Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life

When my family and I first moved to Iowa, our first Easter morning the second-largest newspaper in the state (the Cedar Rapids Gazette) broke all the rules I was trying to teach my young journalism students in its coverage of an event that was neither breaking nor corroborated by two independent sources. An archived edition of the paper shows it with a verse from Matthew 28:5-6 above-the-fold on Page One, along with an illustration of three crosses. The front-page verse -- which in its entirety read, "And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said." -- took up two columns and was played against a story about the murders of six people in the Iowa town of Norwalk.*

After years and years of in-your-face religion, I decided to give what has become an annual lecture, in which I urge my students not to bid strangers "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter," "Have you gotten all your Christmas shopping done?" or "Are you going to the Easter egg hunt?" Such well-wishes are not appropriate for everyone, I tell my charges gently. A cheery "Happy holidays!" will suffice. Small potatoes, I know, but did everyone have to proclaim their Christianity so loud and clear?

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea. One gutsy, red-in-the-face student told me in no uncertain terms that for the rest of her life, she would continue offering Merry Christmas and Happy Easter tidings to strangers, no matter what I, or anyone else, said, because, "That's just who I am and I'm not about to change. Ever!" Score one for sticking it to the ethnic interloper.

Such do-good obligation flourishes even when the words invoked don't have much to do with religion. After the University of Iowa played arch-rival Iowa State in football, one of my students got arrested for public intoxication. While walking back to her dormitory one Saturday afternoon, she paused to rest on the steps of the Old State Capitol Building, only to fall asleep until a police officer awakened her. All arrests in Iowa City are published in the local newspaper, and I asked her what had had happened. "When my parents find out, they're going to be furious. I'll get called home for a Come-To-Jesus talk."

On the surface, this Come to Jesus moment had nothing to do with religion. Instead, it described a meeting in which your butt was about to be kicked for some serious, errant behavior, and if you didn't repent your evil ways, then there'd be hell to pay. Come to Jesus was a nonsectarian, equal-opportunity expression that could just as easily involve Jews, Muslims, or Hindus (if you could find any in Iowa) as it involved Christians. But it was vintage Iowa, invoking the name of Jesus as though everyone believed in the good Lord's son and his providence.

Of the students I teach, relatively few will stay in Iowa after they graduate. The net flow of Iowans is out, not in. Iowa's greatest export isn't corn, soybeans, or pigs; it's young adults. Many born in rural Iowa grow up educated due to the state's still-strong foundation of land-grant universities (although, that too is eroding) and abiding familial interest in education (on a per-capita basis, Iowa has more high school graduates than 49 other states). But once they're through college, they leave. Iowa is the number-two state in the nation in losing college-educated youth (only North Dakota loses more).

An interesting sidelight to the outflow problem is the rapid influx of Chinese students at the University of Iowa. The university vigorously recruits Chinese undergraduates, and has even set up an office in Beijing with the express purpose of attracting Chinese to study in Iowa (no other recruiting office exists anywhere else). Almost all come from well-heeled families, who pay full tuition for their children to attend college. Few speak passable English, almost all congregate in majors that require little English (math, biology and actuarial science), and many drive around town in brand-new sports cars. It's a strange sight to see in Flyover County -- dozens of Chinese students moving together en masse, the girls chattering away in Mandarin, always holding each others' hands. These wealthy, ill-prepared bonus babies are seen as the future of the University. If Iowa has fewer and fewer young people each year to fill the University's cavernous lecture halls, and the state is still a tough sell to coastal American kids, then it's China that's the next frontier as state support for higher education dwindles.

Today, half of Iowa's 952 incorporated towns have populations of fewer than 500 residents, and two-thirds of the state's towns have less than 1,000. Iowa is home to the highest per-capita percentage of people older than 85; the second highest of residents older than 75, and the third highest of people older than 65. The largest and most elegant house in many rural towns is the local funeral parlor. The graduating classes of most rural high schools are so small that an Iowa tradition calls for silk-screened T-shirts with the names of all classmates on the back. Most, if not all of these teenagers, have worked for a couple of weeks in the summer as detasselers, when they remove the pollen-producing tassel on the top of each corn plant, letting it drop to the ground, so that two varieties of corn will cross-breed and make a hybrid. The job has become an absolute rite of passage for rural Iowa kids.

