12 idiotic statements about Iowa by Stephen G. Bloom

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.

38 Comments

  1. On blast. T’was a joy to read. I’d just question the year you date “city slicker” with since I’m sure you’re aware of this: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101587/

    How about the idea that Iowa has the ability to distort national politics, though? Definitely worth talking about, albeit with less invention than Bloom.

  2. I dislike this articles for two reasons:
    1) I agree with Dan that Prof. Bloom’s facts are, well, not factual.

    2) Nowhere does Bloom make any point, pro or con, for the validity of Iowa’s place in national politics. Besides trying to paint Iowa as a bunch of hicks. This country is a crazy mix of different cultures, regions, proclivities, mental problems, et al. Just because Iowa is all mostly partially rural hick isn’t a valid counterpoint.

  3. Is there a chance Bloom wrote this as agitprop? To get the clowns who keep re-electing Steve King to holler back like stupid hicks, and therefore prove his point?

  4. In fairness to Mr. Bloom, None of us are “typical” Iowans. Dan and I grew up in a very PC West Des Moines and left. Pete went to the Mararishi High School – Tim, I don’t know much about your upbringing, but was it “typically’ Iowan? i know that using the word “typical” is problematic, but I think we can all lower our defenses and agree that a “typical” Iowan would look nothing like either of us. Also, we should probably all admit that there is a very real conservative, fundamentalist, rural element of Iowa that we all have spent our entire lives distancing our selves from in many not so explicit ways.

    Are we sure we aren’t just being “typical” Iowans and being overly defensive? If Mr. Bloom is to be beleived, he’s likely visited more farmhouses than I have. Certainly he has approached Iowa and Iowans with a more investigative eye than me, a young boy who was generally in search of Burger King, wah-wah pedals and Magic cards.

  5. Tim – I grew up poor in Dubuque, but obviously escaped that and worked my way through the UI.
    I moved back to Iowa 3 years ago, and I feel Iowans mostly resemble the casseroles that we supposedly all take to church suppers: a mishmash of whatever’s around, but ends up surprisingly good and better than the sum of its parts.

  6. But Bloom isn’t to be believed. Nearly all of the specific items he posits in his article are false. The rest hide behind the passive voice or great journalistic standbys such as “some say” and “most.”

    He’s wrong on the role of the Iowa caucuses in the 2008 election, he’s wrong on the prospects of gay marriage being overturned in Iowa, he’s wrong on the number of cows in Iowa, he’s wrong on Obama’s remarks and their response, he’s wrong on the numbers of turkeys and pigs, he’s wrong on pig shit being known to “one and all” as the smell of money, and it sounds like he is wrong on the headline of the Gazette.

    What is one non-trivial fact he is right on in his entire piece?

    So Bloom gives us no reason to give credence to any of his analysis. But he gives us plenty of reason to distrust him.

    It is worse to “investigate” something without disciplined methodology or professional ethics than to not investigate at all. Bloom pretends to an expertise he either lacks or doesn’t employ, but most readers will assume he is right. He is engaged in cultural colonialism, living among the natives so he can savage the way they live with perceived authority.

  7. A writer may be greatly assisted on the road to publishing by writing about his/her experiences in an exotic or bygone locale. Bloom has apparently employed this technique in order to get published in The Atlantic.

    He should also send Bill Bryson a basket of fruit.

  8. Well, according to Mr. Bloom, the “typical” Iowans are the ones who still farm. And there are fewer and fewer of those. I grew up on the edge of a small town. Two streets past mine, it turns into corn fields. And I hardly knew anyone growing up who’s family farmed. Those times are gone. It’s mostly factory, corporate farms now. I get the impression Mr. Bloom’s definition of what constitutes “typical” is based on his ideas of what the “essence” of Iowa is. It’s a farming state, so only those people still involved in farming truly represent it, numbers aside. Statements like “Almost every Iowa house has a mudroom” make clear that he’s confusing facts with a storyline, as Dan says.

    There should be a term equivalent to Orientalism for this sort of portrayal of the non-coastal states. Midwesternism? Hicksterism? It gets done a lot, and not just to Iowa. What’s strange about this is that this guy spent 20 years in Iowa City. It sounds like he’s pandering to the folks back home in Jersey, where life is pretty much exactly like a Springsteen song. I mean, for the “typical” Jersey kids, anyway.

