Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Observations on Observations, Part 1.

Having lived in Iowa my entire life, I am fully aware of all the stereotypes that exist about it, and WHY they exist. In a lot of the more rural areas, well, they're kind of true, sometimes. We do have a lot of farmers. A large proportion of them wear flannel and/or overalls. Sometimes both together. There are a fair percentage of meth labs. I've never seen one, but I've heard rumors.

Probably the best compliment that can be paid to my state is that when I go other places (Las Vegas, Atlanta, other social media platforms), nobody can really TELL I'm from Iowa. Fellow BiSC-uit Nico actually thought I was from Canada for the longest time. My point is, I seem to have amassed quite a few friends from other states and places and none of them seem to think I'm a backwards hick, and the reason for that is that we are not all our stereotypes. Anyone in a marginalized demographic group knows this.

Anyway, I guess some douchenozzle wrote some asshole piece about how Iowa is a shit-hole and everyone here smokes meth and is missing their teeth and live in vans by the river or something, I don't know, I haven't read it yet. I'm going to live-blog the experience here shortly, but first: RAYGUN, favorite t-shirt shop of hipster Iowans everywhere (but mostly Des Moines) has built their empire creating witty t-shirts that make fun of us, our cities, ourselves. (It's kind of like when someone picks on your sibling. You can do it, but if someone else does it, by God, they're getting their ass kicked.)

This is their response:

So, there's that.

Anyway, here we go. The live-blogging experience of Kelly Reading Something That's Inevitably Going To Piss Her Off. And, yes, I'm going to do the whole goddamn thing, so sorry if it TL;DR's.

My comments in BRACKETED BOLD ITALIC. So you can easily find them. That's the part you want anyway, right? Also I am highlighting some of the exceptional shit he says in red. Because: HE ACTUALLY SAYS IT, NON-IRONICALLY.

Here we go!


[Stephen. Stephen, Stephen. I'm already more of an expert than you because I've not only lived here for 27 years, but I also spent ALL of my formative years here. N00b.]

When Obama spoke of those clinging to guns and religion, he was talking about the Iowa hamlets that will shape the contours of the GOP contest. [Is that what he was talking about? The only people I know 'round here that are particularly attached to their guns are those that hunt. Which is kind of a special circumstance. Special Occasion Guns. Anyway, I think you are thinking of Texas, and anyway, thanks for calling us all "hamlets." It would be cute if I said it, but it's obnoxious when you say it.]

[PHOTO OF TRAFFIC ON A HIGHWAY.][Looks pretty accurate, really. One point.]

IOWA CITY -- On January 3, Iowans will trudge through snow, sleet, sludge, ice, gale-force blizzards -- whatever it takes -- to join their neighbors that evening in 1,784 living rooms, community halls, recreation centers, and public-school gymnasiums in a kind of bygone-era town-hall meeting at which they'll eat and debate, and then vote for presidential candidates along party lines. Chat 'n' Chews, they are called. [They're called this? I've never heard that before. Sounds kind of ridiculous, but okay. Maybe they call them that on the eastern side of the state.]

These Iowa Caucuses create a seismic shift in the presidential nominating contests. Obama catapulted to the top of the Democrats' dance card when he captured 38 percent of Iowa voters in 2008, and then swept to victory at the Democratic Convention eight months later. Without such a strong initial showing in Iowa, Obama might not have been able to steamroll through subsequent state primaries to win the presidency.
Since Obama is the presumed Democratic candidate in 2012, this year it's the Republican candidates who have trained their attentions on the state these brisk, late-autumn days. They're falling over each other in front of grain elevators and cornfields, over biscuits and gravy in breakfast cafes, and at potluck dinners (casseroles are the thing to bring), glad-handing and backslapping as many Iowa voters they can. Great photo ops, you know. Hoisting a baby in the air is good politics. So's gulping down a brat (short for bratwurst). [I think he's making fun of our food. Fine, whatever. Casseroles are good and cheap and easy and that's why people take them to potlucks. Also, do people not know what brats are? I think he's insulting his readers in general, too. Glad to know he hates everyone.]
Considering the state's enormous political significance, I thought this would be a good time to explain to the geographically challenged a little about Iowa, including where Iowa is, and perhaps more importantly, in both a real and metaphysical way, what Iowa is. [It's a state, fuckwad. One that you seem to have an irrational hatred for. Though you do have a point. NOBODY KNOWS WHERE IT IS.] Here, let me help:

 [all artwork by Raygun, of course.Clicky the pictures to go to their product page. If you want.]

