Should Iowans play kingmaker in selecting our president?
I don't know the answer, but it's a good question.
After all, Iowa's a landlocked state in flyover country and neither its population nor economy reflect the rest of the nation. That's the starting point of Stephen Bloom's controversial article in The Atlantic, in which the one-time city slicker turned University of Iowa journalism professor digresses into a portrait of shotgun-wielding, Jesus-crazed, demolition derby-loving hicks who are too dim-witted to step into the 21st century. He does so mistaking "education" for "educated."
"Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that 'The sun'll come out tomorrow,'" Bloom writes in one of many descriptions in his attempt to explain "what Iowa is."
Bloom's take is all the more pertinent with the Iowa caucuses just three weeks away. The article hasn't only painted the worst possible picture of Iowans, it's also brought out the worst in Iowans.
Not surprisingly, the reaction has been harsh and swift. Readers, though, are going beyond tearing down characterizations and tearing right into Bloom, a 20-year resident of Iowa City, in the article's comment section, on Facebook and Twitter and in blogs.
Bloom told one reporter he has received "frightening" feedback and fears for his family's safety. He shared this email he received with Patch:
YOU SOB --- what is your problem -- if you dislike IOWA so much -- get your ass out. Someone in your position should not be speaking the way you do about the state so many of us love. A lot of us have risked our lives and some have given their lives so you talk that way. But that doesn't mean we won't kick your ASS in front of all your family if you keep it up.
A fellow UI professor left this on Bloom's Facebook page: "I always thought you were a huge (expletive) ... but your Atlantic piece sunk my opinion of you further -- and I didn't think it could get that low. Go (expletive) yourself, you smug, self important jerk."
That reputation as the "self important jerk" has trailed Bloom, along with his status as a successful author, at least since the days when he was my journalism professor, seven years ago. He still lives less than a mile away from me and we bump into each other on occasion.
I remember learning from Bloom that "a journalist comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable." The idea still resonates with me. He gave a response that echoed that sentiment to a Des Moines Register reporter about the Atlantic article.
"It raises uncomfortable truths rarely discussed -- but truths that absolutely need to be discussed no matter how difficult it may be to do so," he said.
Journalists sometimes take liberties by generalizing smaller details to explain a broader idea even if it is not absolutely true in all cases. And, sometimes, we take solace in knowing we are reporting a truth, even if it's not popular, even if we become the "self important jerk."
We are also trained to use our power of the pen to paint an accurate, fair picture.
As a journalist and a transplant who has lived in Iowa, by choice, for the past 10 years after growing up in New Hampshire, many of Bloom's descriptions don't ring true. Some aren't just off; they're offensive. It's hard to imagine anyone spending significant time in Iowa and observing Bloom's prevailing norms.
"Casseroles (canned tuna or Tatertots) and Jell-O molds (cottage cheese with canned pears or pineapple) are what to bring to wedding receptions and funerals." No.
People shouting, "Do much hunting with the b--ch?" from their pickup as you walk your dog down the street? Not in my 10 years in Iowa, and I walk my dog near Bloom's house.
Friday night dates at a "Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby." How about dinner and a movie?
Bloom sought extreme examples. He found them. He wanted a reaction. He got it. Largely because of the outcry the article has gone, dare we say, viral. It is the most popular item on the Atlantic website and has some 850 comments. My Facebook feed has been hijacked with repostings and commentary -- some articulate and plenty of unabashed fury and petty name calling -- since the article first started circulating last Friday.
Bloom certainly did no favors to his neighbors in describing Iowa in his way to the rest of the nation. Describing Iowa girls as "hardy"? Come on. I remember Bloom proudly telling us students about calling a woman in his Postville book "handsome." He enjoys riling people up, and The Atlantic is devouring the buzz.
Last I checked, it's a free country, and Bloom has the right to state his observations in building to the final reveal: "How screwy it is that a place like Iowa gets to choose -- before anyone else -- the person who may become the next leader of the free world?"
The unfortunate thing is the article was supposed to stir debate: Should Iowans have such an influential role in presidential politics? Instead, Bloom's credo of raising "truths that absolutely need to be discussed" is lost in a debate about what points he missed and by how much.
People are rightfully angry, and have rightfully challenged Bloom. (The Atlantic has already issued several corrections and removed "Clinging to Guns and Religion" from the rest of the headline: "Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life.")
Iowans, though, haven't entirely helped themselves. Backlash is one thing. Personal threats are another. If you feel Bloom stooped low in writing his article, why meet him there in responding? One of the best arguments for Iowans having the first caucuses in the nation is the reasonable, level-headed people who live here. This episode hasn't showcased that from Bloom nor from many Iowans.
B.A. Morelli is an associate regional editor for Patch in Eastern Iowa.
Cross-posted from Iowa City Patch.