Friday, December 16, 2011

Taking the Bloom From My Rose

December 16, 2011, 1:55 p.m.

[Since you're interested in this blog entry, you may well find of equal interest two more: "What Do You See . . . When You Look At Iowa?" and "'We're Number One!' What's Your City's Ranking? And Why Rankings Are Silly."]

Another Perspective on Stephen Bloom's Iowa

I'd like to get the Bloom that is Stephen off of the rose that is Iowa.

Stephen G. Bloom is Professor and Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar at the University of Iowa. This year, he is the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America and The Oxford Project (with Peter Feldstein).

That's what he is. He is not, however, what we Iowans call, "Iowa nice."

[Photo credit: Jason Reed/Reuters/The Atlantic.] If one of the jobs of a professor is to promote inquiry and discussion -- the more heated the better -- Stephen Bloom has been hard at work.

Tasked with explaining why Iowa is, or is not, an appropriate state with which to begin the nation's presidential selection process, he chose instead an anti-Iowa screed that never answers the question, but must leave most readers scratching their heads as to what purpose he did have in mind.

It reminds me of the recently popular song with the line, "Someday, I'll be, living in a big old city, and all you're ever going to be is mean." Taylor Swift, "Mean." [Picture of portion of downtown Des Moines, Iowa.]

Stephen G. Bloom,"Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life; Thoughts from a university professor on the Iowa hamlets that will shape the contours of the GOP contest," The Atlantic, December 9, 2011 ("Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state like Iowa should host the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president isn't at issue. It's been this way since 1972, and there are no signs that it's going to change. In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it. Iowa's not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and the state's about to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House because its population is shifting; any growth is negligible. Still, thanks to a host of nonsensical political precedents, whoever wins the Iowa Caucuses in January will very likely have a 50 percent chance of being elected president 11 months later. Go figure.").

It's a mixed bag. Bloom can be a very good writer, some of which pops up in this piece. Some is humorous -- sometimes right on, sometimes way off, sometimes just mean. Most Iowan's are aware of the genuine problems Iowa, and most other states, confront. The Iowa Policy Project, the state's investigative reporters, and numerous policy-oriented nonprofits are on top of most of them. Bloom doesn't offer a lot of data, but of what there is some is accurate, some is not. Mostly it's opinion -- as, indeed, most everything we say, or write is little more than an indication of what's going on inside that electro-chemical sensory processing soup we call our brain. What Bloom's article is not, by my standards, is "journalism" -- which is kind of odd, coming from a journalism professor. I would certainly hope he is not holding it up to his students as an example.

Most disturbing, from a general semantics perspective, is his apparent lack of awareness of the dramatic difference between the non-verbal space-time events of which we are a part and the ways in which our language permits grossly distorted "descriptions" of those events, often in the form of unsubstantiated generalizations.

When we say the view of clustered sky scrapers in an urban environment, mountain range, river valley, ocean, desert -- or, in my case, amateur radio antenna towers -- are "beautiful," that "beauty" is of our own making. It lies inside of us, not in the molecules that make up the physical stuff we're looking at.

There is no "Iowan." There are three million Iowans who are extraordinarily varied in their educations, professions, lifestyle choices, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, and so forth. Moreover, they are each changing over time. For example, to leave the impression that all Iowans are farmers (a) inaccurately represents the state's demographics, when less than 5% can be so classified, (b) conflates "agriculture" in 1930 with "agriculture" in 2011 (as different as newspapers and magazines in 1930 and 2011), and (c) denigrates the intellectual and professional skills required to run a successful agricultural operation during any year.

University of Iowa President Sally Mason has written a response that helps to put Bloom's assertions into perspective. Hopefully, The Atlantic will exercise the good judgment to run it. Sally Mason, "Bloom's caricature misrepresents Iowa and Iowans," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 16, 2011, p. A9 ("Iowans are pragmatic and balanced, and they live within their means. This lifestyle, while not glitzy, is humble and true and can weather the most difficult of times. One’s reputation and word are understood to be his or her most valued attributes. As a result, people cultivate a sense of fairness, cooperation and humility. . . . You also don’t have to look far to immerse yourself in the fine arts. No fewer than seven Iowa communities claim symphony orchestras . . .. When you can boast one of five [UNESCO-designated] Cities of Literature worldwide — and the only one in the United States — you’re in a class all alone.")

There's always the risk that boosters, as well as bashers, may error with their generalizations. Here's one involving myself from a blog in early September of this year:
Walking along downtown Iowa City's Washington Street, following a reception at a restaurant that can match many of those on the coasts, we came upon an amazing piano player, 22-year-old Chase Garrett. He was sitting at a piano kindly placed on the sidewalk by those who thought it would be a nice addition to this community of literature (one of three so designated by the United Nations), theater, music, and creative arts generally.

