowans ever drive on the highway (not much reason to do so, really), they welcome other vehicles accelerating on the entrance ramp, smiling, often motioning with their hand to move on over, as though gently patting the butt of a newborn.
It’s true that in Iowa, people will go to great pains to help you merge onto the interstate. Not that they would have any reason to drive anywhere, except for the one Bloom unwittingly advances a few sentences later:
On summer nights, you can still keep your keys in the ignition and run into the local Casey’s for an Icey or to get a cherry-dipped cone at the DQ one town over.
It’s spelled Icee, by the way. I’m going to give Bloom the benefit of the doubt, since he is a professor of journalism, and say that the many, many other typographical errors and misplaced commas in his essay are the fault of the Atlantic’s copy editors, who apparently did a much worse job correcting this one than they did on all other features in the issue. Stephen Bloom is just a person to whom unusual things happen, and those things are invariably indicative of broader conditions. Take the men who constantly stop him when he is walking his labrador to ask him whether he takes it hunting:
To me, it summed up Iowa. You’d never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball for her to fetch. No, that’s not a reason to own a dog in Iowa. You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat.
I grew up in Des Moines, which makes me a city slicker—a phrase last used in 1963 that Bloom puts in the mouths of several hypothetical Iowans over the course of his report—so that’s probably why almost all the families I knew had dogs they did not use for hunting. To most Iowans, the very notion is inconceivable. Like the delightfully monetary smell of pig shit, a dog is a functional object whose potential for companionship is lost on the neurasthenic Iowan. Iowa is a state where people don’t even love their dogs. It’s so crazy, it almost sounds made up.