  9. According to the census data I could dig up on Google, the “typical” Iowan lives in a urban area. The numbers I found showed that we aren’t all that far off from the US demographics when it comes to urban and rural population distribution (Iowa is ~60/40 and the US is ~70/30). Somehow I don’t think it would be helpful for proving his point, but it’s pretty much essential information for an essay like this.

    He says he’s been to all 99 counties and spent lots of time studying rural Iowa, but he fails to point out that means he spent 20 years studying the minority of Iowans. It’s also quite clear he did a very bad job of it if he believes people asking about him using his dog for hunting is a passive aggressive jab at why he’d own a dog rather than an ice breaking mechanism to start a friendly conversation.

    One of the few things in the article about the political power Iowa has that he did include is that about half the state leans right and the other half leans left, which seems to be a pretty good reason for Iowa having the political power that it does.

    The statement about the corn crackling becasue it grows so fast is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. Also, farmers wear hats for a reason. If he’d actually been studying rural Iowa for 20 years he’d know that. I figured it out after 20 minutes in a field. It’s like condemning Iowans for wearing coats when it’s cold out.

  10. Bloom is 100% correct on every point. Nothing to see here. Move along. Please continue to refer to us as a ‘flyover state’ and go with the stereotype farmer when you think of us.

  11. I’m actually from the part of Iowa that one would expect resemble Bloom’s claims if there was any truth in them (i.e. a town of about 5000 in the rural western part of the state), and although I might myself be not a “typical Iowan” I obviously knew plenty of them, including many actual farmers. I even detassled! These credentials obviously entitle me to make a judgment, and I say Bloom’s article was no more true of rural western Iowa than of West Des Moines or Fairfield.

    But the article was not stupid solely because it was inaccurate. It doesn’t matter whether the Atlantic’s subscribers come away believing that Iowans seldom drive on the highway. They only ever even think about Iowa for a few months every four years. I think it’s a bad article because of the David-Brooksian conceit the best way to understand people is to (mis)understand a random selection of cultural ephemera. Based on my own experience I have to say bow-hunting and the subtle significance of a new pickup truck are way less important to decoding the culture of rural Iowans than the intense homophobia of students at Iowan high schools, or the way that some people will get very angry because they heard someone speaking Spanish. These topics aren’t as cute as the ones Bloom chose, however.

    Speaking of which, my favorite passage was his shout-out to the proverbial Iowan lust for “Red Waldorf Cake,” which left me deeply confused until I searched Google and found that it is apparently an idiosyncratic regional nickname for red velvet cake, referring to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. I just think it’s interesting to talk about a dessert that everybody in Iowa supposedly loves, meanwhile referring to it by a name that I don’t think any Iowan has ever used.

  12. Thanks for writing this, Dan. As a lifelong Iowan, this guy’s article bugged me, and you hit a lot of the points I saw (the crackling corn story is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard.).

    I promise some Iowans refer to hog manure as “the smell of money.” It’s a silver lining type of statement, as in “that hog manure odor stinks, but at least it means someone is making money.” I also promise hog odor is not absolutely venerated among Iowans. In fact hog lot regulation is a major political issue in Iowa precisely because of the smell. Prof. Bloom must have missed that in his 20 years in the state.

  13. I’d seen an FB link early this morning by my amused cousin ( who now resides in NYC) regarding Bloom’s delusional article. Another person posted your blog retort. Very much enjoyed your highlights on Bloom’s creative “non”-fiction. I leave with this, Bloom must be jockeying a run for President soon, knowing his career as truth-sayer is on the brink of failure. ~

  14. I almost cackled with delight as I read every word of your wonderful retort! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Take that, Bloom!

  15. I grew up in CT and moved to Iowa City five years ago. I really don’t like living in Iowa. That said, Bloom’s article was the worst thing I’ve ever read in the Atlantic. It seems like no claim can be too broad or have too little support.

    And he can’t even keep his own bullshit straight. At one point, he refers to every town on the Mississippi as a scuzzy, crime-infested hell hole. Then later he says that the worst crime in most Iowa towns is TPing someone’s house…

  16. More inconsistency:

    “There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen.”

    “You can’t drive too far without seeing a sign for JESUS or ABORTION IS LEGALIZED MURDER.”

    I know for a fact that the JESUS signs I’ve seen are large, green, and not hand-drawn!