Here is a direct link to the YouTube location of my video, and a link to Chase's Web site:

It turns out I'm far from the first person to discover this guy and upload his music to YouTube. Put "Chase Garrett" (in quotes) into YouTube search, and you'll see over 100 more.

From there we wandered down the hill to the Iowa Memorial Union (about three blocks). (Another nice thing about Iowa City is that an easy walk can get you to many of the places you want to go. If you're in a hurry you can bike. With time to spare, you can even drive.)

What we found in the main lounge of the IMU was a standing room only crowd, packed to the walls, waiting to hear a free lecture by Robert Reich,, once Secretary of Labor and now University of California, Berkeley, professor of public policy.
"Why Iowa? Chase Garrett and Robert Reich," September 8, 2011.

So what was wrong with what I wrote? A reader's comment added to the blog put it well: "I believe the more proper title question for your article is 'Why Iowa City?' Unless of course you truly believe that your article applies to other places in Iowa. I've lived in Taipei, Singapore, Tehran, Los Angeles, Knoxville, Cleveland, Iowa City, Chicago, and Overland Park, and Iowa City ranks first among them."

I feel the way she does about Iowa City's rank, but she's right about my leap in assigning the benefits of living in a college town like Iowa City with the resources available throughout the state of Iowa. Generalizations and exaggerations can and do run both ways.

Frankly, I don't think it obvious that the state to hold a presidential caucus or primary as first-in-the-nation has to be the "most typical," or "average." But if that's what you want, if that is your standard, Bloom to the contrary notwithstanding, Iowa is it. Michael Lewis-Beck, "Iowa is a Natural for its 'First in the Nation' Role," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 16, 2011, p. 9A ("50 states were rated on 51 important characteristics taken from U.S. Census data. Iowa turns out to be a highly representative state. The characteristics cover a broad range of state life, which we organized under three general factors: Economics . . .. Social Problems . . .. Diversity . . .. First, Iowa falls close to the middle score for the overwhelming majority of the 51 separate measures. Only 12 are not near the middle, and about half of those are positive, representing desirable social conditions. For example, Iowa is below average in poor mental health days, wine consumption and housing prices; well above average in the high school graduation rate and voting turnout.")

Iowa's voting record is also about as representative of the nation as it gets, according to these figures from Gary Sanders:
In November 1992, Iowa voted: Bill Clinton, 43.3 percent; George H.W. Bush, 37.3 percent; Ross Perot, 18.7 percent. In November 1992, the country voted: Clinton, 43.0 percent; Bush, 37.4 percent; Perot, 18.9 percent.

In November 1996, Iowa voted: Clinton, 50.3 percent; Bob Dole, 39.9 percent; Perot, 8.5 percent. In November 1996, the country voted: Clinton, 49.2 percent; Dole, 40.7 percent; Perot, 8.4 percent.

In November 2000, Iowa voted: Al Gore, 48.5 percent; George W. Bush, 48.2 percent. In November 2000,the country voted: Gore, 48.4 percent; Bush, 47.9 percent.

In November 2004, Iowa voted: Bush, 49.9 percent; John Kerry, 49.2 percent. In November 2004, the country voted: Bush 50.6 percent; Kerry 48.1 percent.

In November 2008, Iowa voted: Obama, 53.9 percent; McCain 44.4 percent. In November 2008, the country voted: Obama, 52.9 percent; McCain, 45.6 percent.
Gary Sanders, "Iowa Is a Very Representative State," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 5, 2012, p. A7.

As I say, "average" (however it might be measured) need not be the only Polestar in our quest to find the perfect first-in-the-nation" state, but given Lewis-Beck's research, and Gary Sanders' historic voting data, it's really bizarre, misleading, and potentially dangerous for Bloom to assert, as he does, "In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it. Iowa's not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and . . . any growth is negligible."

I'm not about to assert that Bloom holds racial or other politically-incorrect prejudices. There's no basis for believing he does. However, much of the language structure he uses is analogous to the language of prejudice.

It is simply not a factually or descriptively accurate use of language to characterize "all" of any classification to be this or that. It's just that some such characterizations are more socially acceptable than others. America has a long history of humor, and epithets thrown at the latest immigrants -- Irish, Scandinavian, German, Italian, Polish, Chinese or Japanese. Ditto for religious groups -- Catholics, Jews, and today's Muslims.

Comments about Californians, New Yorkers -- or "Iowa farmers" -- are somehow more acceptable. One can make fun of any group -- and many do: "Ivory tower" academics, "dumb jocks," "greedy bankers," "lying politicians," "dumb blonds."

