Bloom is the 'ugly American' visiting foreign Iowa
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Beth Cody, Writers' Group member
Iowa City Press-Citizen

University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom's article in last Friday's Atlantic news magazine, “Clinging to Guns and Religion: Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life,” has certainly gotten locals' attention, judging from the nearly 600 mostly-negative comments on both the Atlantic and the Press-Citizen web sites.

The article purports to describe Iowa and Iowans in the context of the upcoming Iowa Caucuses, from the point of view that Iowa is such a strange, backward anachronism that it surely doesn’t deserve its political significance.

However, the Iowa he describes bears little resemblance to real life because he relies not on facts, but on vague impressions that are clearly biased by his now-obvious dislike of Iowans. In fact, the piece is the most long-winded collection of inaccuracies and prejudiced stereotypes that I have read in a long time.

 He focuses solely on Iowa's rural residents, even though two-thirds of Iowans now live in urban areas.

 He bleakly depicts Iowa as containing "legions of unemployed" for whom "work pretty much no longer exists," when Iowa actually has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.

 He declares that Iowans are politically divided between conservatives and liberals, as if that should disqualify our political significance – and as if that didn't accurately represent the rest of our divided nation. (I might humorously point out that Bloom's article has actually managed to unite conservative and liberal Iowans in condemning him, perhaps a first ever).

But most offensive of all is the revoltingly negative tenor of Mr. Bloom's article. He could have written a piece describing the local quirks of rural Iowans in a way that communicated a certain fondness and respect for them. But he did not.

Instead, he describes rural residents as “often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-oids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth...” The same, thoroughly-offensive description might apply to low-income rural or urban residents from any state, and certainly doesn't describe my neighbors south of Iowa City, but apparently that's how Bloom sees us.

How sad that he sees only ugliness, when so much beauty and goodness exist in Iowa. I guess that wouldn't have gotten him an article in the Atlantic, though.

There will doubtlessly be attention on our (over-)reactions to this obnoxious article, or on how insular we are, how resistant to change and unwelcoming of "strangers."

But in fact, we welcome people of all backgrounds who come here to work hard, deal honestly and be respectfully friendly to us. On the other hand, we certainly do look askance at people who come here to criticize us or to try to save us from our backwardness in the manner of missionaries among the heathens.

At any rate, Mr. Bloom is all too like the "Ugly American" who visits a foreign country only to complain about everything and point out every local difference as a shortcoming, while feeling smugly superior to the backward natives (who can only hide their embarrassment at his rudeness and silently wonder to themselves why he came in the first place).

One would expect better of someone who has lived here for two decades, but apparently he still regards himself as an outsider, not an Iowan at all.