    And I’ve never seen a semen sign. It’s a pretty funny line though.

    It seems like it should be satire when he criticizes our lack of ostentation, but I really don’t think it is. Maybe that’s because I’m an Iowan? Is it ridiculous NOT to wave money in other people’s faces?

  17. I’ve lived in Dubuque Iowa all my life… And this stuff is mostly true… There used to be a meat packing plant here, and Dubuque pretty much smelled like shit, but we called that “the smell of money” my dad did say that and I do often walk down to DQ, and get a Dilly Bar… The one by my house has really good fries and it’s like a bucket of fries… And that’s how I order it… Can I get a bucket of fries? It’s closed for the winter though… Man, I’m hungry now… Those fries are cheap too for the amount of fries you get…

  18. An Atlantic commenter fack-checking Bloom’s ass about the He is Risen headline. For a guy with only a BA and a full prof. gig, he’s pretty snotty about biting the hands that feed him.

  19. “The smell of money” is a phrase that used to be used (by my great-grandfather). You know, back when raising hogs actually generated a profit. No one in our family uses it anymore unless we’re driving past a hog confinement, complaining about the smell, and one of us reminisces that great-grandpa used to say it smelled like money.

  20. His article certainly didn’t paint anything remotely resembling the Iowa I know. I’m from Corydon, which is a small town (right around 1,500 people), and almost none of his stereotypes apply. Especially the one about farmers from different counties being strangers. That’s the biggest crock I think I read in the entire story. At least in southern Iowa, it’s hardly insular like that. You know plenty of farmers from neighboring counties.

    I had a class with Bloom last fall, and he was every bit the pompous, elitist ass he comes off as in this article.

  21. Oh! My comment appeared on your blog, I thought it had been eaten. You should know that I slightly revised it and posted it again, to see if it would somehow breach a spam filter with minor modifications to grammar and word choice, so there’s probably another almost identical post lodged in your wordpress pipes.

  22. As a native Iowan, well done.

    I’m just lucky I was able to comprehend it all. Reading is difficult for most Iowans.

  23. As someone who lived in Iowa for a number of years, I agree with every one of your points. Also, Bloom clearly never drover an hour on I-80 just to get a Starbucks or go to a Real Mall. Just two of many, many reasons why this rural resident doffed my hat, shined up my John Deere, and trekked across my corn fields to mingle amongst those big city folk.

  24. Bloom suffers from the delusion that living in Iowa City is somehow the same as living elsewhere in the state, as though working at a Big Ten university is the same as making one’s way as a farmer of a 1000 acres.

  25. I’m reminded of a story I heard many years ago:

    A Boston matron meets a young girl from the midwest.

    “Where are you from?” asks the matron.

    “Iowa,” the girl replies.

    “Here in Boston,” says the matron, “we pronounce it O-HI-O.”

  26. thank you for your comments. You have done a great job of taking a close look at Bloom’s facts.

    I might add that Bloom has no foggy notion about why meatpacking plants located in rural areas. Had he done his homework he would have found: livestock producers in the 1960s began to sell directly to the meatpacker and the meatpacker located plants closer “to the supply.” Building new meat plants had to do with,among other things, transportation. When meat companies perfected the concept of boxed meat (breaking carcuses into primal and subprimal cuts) at the source of supply….it added value here (in Iowa and other states)…provided jobs here. It had nothing to do with hiding from the USDA or labor uinions. I refer you to the success of IBP,inc….now part of the Tyson Foods family. Today, BPI, inc.(a family owned business headquartered in Dakota Dunes, SD) continues to add value and jobs in “rural” America by further dissecting the product for the consumers table.

    Again, too bad Bloom didn’t check his facts! And he teaches!

  27. This guy is nothing but a assinine city-folk prick. Living in Iowa is one of the best places to live. I am proud of living in a state filled with corn and guns. He doesn’t even understand the outdoor world and why we Iowans do what we do.

  28. It is unfortunate that I will never have the opportunity to meet stephen g bloom..cuz I know i won’t be seeing him in heaven ;) #DirtyFuck

  29. The hubris exhibited by Bloom and some making comments here closely resembles “the smell of money”, if you take my meaning. Please, continue to confine your half-vastly (best appreciated if said aloud) superior selves to the east and left coast megalopolises and don’t worry your very full heads about the absurd primates in between.

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