IOWA Rules – Comment on Stephen Bloom & Lynda Waddington

Reply to Lynda Waddington and Stephen Bloom
If Iowans, like Scandinavians, and many other Christian protestant people, but not all, have their little ironies of ‘niceness’  –                “Dignity, respect, a sense of humor and a bit of humility are      necessary to make a place home” says  Lynda Waddington answering
Stephen Bloom’s article in the Atlantic online                                                             –  so do displaced Jews have their ways of expression that deserve just as much understanding as Iowan ‘niceness’.
I appreciate Iowan attitudes as I was married to a Dane – from Denmark – and have some really lovely Iowan friends. But Jews, no matter how removed from their religion, or their culture mostly, even raised in Christian schools with church and chapel, still often keep some manners and ways that are associated with the Jewish style
of argument – which assumes both that one must face facts         (whatever those are) and tends to overstate one’s case, knowing that “everyone” will understand that this is just part of one’s passion for one’s reasoning, and will be irrelevant an hour later.
Unfortunately these two kinds of discourse do not mesh well, and they have consequences that affect very deep attitudes towards the world.
Stephen Bloom set out, in an anthro-sociological way, to do an analysis of Iowa for strangers from what to him seemed an objective perspective. And he did a good job. The way his article is layed out, the geographic perspective it gives to strangers, the clear way it handles a number of social and economic and ideological variables has not been enough appreciated in the wake of the controversy he stirred up.
That he also makes assumptions, very urban assumptions, about what is civilized or reasonable or acceptable in world terms (are there any world terms?) by which he able to casually make judgements about Iowans and Iowa as part of a world which he takes for granted, but which are not always relevant or true from an Iowan perspective.
He expects to be excused for stating what to him are truths. But part of the truth of this sadly multiple and divided world is to know what the subjects of your opinions think is important, not just what you think is important.
To ask that Iowans understand Stephen Bloom is to ask a local majority to take seriously the attitudes of a minority in a way new to them.  Iowans put so much effort into being nice – how are they to forgive or understand someone who doesn’t know what “being nice” entails.
In the new pluralistic world in which we live, a world which is here and now and not an ideological choice – both parties have to stretch to understand their differences, and back off from their immediate reactions.
This conflict between Jewish manners and Protestant ‘niceness’ is inherent in America and comes up in the lives of Jews over and over again – when they are able to be aware of it. Now we need to let it come up in the lives of Iowans if they can be aware of it.
Aside from cultural dominance in numbers there is no real way to appeal to a higher authority to adjudicate this difference. But we cannot simply assume that Stephen Bloom has gone too far, or that Iowans are wrong in their response to his article.


One response to “IOWA Rules – Comment on Stephen Bloom & Lynda Waddington

  1. This is one of the most reasoned and nuanced comments on the shebang that I’ve seen.

    I’m a Jew in Iowa, and your points are well-taken. To be quite frank, though — while I understand the necessity of understanding the dominant culture well enough not to make an entire state hate you, I’ve yet to see Iowans make much accommodation. Don’t get me wrong: they’re extremely polite, very courteous, and committed to the idea that other people and their feelings are to be respected. So long as they’re respected in an Iowan manner.

    Jews have lived in Iowa for, I believe, the entire history of the state, and there is a slowly growing Jewish community in my town. In my nearly 20 years here, I’ve found that native Iowans — indeed I’d expand that to native midwesterners — have little interest in understanding Jewish rhetorical style. After all, they don’t have to. They can simply ignore us, or pass us over as “too New York for me,” and move on to something they’re more comfortable with. They’re comfortable enough ignoring us that when I divorced, my lawyer was shocked to see the list of Jewish holidays I’d included in my draft decree — she’d never heard of most of them, and insisted I take out the lesser-known so that the judge didn’t think I was playing games and trying to block visitation. Similarly, I find no understanding nor will to understand the differences between faith-based and bloodline religions; the notion of going to shul as a contented agnostic, let alone giving one’s children a Jewish education, simply does not compute. I have learned not to argue with the presumption that I’m a Jewish church lady.

    I’m very tired of it, frankly. I’m here for personal reasons for a while longer, but I am tired. And I’m disinclined at this point to tiptoe to save Iowan sensibilities. They can bend a little too.

    The related memory that makes me angriest, maybe, is of the lady who used to run the Senior Center here, a lovely woman named Betty. Betty was from the Bronx and had, as far as I know, the only fur coat in town, and was the only person in the last 25 years to give me hard candies from Israel out of her purse. She drove people crazy, because she wouldn’t stop hocking them to improve, young and old, which is not the Iowan way. She wanted the old people taking classes, learning arts, all that, and they wanted to be left the hell alone to sit in a chair without talking. The thing is, though, Betty had done a yeoman job of toning herself down in order to get along. Boy, had she tried. She’d turned down her own volume by 70% easy. But the Iowans couldn’t see that, and all they did in my City department was pick on her in some truly ugly and passive-aggressive ways. What a good woman she was.

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