Friday, April 13, 2018

Iowa: Once Fertile, Now Barren

In 2009, after California allowed marriage discrimination on the basis of sex while Iowa's Supreme Court struck down a similar attempt, I wrote, "People keep asking how this could happen in California when supposedly more conservative Iowa allows greater protection for same-sex couples... Gay marriage is a 'threat' if you think your own marriage is falling apart and need an external boost to prop it up. On the other hand, if your marriage is fine, and your friends' marriages are doing well, you probably don't feel the need to butt your nose in anyone else's business. Iowans--who basically gave President Obama the Democratic presidential nomination and therefore his eventual election--are probably on the right side of history again." 

In 2010, I continued to praise Iowa: "The more I learn about Tom Harkin (D-IA), the more I respect him. (What is it about Iowa that seems to produce reasonably progressive people instead of the scorch-the-earth-to-change-the-world California types?)" 

How quickly things change. From Gene Wilder's University of Iowa graduation in 1955 to less comedic 2018, it seems an everyday occurrence when Representative Steve King embarrasses himself, protected by a lack of diversity allowing statements resembling the Teutonic. Across the street from the Amana Heritage museum celebrating pacifist German refugees' resistance to local demagoguery, a store sells signs warning intruders they will be shot, survivors shot again, and the police not called. (I am not making this up.) 
America's Christians used to be non-hypocrites who actually read the Bible.
It gets better: when I attended Iowa City's World Cup wrestling tournament--Russia didn't show up because Senator Chuck Grassley couldn't secure visas or we're in a new Cold War--an overweight, drunk white man responded to my criticism of horrendous refereeing by ending his sound and fury with the motto of American white supremacists everywhere: "boy!" (Unsurprisingly, Carver-Hawkeye Arena's main intermission room was filled with beer can totem poles.) 
Iowa, despite its honorable Quaker population, allowed the KKK, including in Dubuque.
The caption states, "Anonymous Gift." 
Iowans will tell you that Iowa is a great place to live, but not to visit. I take the exact opposite view. (I don't try to be a contrarian, but it happens so often, either I'm crazy or the rest of the country has lost its damn mind.) I loved the Hoover Presidential LibraryPresident Herbert "Bert" Hoover and his spitfire wife, Lou, might be the most underrated couple in American history. The Hoovers saved 10 million people worldwide from hunger and built America's reputation for charity: "National character cannot be built by law. It is the sum of the moral fiber of its individuals."
The more things change...
The Amana Heritage Museum, mentioned previously, is small but one of the best organized museums in America. (A gap exists regarding the post-communal Raytheon buyout, but I quibble.) 
Why socialism doesn't work, in a nutshell.
If you have kids or enjoy mechanical engineering, Waterloo's John Deere Museum is a fun family outing, as is Cedar Rapid's National Czech & Slovak Museum. 
I like big tractors and I cannot lie.
Iowa's best tourism spots are its relatively large Amish and Mennonite communities, testaments to the tolerance Iowans used to possess before they lost their damn minds and the Quaker reserve they were known for. I have always liked Oklahomans, but the Mennonites (not so much the Amish) are competitive when it comes to the title of "Friendliest Americans." Children on their way to school all waved to me, and when I entered a classroom unannounced, a young teacher made his way past sturdy, giggling students to shake my hand. 
Self-sufficient at a young age.
I preferred Kalona to the Amana colonies, which are far more touristy, but I recommend visiting both if you're near Iowa City. (I loved the general store's wild chokecherry jam but the gooseberry flavor didn't take.) 

If Iowa is a nice place to visit, why isn't it also a nice place to live? For one thing, Iowa's landscape is white and colorless, much like its people. It has always relied on outsiders to strengthen its appeal. Almost all writers from the Iowa Writers' Workshop--including its most successful graduate, Jane Smiley--were born outside the state. Even Iowa's most celebrated homegrown writer, Bill Bryson, spent most of his life in Great Britain. Recently, Iowa's most famous sports underdog, Ali Farokhmanesh, announced he'd be leaving to Colorado with his family. 

The winters don't help: "Winters were cold enough to kill you," wrote a Writers' Workshop graduate born and raised outside of Iowa. A lack of color may provide the perfect setting to paint your own picture, but it can also blind and repel if a blizzard of hate emerges. Indeed, in the past forty-plus years, other than the wonderful Dan Gable, Iowa has been unable to grow and keep its talent. Up-and-coming Spencer Lee is Coloradoan by birth, and with Oklahoma City thriving nearby and presenting a kinder and more interesting landscape, it's doubtful things will change. 

Iowa's downward trajectory has impacted even its most sacred institutions: corn and wrestling. In collegiate wrestling,
Penn State and Ohio State are the clear leaders, and when Dan Gable dies, it's unclear why anyone would want to join Iowa State when they can learn from Penn State's undefeated Cael Sanderson; be close to Ohio State's charismatic Tom Ryan; or be part of Oklahoma State's rich history of pioneering diverse champions (Kenny Monday, Yojiro Uetake, Bobby Douglas, Eric Guerrero). 
From the well-traveled John Cleese (2014). 
As for corn, it runs on a billion dollars a year from Washington, D.C., a form of white welfare. 
May 24, 2019
Today, John Deere's headquarters are in Moline, Illinois, not Iowa. (Someone snarkier than I might remark Iowa isn't sending America its best people--just drunk farmers on foreign aid.) 
From Dave Barry Hits below the Beltway (2001)
Speaking of billions, Iowa's neighboring Nebraskan and Oklahoman philanthropic billionaires seem to possess limitless energy, and it shows. Everyone knows about Warren Buffett, but the reason an NBA team is called the Thunder and not the Supersonics is because of Clay Bennett, one of America's most humble men--and we haven't even mentioned George Kaiser. Iowans will point to Harry Stine, but if he's done anything noteworthy in Iowa, I haven't seen it. 

