Derision Blooms in 'Insular' Iowa

Todd Dorman
Published: December 13 2011 | 2:29 pm - Updated: 3 April 2014 | 8:42 am in
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Prof. Stephen Bloom is truly the Michelangelo of hick-punching.

Rarely has rural Iowa been smacked around as artfully as it is in Bloom's sucker-punching essay "Observations from 20 years of Iowa Life," published on The Atlantic's website.

One minute, you're enjoying a truly vivid description of swaying, growing corn. The next, you're confronted with a hollowed out, meth-addled, farmer-tanned wasteland devoid of all hope but filled to its feed cap with meatloaf and Jell-O.

Hawkeyes and hunters and Jesus. Oh my.

It's quite a page-turner, from the "slums" of Keokuk and the "skuzziest" cities on the polluted and "commercially irrelevant" Mississippi, down Interstate 80s bleak crossing of "corpus Americana," to our regularly scheduled Friday night combine demolition derbies. Bloom has beaten his pen into a machete. Although the University of Iowa professor wielded it while working safely in Michigan.

You must read the whole thing. But here's a taste:

"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."

If you bet a bottom dollar that Bloom would strike a nerve here, winner-winner, meatloaf dinner. Most Iowans I know who read it don't like it. But of course, it wasn't written for us. It was written for far off outsiders, giving them a welcome chance to shake their heads, sigh, and thank goodness that they don't live in these horrid hapless hustings.

It's billed as an exploration of the state that leads the presidential nominating process. But Bloom is much less interested in the caucuses than he is in constructing a dreary Midwest dystopia with boar semen signs, young boys all nicknamed 'Bud,' accosted dog walkers and people who maliciously insist on wishing him a "Merry Christmas." Gay marriage is a fleeting judicial fluke. Our divided politics is "bizarre." Wind energy is promising, but hey, don't forget the suicide rate.

"Housewives" spend their time baking contest pies, even in a state with one of the nation's highest percentages of two-parent working families.

Iowa has problems. Big, deep and difficult ones. Bloom makes some perfectly valid points about rural decline. His description of Iowa's meatpacking industry is well-crafted and spot on. Clearly, the author of "Postville" knows this stuff. Some of his observations are thought-provoking.

But those few meaty moments sink into a deep trough of self-indulgent derision. And those backward insular conservatives he clearly despises should send him a big fat thank you note for handing them yet another handy chance to showcase their insistence that the inuslar halls of liberal academia have little more than contempt for "real America."  

He might have also noticed that this presidential campaign that we're so famous for starting hasn't addressed virtually any of the dire issues Bloom describes. Sounds like the subject of a worthwhile essay.

But, frankly, we all owe Bloom thanks. Each of our minds hold large, locked-tight ledgers of dark disdain for the people and places we otherwise hold dear. It's the flip side of our bright side, where our misgivings and grievances are kept.

I suspect it might feel very good, for a moment, to loudly proclaim the contents of that ledger, unedited and unvarnished.

But I also suspect I'd sound like a pompous, callous, judgmental scold that no one would want to be around for more than five minutes. Now, I know that suspicion is correct.

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