University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom recently stirred up a bit of controversy in his Atlantic piece on life in Iowa. That there are meth-heads and people afraid of the world, sequestered in middle America apparently only comes to the surprise of Stephen Bloom and his detractors. In all of the criticism of his article, this central point is missing – those people are everywhere. In fact, there are clearly more meth-heads and degenerates per capita in the five boroughs of New York than in any Midwestern state. So what? That demographic description tells us nearly nothing about the reality of any single place.
I think the point that Professor Bloom was driving at and which he missed was that while that segment of the population is present en force in Iowa, ‘dream seekers’ are markedly absent. People don’t travel to Iowa to ‘make it big’ like they do in New York, or L.A. or any other major cultural center. Which is true – if you want to be an actor, or on TV, or even have a major art exhibit (unless you go to Des Moines) you don’t move to Iowa. But that is a pretty narrow picture of what ‘making it big’ could mean. For instance, if you want to become an important literary figure, chances are you’ll come to Iowa. The Iowa Writer’s Workshop is the preeminent writing program in the nation. If you want to practice law in the Midwest you’d be lucky to come through Iowa. If you’re into presidential politics, there isn’t a better place to be early on than Iowa, I can attest having worked for Obama in Iowa before he registered double digits in any polls. If you, like film-maker David Lynch, are into transcendental meditation you may be surprised to find out that the epicenter for such activity is in a small town in eastern Iowa. And maybe most surprising to the liberal elites to which I feel both an affinity toward and an aversion from, some people chase their dream to such rural locales as Dubuque and Dickinson County where they can carve out a unique place in the world and enjoy natural beauty.
This is not to denigrate the wonders of big city life – it’s truly wonderful, and honestly what I prefer, despite the crime and the soul-crushing commutes. I relate to Prof. Bloom’s characterization of most of Iowa, I grew up in rural western Illinois near the Iowa border, and I lived in Iowa for six years. It’s just that I don’t believe that you wont encounter the same proportion of depressing people in any major city, and also I doubt those big city ‘failures’ would be as nice.
I came across a Buddhist proverb when I was younger that baffled me for a long time, it said to be content with where I was in the world. That seemed insane to me and discredited Buddhist philosophy for me for a long time. ‘Be content with where you are; would you have said that to a black guy in South Carolina in 1842?’ I thought. Well, I missed the point, and I think this is where Prof. Bloom and I differ. While we agree there is plenty pathetic and wrong in Iowa, I know there is plenty pathetic and wrong everywhere. Things may differ at first appearance but the good to bad ratio equals out below the surface. And more importantly no existence is inherently any more meaningful than any other. It is nice for a Professor of Journalism to think that he has staked out a special place in this world, that his life is somehow more meaningful than a meth addict from Decorah. But in all honesty it is not, and mine isn’t either – no one’s is. And that is a truth that I’ve gathered without ever having the pleasure of visiting New York City.