For almost [ALMOST? YOUR TITLE IS A LIE!] 20 years I've lived in Iowa, where as a professor at the University of Iowa I've taught thousands of university students. I've written a couple of books on rural Iowa [are they as dickish as this article is apparently going to be?], traveling to all 99 counties, and have spent much of my time when not teaching, visiting with and interviewing Iowans from across the state. I haven't taken up hunting or fishing, the main hobbies of rural Iowans, but I'm a fan of University of Iowa Hawkeye football, so I'm a good third of the way to becoming an adopted Iowan. I even have a dog, born and bred in Iowa (more on that later). [Rural Iowa =/= all of Iowa. Just FYI. Also, I don't think hunting and fishing and football are exclusive to Iowa. Someone from the rest of the world please confirm?]

* * *

Iowa is not flat as a pancake, despite what most people think. Northeast of Cedar Rapids is actually pretty hilly. It's an agricultural (corns and soybeans), landlocked state. While Iowa's landmass is a little larger than England's, its population is only three million, about 17 times smaller than Britain's. The state's name derives from the Ioway Indians, one of several tribes that used to call the region home. Of Iowa's 99 counties, 88 are classified as rural. Iowa's capital and largest city is Des Moines (pop: 203,000), whose primary business is insurance. The state is 96 percent white. [This all seems fairly accurate, I guess.] Also, this.

Perhaps ironically, my boobs are too big for me to be able to fit into this shirt.
Which is the only thing keeping me from owning it.
On the state's eastern edge lies the Mississippi River, dotted with towns with splendid names like Keokuk, Toolesboro, Fruitland, Muscatine, Montpelier, Buffalo, Sabula, Davenport, Dubuque, and Guttenberg. Each once was a booming city on the swollen banks of the river that long ago opened the middle of America to expansion, civilization, abundance, and prosperity. Not much travels along the muddy and polluted Mississippi these days except rusty-bucket barges of grain and an occasional kayaker circumnavigating garbage, beer cans, and assorted debris. The majestic river that once defined the United States has been rendered commercially irrelevant these days. [I'm sure this is TOTALLY Iowa's fault, because, you know, we're the only one that uses that river.]

Mark Twain once lived in Southeast Iowa, in Keokuk, working at his brother's printing press. He also was employed nearby as a reporter for the Muscatine Journal. When Twain lived in Keokuk 150 years ago, the Gateway City was a sought-after destination; some seriously said Keokuk would someday rival Chicago as a metropolis of culture and commerce. [Really? CITATION NEEDED PLEASE] Thirty-eight hotels crowned the intersection of the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers. The coming of the railroads changed all that, and today, Keokuk, is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. [I'm sure they're going to put that on their tourism brochures. It has a ring to it.] Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they're some of the skuzziest cities I've ever been to, and that's saying something. [Because you're an expert in all things skuzzy?]

On Iowa's western frontier lies the Missouri River, which girds a huge, sparsely populated agricultural region anchored by Sioux City (pop: 83,000) in the state's far northwest and Council Bluffs (pop: 62,230), across from the Nebraska hub of Omaha. Eskimo Pies, the original I-Scream Bar, was invented by a Danish immigrant in Onawa, a tiny town not far from the Missouri, and today you can visit an Eskimo Pie display at the Monona County Historical Museum there. [You're losing me. How is this relevant to the caucuses? Which seemed to be your original point?]

In between these two great, defining rivers, Iowa is a place of bizarre contrasts. The state is split politically: to the east of Des Moines, Iowa is solidly Democratic; to the west, it's rabidly Republican. Iowa's two U.S. Senators are emblematic of this schizophrenia: Fundamentalist Republican Charles Grassley and Ultra-liberal Democrat Tom Harkin. Grassley is 78; Harkin 72; both have held seats in either the U.S. Senate or House since 1975. [I knew Grassley was old as dirt - GUYS YOU SHOULD SEE HIM ON TWITTER, it's a trainwreck, though he has gotten slightly more coherent lately - but I didn't know Harkin was old too. Eh. Status quo, bitches. ALSO! Thanks for likening us to a mental disorder. Asshole.] [OH SWEET HAPPY DAY, someone made a parody account for Senator Grassley. I may have just peed myself a little.]

Insular Iowa is also home to the most conservative, and, some say, wackiest congressman in America, Republican Rep. Steve King, who represents the vast western third of the state. Some of King's doozies: calling Senator Joe McCarthy a "hero for America"; comparing illegal immigrants to stray cats that wind up on people's porches; and praying that Supreme Court "Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsberg fall madly in love with each other and elope to Cuba." Keith Olbermann named King not only the worst congressman in the U.S., but the Worst Person in the World six times.

