Want to piss off a whole state of people on the eve of a big media day? Do what University of Iowa Professor Steve Bloom did, and write an article called “Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life” that basically paints the state of Iowa as old, poor, undereducated, culture-challenged, backwoods, alcoholic, and white. The result of the Atlantic piece was so upsetting to so many Iowans that even a University representative said that Bloom’s words didn’t represent the institution.
What did he say? Here’s some examples:
Insular Iowa is also home to the most conservative, and, some say, wackiest congressman in America, Republican Rep. Steve King, who represents the vast western third of the state. Some of King’s doozies: calling Senator Joe McCarthy a “hero for America”; comparing illegal immigrants to stray cats that wind up on people’s porches; and praying that Supreme Court “Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsberg fall madly in love with each other and elope to Cuba.” Keith Olbermann named King not only the worst congressman in the U.S., but the Worst Person in the World six times.
Considering the above, not just a few Iowa heads turned when a District Court in Des Moines in 2007 declared same-sex marriages legal. Iowa, at the time, was the second state in the U.S. to allow gays to marry each other, a decision the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld two years later. In retaliation, Iowa conservatives in 2010 mounted a successful campaign to oust three of the justices who ruled on behalf of same-sex marriage. Marriage between two same-sex people is legal in Iowa for now, but may not be for long. So far, Democrats have blocked a statewide referendum on the issue (Dems hold sway in the Iowa Senate 26-24), but if Republicans take control of the Senate, gay marriage could — and likely would — be repealed.*
I live in Iowa City, a university town 60 miles west of the Mississippi, along Highway 80 (known as The Interstate to younger Iowans, just The Highway to older Iowans). Eighty is America’s Main Street, bisecting Iowa, connecting the hallowed-out middle of Corpus Americana to the faraway coasts. Granted, I’m a transplant here, and when I lit out almost two decades ago for this territory, I didn’t quite know what to expect. The first day I arrived from San Francisco, wandering about Iowa City during spring break, billed as a bustling Big Ten University town, I kept wondering, “Where is everyone?” I thought a neutron bomb had gone off; there were buildings but few, if any, people.
Today, I still not quite sure what I’d gotten myself into. I’ve lived in many places, lots of them foreign countries, but none has been more foreign to me than Iowa.
Rules peculiar to rural Iowa that I’ve learned are hard and fast, seldom broken: Backdoors are how you always go into someone’s house. Bar fights might not be weekly occurrences, but neither are they infrequent activities. Collecting is big — whether it’s postcards, lamps, figurines, tractors, or engines. NASCAR is a spectator sport that folks can’t get enough of. Old-timers answer their phones not with “hello,” but with last names, a throwback to party-lines. Everyone’s phone number in town starts with the same three-digit prefix.
The second paragraph about same-sex marriage gained the greatest number of comments because it appears in the first paragraph of the article. For example:
I think you need to see Iowa City before you pretend to know everything about Iowa and same-sex couples. Though Iowa City is, of course, hardly representative of Iowa as a whole.
I’d agree that Iowa City is representative of Iowa as a whole, but rural Iowa isn’t quite the stereotype Bloom has made it out to be.
Overall, Bloom’s getting his hat handed to him, but the article’s really only giving an honest view of what I call the seeds of economic decline: disinvestment. The young leaving Iowa in droves, along with traditional manufacturing jobs. What’s coming in its place is a diverse Asian college population, mostly from China if the article is to be believed, that may hold the key for Iowa’s future. For all of Bloom’s commentary, I could not get over the idea that there had to be a lot of cheap land there. That, and the University system, is a great foundation to attract existing tech firms and start new ones. From what Bloom wrote, I don’t see Iowa as dead, but as changing, and to something that looks more like California, for better or worse.