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What's The Matter With Stephen Bloom?


Little Village readers following the ongoing controversy about Professor Stephen Bloom’s article about Iowa in the Atlantic may have noticed the lack of direct response from us. Thomas Dean made a glancing mention of it in his essay about the complicated feelings he has about his hometown Rockford, Illinois. Mostly, we thought that there wasn’t much to add, and that the story would be over before we’d come up with something useful to say.

But remarkably, Professor Bloom continues his crusade to upset and alienate the entire state in a new interview conducted by Sally Quinn for the Washington Post. This follows his unapologetic performance on the NBC Program Rock Center.

The title of this post refers to Thomas Frank’s book What’s The Matter With Kansas?, in which Frank explores how a state that was traditionally a haven for progressive politics has turned conservative. In this particular moment I’m curious what happened to Professor Bloom to make him behave the way he has, beginning with the publication of his Atlantic article. He is not a stupid man, and he’s been well rewarded for his time in the state. He’s written two well-received books and become a tenured Professor. Unless he’s purposely trying to raise his own profile by stirring up controversy, what he’s doing makes little sense to me.

In the Sally Quinn interview he seemed to be saying two things: that there’s something wrong with the importance given to Iowa in the race for President, and that we reject outsiders, and are, to him, disturbingly anti-Semitic. Leaving aside the negative impression of Bloom many people have gotten from the article and the way he has subsequently defended it, I think it constructive to address these assertions.

First of all, Iowa isn’t representative of the entire United States. I don’t remember anyone making the argument that we are, or that we are uniquely qualified to start the nominating process for presidential contests. Neither is New Hampshire, Florida or South Carolina. Every state is different, and the process has never been front-loaded with the most representative states. I don’t know if that’s even possible.

And at least for the Republican Party, Iowa is a good exemplar. The GOP is old, white, conservative, religious, and affluent. The GOP might be slightly more religious and conservative in Iowa than it is in other states, but not by much. On the Democratic side it is less representative, for sure. But to complain about Iowa’s suitability is to forget the real purpose of the Iowa Caucuses: To choose delegates to the state party conventions. The inordinate attention to Iowa at the beginning of the Presidential nominating process is a creation of the news media, and it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Iowans are not the source of all the scrutiny.

The way Iowans feel about their first in the nation status is rooted in their sense of civic duty. We’re a small state in which the people running for president are forced to do the sort of person-to-person retail politicking that isn’t possible elsewhere. Iowans take time away from their busy lives to meet the candidates, look them in the eye, and try and decide if they have what it takes to be the leader of the free world. We may not always get it right, but we do our best. Someone has to go first, and it might as well be us.

Professor Bloom’s second point — that he has been rejected as an outsider, and met with anti-semitism? I don’t live behind his eyes, and can’t speak to what his unique personal experience is. But I’ve lived here since I was twelve years old, nearly 42 years. We moved here when my father became the conductor of the Cedar Rapids Symphony in 1970. Our family received a very warm welcome. Over the years, I’ve certainly witnessed every kind of prejudice among my fellow Iowans — racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. But I’ve also seen people make an extra effort to welcome strangers, to help their neighbors, to find common ground, and above all, to make communities from collections of individuals.

I think that the negative experiences Professor Bloom describes can be found anywhere in the world. I also think that it’s true what my Grandma told me over and over: you get out what you put in. When you come from somewhere else to an isolated, homogeneous place, people will notice the ways in which you are different. But you shouldn’t see malice or intolerance where none is intended, and you can’t be offended every time a total stranger says something to be nice. It may not address your particular condition, but if you take offense, it says more about you than it does about them.

As for the real problems that Bloom described in his article, he wasn’t telling us anything about Iowa that we all didn’t already know. He could have addressed our problems with compassion, tact and sympathy. He could have written to us as a fellow Iowan, with an open heart. Instead he painted an ugly caricature of the place, and then has the gall to act like he’s the victim of our unreasonable persecution when we take offense. As for the threats he says he’s received, I am sorry for him and his family. But he has gone out of his way to be a controversial public figure, and it seems like he’s condemning us all for the actions of a few crazies.

People in Iowa are no better or worse than people anywhere else. People are people, whether they’re in New Hampton, New Jersey, Reykjav√≠k or Ramallah. But Iowa is a place any two people who love each other can be married. Iowa’s where they built the first mosque west of the Mississippi. The Constitution of the State of Iowa has something the United States Constitution does not: an Equal Rights Amendment. And Keokuk, the city that Bloom described as a “a depressed, crime-infested slum town,” is where the first Synagogue in Iowa was founded, 143 years ago. For every sad, ugly, and desparate thing that happens here, there are many that are good and precious. That Stephen Bloom is incapable of seeing and writing about the real Iowa, with all its contradictions, absurdities and saving graces, is the sad waste of his gifts as a journalist.