Considering the above, not just a few Iowa heads turned when a District Court in Des Moines in 2007 declared same-sex marriages legal. Iowa, at the time, was the second state in the U.S. to allow gays to marry each other, a decision the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld two years later. [YEAH THAT'S RIGHT, WE'RE NOT COMPLETE FUCKUPS.] In retaliation, Iowa conservatives in 2010 mounted a successful campaign to oust three of the justices who ruled on behalf of same-sex marriage. [NEVER MIND.] Marriage between two same-sex people is legal in Iowa for now, but may not be for long. So far, Democrats have blocked a statewide referendum on the issue (Dems hold sway in the Iowa Senate 26-24), but if Republicans take control of the Senate, gay marriage could -- and likely would -- be repealed. [Unfortunately, he's probably right. Ugh.]

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. [I... I don't even know where to start here. I feel personally insulted. Also? ALSO? THE WHOLE FUCKING COUNTRY IS ECONOMICALLY DEPRESSED. IN CASE YOU HADN'T NOTICED.] 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. [Ouch.] 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. 

Maybe Ambrose Bierce described it right when he called the U.S. president "the greased pig in the field game of American politics." For better or worse, Iowa's the place where that greased pig gets generally gets grabbed first.[Seriously. What did they do to you in Iowa City? I want to know. Clearly, you've been traumatized somehow. Were they mean to you? Maybe because you stomped around with your self-righteous air of superiority? Maybe?]

* * *

Rural America has always been homogenous, as white as the milk the millions of Holstein cows here produce. Many towns are so insular that farmers from another county are strangers. Historically, at least since 1900, whether because it was too hard to get to, too uninviting, or promised too little, few newcomers chose to knock on America's Heartland door. 

Iowa anchors the Upper American Heartland, the rural interior that produces much of the world's corn, pigs, cattle, and soybeans. The corn grows so fast in Iowa -- from seedlings to 7-foot-high stalks in 12 weeks -- that it crackles nonstop throughout the summer months. The sound is like popcorn popping slow-motion in a microwave. [I've never heard this, incidentally. IT DOES NOT DO THIS. What is this dude smoking?!] That pop-pop-popping can be heard especially in the early morning hours, as dew and fog cover the acres of gently swaying cornstalks that surround farming villages the way the sea encircles an island. Rows upon rows stretch further than most urban minds can fathom, leathery husks and silky tassels bending in unison to the shimmying breeze. From one angle the corn resembles a hodgepodge of gnarly green stalks, but from another, each plant appears positioned with precision next to another, next to another, an exacting maze, for thousands upon thousands of acres. [So, you just waxed poetic for an entire paragraph about corn... please explain to me how this is relevant?]

For any corn connoisseurs out there, don't think of poaching an ear from a field, boiling it al dente, then slathering on it hot butter. Almost all the corn Iowa farmers grow is feed corn, not sweet corn. It's meant for pigs, not humans, and tastes that way. Almost all of it gets stored in an elevator (elevators in rural America raise and lower grain, not people.) [Something tells me he did this once, and was bitterly disappointed.]

Each isolated Iowa homestead is marked off by a stand of trees (usually maples, cottonwoods, sometimes basswoods), as much windbreak as shade grove from the blazing sun. Just about everyone wears a hat; farmer's tan is a condition every Iowan knows -- a blanched forehead above a leather-cured face. [HYPERBOLE ALERT! I've never had a tan line on my face. I've had tan lines from sleeves and softball uniforms, but I'm willing to bet that that is something people from other states experience as well, yes?] Ailing windmills stand unsure next to sturdy no-nonsense homes and dilapidated peeling-red barns, often with freshly tilled beds of Black-eyed Susans or gladiolas in front. 

In this land, deep within America, on Friday nights it's not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby ("First they were thrashin', now they're CRASHIN'!"). [I've never done this. Do people do this?] There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen. [WHERE ARE THESE? TELL ME.] [Lemonade or boar semen. Good lord. I need a minute. At least he used an Oxford comma there.] Driving through these throwback towns, a stranger might receive a slight nod from a farmer on the side of the road, or a two-finger driver's greeting from knobby fingers atop a pick-up's steering wheel. Strangers are rare in these parts. Why would they be here? What would bring someone with no business or family to such a remote pocket of America, where car alarms are as unheard of as home burglar alarms? [False. We hear them. And they're annoying as shit. Just like they are everywhere else.] Locals don't bother to put on their turn signals because everyone knows where everyone else is going. Some rural counties in Iowa don't have a single traffic light. 

