The blunt professor vs. Iowa

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2011 - 2:08 PM

As the GOP primary nears, an Iowa professor unleashes a verbal assault on Iowans.

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Headlines blared about Iowan fury over the backward, gun-toting, anti-intellectual, narrowly religious way a journalism professor at the University of Iowa depicted them in a recent issue of the Atlantic magazine.

Even before I read the story, I knew the professor to be Stephen Bloom. He’s an East Coast Jew whose stellar narrative writing skills graced the pages of the Los Angeles Times before he turned from newspapering to teaching.

“I’ve lived in many places, lots of them foreign countries, but none has been more foreign to me than Iowa,” he wrote in the Atlantic piece, “Observations from 20 years of Iowa Life,” a backdrop to the upcoming GOP presidential primary.

Bloom first described the culture shock he felt after moving to the Hawkeye State in his 2000 book “Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.” It spotlighted a tiny Iowa hamlet where East Coast Hasidic Jews moved to town and opened a kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant.

That business, Agriprocessors, eventually became the largest provider of kosher meat in the United States. In 2008, it was also the site of the largest federal workplace raid in U.S. history, leading to hundreds of arrests and a storm of controversy over immigration — a matter I interviewed Bloom about back then.

Bloom, who isn’t Hasidic, nonetheless related to the tensions that its Jewish community felt settling in Iowa. He, too, had felt like an outsider, describing unfriendly neighbors and assuming their coldness was due to his Jewishness.

The Atlantic piece goes further and, to Iowans, reads like two decades of repressed anger unleashed. Bloom describes the state’s Mississippi river towns as “some of the skuzziest cities” he’s been to, furthering the insult by adding “and that’s saying something.”

He writes that “those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth.”

Ouch.

And, in his mind, Iowans simply have no use for dogs, except for hunting. “You’d never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog …,” he wrote. “You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat.”

As someone who grew up in a small town on the Missouri side of Iowa, I cringed when I read Bloom’s words. His tone is often pompous or just plain mean. While he was spot on about some of the warts of rural life, his condescension relies on unflattering, exaggerated stereotypes of Midwesterners.

My hometown is not unlike many of the Iowa towns Bloom visits. There are people who hunt and people who don’t. While Christians abound, there are also plenty of people who don’t care a whit about religion, Jell-O, casseroles or critter skinning.

Unfortunately, some of the Iowa outrage over the article only reinforces the points Bloom tried to make. A commentary in the Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper in the town where Bloom lives sported a provincial headline blasting him as an “ugly American.

That’s  taking it a little far. Ugly? No. Just over-the-top blunt.

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.


 

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