But all such characterizations are equally inaccurate. There are farmers in California and New York as well as Iowa. And there are corporate CEOs and rocket scientists in Iowa as well as in California. No state is "all" anything; and no identifiable group in any of those states has members that are significantly identical with regard to most characteristics.

I have been in every U.S. state and Canadian province, and probably worked or visited in some 40 countries. I have spent considerable time, or lived, in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Washington, D.C., and London -- among other cities. Although I was born and raised in Iowa, I am now very much an Iowan by choice. (Returning home from D.C. has provided this blog's name: "FromDC2Iowa.") In fact, I have since 1989 literally been living in the very same family home I lived in from 1941-1952.

I mention that because I don't think it's that unusual. In my experience, bi-coastal sophisticates without a midwest background risk a greater degree of parochialism than midwesterners. Both midwesterners and New Yorkers, of comparable socio-economic circumstance, spend time in, and have some understanding of, both coasts and Europe. What many midwesterners also have, and some New Yorkers may lack, is an appreciation of America's "fly over country."

And speaking of "fly over country": at a dinner party in Kuala Lumpur one evening, a New Yorker was telling our Malaysian hosts that there was virtually nothing of worth between our east and west coasts. I reminded her that although our hosts had never visited America, let alone Iowa City, when they found out I was from Iowa City their eyes brightened and their first response was to ask about the University's International Writers Program. (They had not inquired about her Manhattan neighborhood.) I went on to describe the other centers of manufacturing and business, arts and academia, culture and charms of the mid and far western United States.

I look for each region's strengths, not what it doesn't have. When I go to New York I don't complain about the lack of Grant Wood vistas of rolling fields and hills. I don't object to the lack of ocean-front beaches in the middle of desert beauty, nor the lack of mountains on the Florida Keys.

When I finished my seven-year term as an FCC commissioner, the question was what to do next. I knew I wanted to get out of Washington to refresh my sense of the America "outside the beltway." But how to do it?

When asked, we are tempted to advise others to do what we have done. Bill Moyers suggested I should just take a long ride around the country, preferably in a pickup truck with a dog in the back. It was an appealing idea. But on reflection I realized most of the people I'd meet would be the truck drivers and waitresses in restaurants along the road. Besides, I'd made that trip with my wife and daughter during the summer of 1958. I was in the last law school class able to take the bar exam before graduation, and my first clerkship didn't begin until August. So we set off with $19 and a Texaco credit card to visit all the national parks west of the Mississippi.

About that time I got a call from some Democratic Party leaders in Iowa's old Third Congressional District. Long held by the seemingly unbeatable Republican H.R. Gross, the Party could not find anyone willing to run against him. That I would consider it turned me into something of a local hero. That is, until after my announcement Congressman Gross stunned everyone with the announcement that he was not going to run -- following which I was immediately considered a carpetbagger. There are lots of stories about that race to leave for another day.

The point of mentioning it in the context of Bloom's take on Iowa, is the reason why I ultimately decided to do it. The Third District was an almost perfect square of perfectly square counties located in the center of Iowa's boundary with Minnesota. It's attraction to me was that it proved to be a microcosm of America. I could rediscover America by traveling around in relatively small circles in one state, rather than covering the entire continent.

The District had a Latino population around Mason City, an African-American population in Waterloo, and one of the country's few Native American "settlements" (owned by the tribe) rather than reservations. (Its Meskwaki Casino is now doing very well, thank you.) Sure, the District had farms; although many of the husbands and wives who farmed also worked, or even lived, in nearby cities. But it also had young professionals -- lawyers, doctors, architects, and accountants. It had one of the greatest densities of small colleges of any area in the United States. It had the strong Local 828 UAW union, whose members worked at the world's largest tractor factory, and a major meat packing plant.

It was, and the memories always will be, much more representative of what Iowa is, and who Iowans are, than Stephen Bloom's mythical Iowa.

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Harold O.M. Rocha said...

What a great response! I believe it was Lord Acton who said “There are two things which cannot be attacked in front: ignorance and narrow-mindedness. They can only be shaken by the simple development of the contrary qualities.” It is a shame that Prof. Bloom has failed in developing the latter, living for 20 years, as he has, in the great state of Iowa, where the pioneer spirit of our forefathers is alive and well. That alone is reason enough to hold the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president.

Talking With said...

Here’s our show about Bloom’s article:

“Yale talks with four native Iowans about the depiction of them and the state they call home in Stephen Bloom’s scathing and controversial article in The Atlantic Monthly, his motives for publishing it, the response its generated across the state, and its national implications with regards to Iowa’s first in the nation voting status.”

Anonymous said...

Nice article Professor. I was hoping you would do a reply to the Bloom article. Thanks!