In short, if you're in Iowa, you have a 50/50 chance of meeting a coldneck or a decent person. Since most of Iowa's outperformers are from out of state, I'll take my chances elsewhere. Until Steve King is banished from political office, you should, too. 

© Matthew Rafat (2018) 

Update on June 3, 2020: after losing in the primaries to Randy Feenstra, Steve King will not represent the Republican Party in Iowa. From May 2020 interview with Mr. Feenstra: 

"[W]hat is the No. 1 issue facing the nation?"

"As a Christian and a father, the most important issue will always be protecting innocent life. In the Iowa Senate, we ended taxpayer funding for abortion and defunded Planned Parenthood."

Bonus 1: Economists who want to understand Iowa's backward trajectory in such a short time must remember two rules of modern economics: 1) as capital flows into x place, it attracts not only other capital but successful, ambitious people; and 2) the dislocation of a successful person from Place A to Place B results in a 200% variance even before considering first-generation offspring. For example, if an Iranian Muslim or Jew with sought-after technical skills leaves Iran and comes to America, America receives a +1 while Iran receives a -1. This dislocation results in a gap of 200%--not the 100% your intuition might tell you--a gap made even more cavernous if the immigrant's birthplace expended tax dollars or revenue educating him or her.

Now note Iowa's relative lack of domestic and foreign immigration as well as its proximity to more attractive magnets like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Oklahoma City. 

Bonus 2: In Iowa City, I stayed in a hotel under the Marriott brand. (I usually stay at a Hilton, but I couldn't find any rooms nearby the wrestling tournament.) At the hotel, I was surprised to see several members of Ohio State's baseball team visiting for a game against the University of Iowa. Seeing Ohio's taxpayers pay for posh accommodations made me realize why Midwesterners and Southerners lionize college sports: in a land of domestically and internationally weak private sector activity, sports dictate opportunities for teenagers and young adults where none might otherwise exist, certainly in travel. The same argument, but applied to adults, could explain why voters in these areas are so comfortable increasing military spending. 

Bonus 3Almost no one understands pacifism today, and that's why the Amana Heritage Museum is a must-visit. Without understanding history, a country forgets its character and rehashes old conflicts that should have remained settled and buried. If time is a valuable commodity, humanity cannot expect to spend it rehashing the same issues and evolve in an intelligent way. 

Democratic systems, a relatively new concept, matter because in the absence of corruption, they provide perhaps the only objective view into a city or country's tolerance levels. Residents and would-be residents can rely on voting results to decide whether to move or stay, creating a competition between places that would not otherwise exist in any objective format. (See Bonus 1 above.) The history of humanity is, at the end of the day, the history of refugees searching for physical and ideological safety. Those who moved at the right time and to the right place often strengthened their adopted homes while those who stayed behind suffered the worst fate of all: being forgotten at the world's ofrenda

With respect to the Amana colonies, its original residents first moved from inhospitable Germany to New York and finally to Iowa. Along the way, their beliefs changed, manifesting a delicate dance between local authorities and ironclad belief. 
This dance, this jarabe, is the sum of all human civilization. If the Amana believers would have been able to negotiate with New York authorities, they would have stayed, and New York's history might be completely different. It is impossible to know whether the German immigrants' pacifist beliefs would have influenced New York in ways that might have led to an alternate universe where 9/11 did not happen, but we shall never know because of the way New York authorities responded to the different-minded people in their midst. 

One could even argue integrity in its most elemental form is knowing the difference between blind allegiance to the whims of the polity and the appropriate time to diverge. The Amana settlers are still in Iowa, their pictures at America's ofrenda, despite vicious demagoguery because a small band of local sheriffs knew the difference just mentioned, and their courage created a testament to Iowa's tolerance. In their numerous twists and turns while dancing with native Iowans, Amana's refugees gave birth to several noteworthy soldiers and inventions, including the microwave and America's first upright freezer. One of America's remaining Whirlpool plants is in Iowa and not elsewhere because the police and Amana settlers danced the jarabe skillfully a long time ago. 
People want to believe one person can make a difference, but it's probably true in ways we don't imagine and cannot predict. We do know, however, that the Eliot Nessian willingness and courage of a few different-minded individuals who stand together against the tide of unthinking mobs and the intolerance of people who talk, look, and act like them, has changed history. 

The pattern is so obvious, it's a cliché. In Muhammad Ali's case, federal authorities wanted to jail him but he was saved by local stalwarts, more specifically a small band of Kentucky police and Louisville lawyers. Today, if anyone calls a Kentuckian barren or backwards, s/he has a two-word argument that will win every time: Muhammad Ali. What will Iowa's two-word argument be? And what are you prepared to do? 

Bonus 4: I didn't mention Iowa's Grinnell College, but Carleton College in Minnesota is the liberal arts college you'd want to attend. If you can't get into Carleton, then Case Western Reserve University, Washington University, and Oberlin College are similar, if not better than Grinnell. Once again, Iowa lacks a competitive advantage against nearby states, even considering what might be its best feature. 

Bonus 5: from The Iowa Review, Winter 2017/2018, Cammy Brothers' interview with James Alan McPherson in 1987: 
Hmmm, no "Anonymous Gifts" from Aryan Nation members? 
Bonus 6: You'll notice the Mennonites and some Amish women wear headscarves, a "veiling" act similar to Muslim women. Paul Theroux, in Deep South (2015), explains why:

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