And while it's changing fast, rural Iowa is still a place where homes sell for $40,000 (some a lot less), serious crime is tee-peeing a high-school senior's front yard, and traffic is getting caught behind a tractor on Main Street. If rural Iowans ever drive on the highway (not much reason to do so, really), they welcome other vehicles accelerating on the entrance ramp, smiling, often motioning with their hand to move on over, as though gently patting the butt of a newborn.

The only smog comes from a late-autumn bonfire. Crime isn't way rampant in these rural towns, but it's edging upwards, particularly in towns adjacent to slaughterhouses. On summer nights, you can still keep your keys in the ignition and run into the local Casey's for an Icey or to get a cherry-dipped cone at the DQ one town over. Rural Iowa is still the kind of place where parents drop off their kids at the municipal pool to swim all day long.

Iowa is a throwback to yesteryear and, at the same time, a cautionary tale of what lies around the corner.

Which brings up my dog. And here's why: My dog is a kind of crucible of Iowa.

What does Hannah, a 13-year-old Labrador, have to do with an analysis of the American electoral system and how screwy it is that a place like Iowa gets to choose -- before anyone else -- the person who may become the next leader of the free world?

For our son's eighth birthday, we wanted to get him a dog. Every boy needs a dog, my wife and I agreed, and off we went to an Iowa breeding farm to pick out an eight-week-old puppy that, when we knelt to pet her, wouldn't stop licking us. We chose a yellow Lab because they like kids, have pleasant dispositions, and I was particularly fond of her caramel-color coat. Labs don't generally bite people, although they do like to chew on shoes, hats, and sofa legs. Hannah was Marley before Marley.

Our son, of course, got tired of Hannah after a couple of months, and to whom did the daily obligation of walking the dog fall?

That's right. To me.

And here's the point: I can't tell you how often over the years I'd be walking Hannah in our neighborhood and someone in a pickup would pull over and shout some variation of the following:

"Bet she hunts well."

"Do much hunting with the bitch?"

"Where you hunt her?"

To me, it summed up Iowa. You'd never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball for her to fetch. No, that's not a reason to own a dog in Iowa. You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat.

That's the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president.

* Corrections and clarifications 12/30/12. This article originally incorrectly stated that Iowa is 96 percent white; the 2010 Census data reports it as 91.3 percent white. It incorrectly said that gay marriage in the state would be subjected to a repeal referendum, but, in fact, that would only potentially happen if Republicans take control of the state Senate this fall. It incorrectly referred to the size of Britain on a second reference when it meant England, the first reference, and said Sol Steinberg's New Yorker cover was published in 1967 when in fact Saul Steinberg's cover was from 1976. It incorrectly said "He is Risen" was printed on the Cedar Rapids Gazette 1994 Easter Sunday front page as a headline, when the front-page from the paper's archives shows the words were printed on the front page as part of an A1 Bible verse, but not in headline form. In a note to Bloom, Gazette editor Lyle Muller said of the headline: "a couple of other people here thought this sounded familiar. But we cannot find it on any front page, nor features page covers. Perhaps it was a rack card; I don't know." And it incorrectly described fall turkey hunters toting rifles, rather than shotguns. The story has been updated to reflect these facts.

A number of commenters have argued that Obama was talking about Pennsylvania and not Iowa in his April 2008 remarks on guns and religion; the audio of his remarks published on the Huffington Post reflects him talking about small towns in both Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the Midwest: "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and 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. And it's not surprising then 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."

Image credit: Jason Reed / Reuters

Presented by

Stephen G. Bloom is Professor and Bessie Dutton Murray Professional Scholar at the University of Iowa. This year, he is the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America and The Oxford Project (with Peter Feldstein).

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