A Southern transplant to the Hawkeye State explains the fuss over his article, and the Iowa rules he broke.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Last week, as I was entering a strip-mall clothing boutique, I held the door for a woman I didn’t know. She did a little trot to arrive at the door a fraction of a second earlier, expressed her thanks and then erupted in laughter. In answer to my raised eyebrows she explained: “We had family from Florida for the Thanksgiving holidays and they kept asking us, ‘Why does everyone here hold the door for everyone else?’ I told them that holding doors was just nice and a part of who we are. We like to do little things like that for each other. It’s just respectful.”
I nodded and smiled, understanding exactly the “Iowa nice” point she attempted to explain, probably without success, to her out-of-state guests. After all, I’ve also tried, equally as unsuccessfully, to explain to my out-of-state family the gut-instinct recoil from rudeness or public conflict that plagues Iowans. This seemingly innate quality is no doubt part of the reason why my fellow Iowans are exasperated by a recent article by journalism professor and author Stephen Bloom that graced the website of The Atlantic a few days ago.
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.
Shortly after moving to Iowa, I took a reporting job at a local newspaper. The article announcing my addition to the staff began with the sentence, “When you hear her talk, you’ll know she’s not from around here.” They were referring to my Southern accent. Thus began a series of phone calls that continued for months with each new caller offering me the latest “redneck” joke. (Thank you, Jeff Foxworthy.) I heard them at school board meetings, the police station and once screamed from the other side of Main Street. Often accompanied by hearty back-slaps or chin-chucks, such exchanges marked the foundations of friendships that continue to this day — and sometimes still include a phone call with the latest redneck offering.
Looking back, I guess it would have been easy for me to turn cynical about the unorthodox and consistent community outreach. I was raised by a man who was perhaps the King of Rednecks — a fact well-known to anyone who ever joined him for hunting, fishing or swimming and had caught a glimpse of his blindingly white chest and back, which appeared in stark contrast to the roasted skin of his neck. The youngest of a very large family, I’m convinced that my father had wanted his last child, originally mistaken by my mother for menopause, to be a boy. But he refused to allow the fate of ovaries and breasts to have the last laugh, and chose to carry through with his plans of power tool lessons, snake avoidance in the hen house and long evenings of stink-baited catfishing. Perhaps in his most progressive coup d’etat he taught me girls could do anything boys could do. On good days, I’m convinced I taught him girls could do better.
But my upbringing by the King had not prepared me for life as an Iowan. Although I spent my first Christmas in Iowa dreamily staring out picture windows at the largest snowflakes I’d ever seen, I soon learned those same flakes would be my constant and unwanted companions for weeks on end. Even now, when I see the leaves begin to turn, I first curse them with words of Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage! Rage against the dying of the light!”) and then commence six months of pacing and worry, hoping against all hope that this winter will be different — that maybe I’ll get ambitious and home-school my children (to avoid early morning car starts) or win the lottery and be able to hibernate under sun lamps until April. To date, this hasn’t happened, but since the ground remains sans snow as I type, the dream lives on.
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It was during my first excursion into the town where I would soon become a reporter that I initially learned the extent of the incorporation of politics into daily life in Iowa. Two female state lawmakers — unusual even today in the state — stood in the local town square handing out miniature ice cream cones and discussing policy. What I’ve come to understand in the many years that have followed is that one cannot have an opinion of Iowa and its people without also acknowledging the importance of politics. Maybe it is because of those long, dark winters I so dread — or maybe it is in spite of them — but I’ve yet to meet any person who has lived in Iowa for more than four years who has not enjoyed playing the political ponies or who hasn’t formed strong opinions on one or more public policy topics.
In Iowa, more than any other state except maybe New Hampshire, “think globally, but act locally” isn’t just a catch phrase. Those are words to live by. Residents understand that politics ranging from the local park board to the White House are symbiotic relationships that impact us all. Bloom would like the nation to believe that his “observations” of life in Iowa aren’t a direct assessment of the Hawkeye State’s status as first-in-the-nation political stomping ground. For those counting, that is strike two against Bloom.
It is not possible to offer an assessment of anything in the state — agriculture, immigration, religion, education, etc. — without also acknowledging and including the political ramifications. Young men and women from rural America, which comprises nearly all of Iowa, have disproportionately served and died as members of our armed forces. Bloom correctly notes that suicide rates in rural areas are higher than in urban centers and that behavioral health services (as well as other specialized health care) are not readily available, a subject I researched for more than a year while working as a political reporter. He does not note, however, that rural advocates, as part of an Iowa-centric regional hub, advocated and won approval for a rural emergency hotline service as a part of the Farm Bill. Although the hotline, which many believed would save hundreds of lives, came with a price tag of less than 1 percent of the total Farm Bill appropriations, it was never funded. Members of Congress saw the need for the program, but never carried through.
Other significant rural dirty laundry is aired as a part of Bloom’s report. For instance, the immigration raid at a Postville meatpacking plant, which I also covered, was a stain on Iowa and brought to light massive exploitation that was largely ignored by elected officials of all levels. He notes that river cities, once abuzz with trade, are now searching for new opportunities. Yet he fails to tell readers that the plant has reopened under new ownership and that some river cities, like Dubuque, are hard at work to revitalize their port areas. (In addition to two of the casinos Bloom despises, Dubuque boasts a riverboat museum, an arboretum and botanical gardens, a resort with an indoor waterpark and, among other things, an absolutely stunning, $30-plus million renovated luxury hotel.)
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. Until I read Bloom’s most recent observations, I thought longevity was a fairly good standard — that those who are part of a community or longer-term residents of a state should be the most trusted sources of information. I still believe there is much truth to that perception, but I now also believe length of term isn’t enough. Dignity, respect, a sense of humor and a bit of humility are necessary to make a place home.
I don’t enter my house by way of a mudroom. Neither do my farming friends who live alongside a gravel road several miles off a state highway. No one has ever asked if my Iowa-born Shih Tzus hunt, although maybe that says more about my breed choice than my neighbors. I’ve yet to hear the Iowa corn growing so fast that it pops, but maybe I’ve just never listened. I’ve interviewed many small town Iowans who are desperate to bring their youngsters back home, and some that are in the planning process of making it happen. While I know many western Iowans who do not agree with ever-inflammatory U.S. Rep. Steve King, they cannot deny the Washington pork he provides is beneficial. I’ve been in the room as national politicians spoke of conflict in the Middle East in one breath and in the next auctioned off an apple pie or their necktie. There is no denying that the majority of Iowa Republicans identify as evangelical, but there is also no denying the smaller and getting-more-vocal minority that is pushing back.
My adoptive home state reminds me in many ways of my redneck father and his feminist streak. It contradicts and, at times, offends. It’s a way of life trying desperately to sustain itself and justify its own existence. It is battling against national stereotypes that no longer apply while facing newer and much more lethal challenges. It’s picturesque scenes of idyllic farms and country roads glimpsed through a car window. It’s everyone believing they know who and what you are before they go fishing with you and the shirt comes off.
As Professor Bloom admits in his own writings, he never took up fishing. Bless his heart.
This column by Lynda Waddington was originally published by The Atlantic on Dec. 16, 2011.