Stephen Bloom is the University of Iowa journalism professor who caused a firestorm with a piece for the Atlantic Monthly about why the Iowa caucuses are irrelevant.
“I don’t believe Iowa is representative of America,” Bloom told me in a phone interview from the “undisclosed location” where he and his family have been hiding since the piece was published. It is “91 percent white and 90 percent Christian. They have never elected a woman to the Congress or Senate or as governor. The largest city is 200,000.” And he points out, “you have [Mitt] Romney and [Rick] Santorum claiming victory when they only have 30,000 votes. What is this? It’s nothing. That’s not representative of anything. Iowa is a small state that is losing one representative. This is crazy.”
Part of the reason Bloom’s piece caused a stir was his representation of Iowans. This line in particular was not well received: “Those who stay in rural Iowa (and he says most of Iowa is rural) are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-oids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow.’”
Bloom, who has lived in Iowa for 20 years, is Jewish. He wonders if his piece would have caused such a stir were he Christian: “Rural Iowa views the world through the prism of religion. Religion cannot be understated. It is the life-motivating force. It’s who you do business with, who you work for.”
“All of the networking,” he says, “is done in church. Religion is right at the forefront of every discussion. When you look at someone in the local grocery store you’re thinking, ‘What religion is that person?’ ”
Bloom believes, and polls have shown, that Santorum’s position on abortion was a prime factor in his ascendancy. “A lot of his voters were one-issue citizens,” Bloom says, “the same way many Jewish people would pick Israel as their issue. The pro-life group in Iowa is a vociferous group. You can’t drive down a highway without seeing pro-life signs. For many of them that is the issue.” Romney, he says, “would have done much better if he hadn’t been Mormon.”
“There is this disquieting phrase, ‘family values’,” he says. “It means, Christian values. It means, he’s like us…there are lots of code words like ‘eastern,’’elitist,’ and ‘arrogant.’”
When he first moved to Iowa from San Francisco Bloom was warned by a local rabbi not to live in Iowa City: “You will be totally disenchanted,” he was told, or “you will be affiliated with a small Jewish community..”
“I’m proud to say I’m a Jew,” he says, “I’m Jewish down to the bones and corpuscles of my blood. It’s part of me.” But he quickly found that he was seen as different. “See you in church,” he was told. “Merry Christmas and Happy Easter,” he was greeted. When his son wanted to join Boy Scouts the scoutmaster said, “All you boys believe in Jesus.” A Jewish therapist friend of his treated some elderly women on Christmas Eve. “Merry Christmas,” they told him. “You know I’m Jewish,” he replied. “Yes, we know,” said one. “We’ve been praying for you.”
He laughs about being approached in Walmart by two Mennonite women. One asked, “What are you?”
“I’m a Walmart shopper,” he replied.
And later, in a rural restaurant with his wife and son, the waitress looked at them and said, “You’re not from here, are you?”
“You constantly feel like an outsider. If you’re different you are viewed askance, as an alien. This manifests itself in the elections. It’s like, ‘Is he an American?’ Especially around Christmas and Easter. It’s a disconcerting lonely life. I’m a Jew through-and-through. How do you continue to be a Jew through all of these permutations in a land that is in your face Christian with live crèches?”
Last year, before the holiday break, he gave a final lecture to his students.”Merry Christmas, “ he told them, “is a salutation that requires a sender and a receiver. The sender ought to know how the receiver interprets the message.
It is mainly because of religion that he thinks Iowa is not the right place to begin the presidential voting.
“Religion is what binds us and what separates us. It’s in everything. And, of course, it had everything to do with Santorum and Romney.”
He says the reason Iowa continues to sit in the catbird seat in presidential elections is because, “there is a conspiracy of silence among the Iowans and the press and the candidates.”
“It’s to everyone’s advantage,” but “why not dismantle this archaic system of Iowa being number one?”.
Bloom and his family at their “undisclosed location” since the Atlantic published the piece, but he plans to return to Iowa. “I like the nature. I enjoy teaching.”
“I may have something to add to the social diversity curriculum: I’ve got real curly hair. I’m not a farmer’s son. And I’ve got as much to learn from my students as they can learn from me.”
Sally Quinn | Jan 4, 2012 5:26 PM