In the large towns (population more than 2,500), towering grain elevators are what you first see from a distance. In mid-sized towns, it's church steeples, their bell towers once a call to farmers toiling in the fields. Just about every town, no matter what size, has a water tower with the town name scrawled or stenciled on the tank's side. Each summer, the 4H and Future Farmers of America sponsor contests where teenagers vie for birthing and raising the best pig, lamb, goat, roster or hen. Housewives compete for best pie (always with a no-fail pie crust). A float pulled by a farmer's pickup showcases smiling and often-hardy girls waving, to be crowned County Fair Queen, Dairy Queen, and Pork Queen. Kids compete in a Mom-calling contest; the loudest wins. [These are completely innocent words, and yet I can HEAR the disdain and disgust dripping from this guy's voice.]

Iowa is these gently rolling plains, full of farms and barns and also millions of pigs and turkeys (twenty times as many people). But there also are too-many-to-count empty storefronts (and not coincidentally scores of flourishing Wal-Marts). The region has suffered terribly, particularly since the 1980's when the ravaged farm economy started spinning out of control into free-fall. 

After winning the Iowa Caucuses three years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama didn't mince words about the lingering impact of the Farm Crisis. 

Speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama said, "Like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." 

Obama got scalded for his comments. Those are tough sentiments to share with those caught in the middle. I imagine many in the rural Midwest must have said a variation of this -- "Whaddaya expect from a Harvard-educated, black city slicker who wouldn't know a John Deere tractor from an International Harvester combine?" And what better audience before which to piss on rural America than one filled with wealthy Bay Area Democrats, few of whom could pick out Iowa from Nebraska? If the audience wasn't primarily vegan, gluten-intolerant foodies, what came out of Obama's mouth was some of the most succulent red meat he could have tossed their way. 

[Here is where I have actually become speechless and have just resorted to sitting here shaking my head. I am going to stop here for now because my head is ready to explode, and also, this is a really fucking long article. I'd skip the rest but while I was copying/pasting it, I couldn't help but notice there are a lot of gems in the latter half as well. CAN'T WAIT.]

[PS go enter the ugly holiday sweater contest. Because I am apparently a schizophrenic hick and I will cut a bitch. Paraphrasing, of course.] 


likethe309 said...

I started ranting on your FB post about this, but I have a lot of feelings. Considering the author's home state is NEW JERSEY, the land of freaking stereotypes, I'm surprised he wrote a whole article using stereotypes. In fact, like I said, a lot of the stuff he describes could describe Sussex County, New Jersey. I sing the theme from Deliverance every time I'm in that county. I went a rodeo in that county and afterwards went to a diner that served "freedom fries." That's kind of redneck.

I also take issue with the fact that he has spent the last 20 years profiting from this state through his teaching and his writing.

To be honest, I have a lot of other feelings about the whole thing but I really don't care to waste anymore time or energy on this.

Tori said...

A few points to prove that people who think Iowa is backwards are backwards:

1. I can confirm that California's Central Valley is a hot spot for hunting, fishing, football, and all things meth.

2. His statement that "Iowa is a place of bizarre contrasts" is probably true, but so are LOTS of states. And cities, come to think of it. Example: California has more republican counties than democratic, yet is touted as being "super liberal." People have forgotten about all the Okies that came here during the Dust Bowl.

3. Aren't facial tan lines also a common problem of skiers and snowboarders?

4. "In this land, deep within America, on Friday nights it's not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby ("First they were thrashin', now they're CRASHIN'!"). [I've never done this. Do people do this?" Yes. In Merced! And also apparently in Riverside, though I've never been.

Megs said...

Why is he picking on Iowa? I mean, Obama could just as easily have been talking about Arkansas with those comments.

There are stereotypes about every state, and I'm going with likethe309 here and saying, seriously? You're from New Jersey and you're gonna talk smack?

Kelly L said...

I know this is an old post but I'm still a little annoyed at this guy. Sadly though he is right about Keokuk... I was born and lived there, (area, rural) for over thirty years.

And he's right about Iowa being a poor representation of the country as a whole. We are only 1/100th of the nations population. 1%er is typically a description given to an extreme or elite group like MENSA or Biker criminals. I think a state that has a more urban population and at least on metropolis and a population of six million would be a better state to be the political focal point of our country.

Everything else he said is because he lives/lived in a snotty college town that's predominantly Chicagoans. If there was ever a city in this state that is NOT representative of the state it's Iowa City/Coralville!