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, saying, “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?)”

Oh, how quickly things change. It seems an everyday occurrence when Representative Steve King embarrasses himself, protected by a lack of diversity allowing him statements resembling the Teutonic. Across the street from the Amana Heritage museum celebrating German pacifist refugees’ resistance to local demagoguery, a store sells signs warning intruders they will be shot 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 was in the audience at 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, the main intermission room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena 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 Library. President 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 the entire country. (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.

I haven’t even mentioned Iowa’s best tourism spots: the 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.

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 present a harsh climate that blinds and repels 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 — the up-and-coming Spencer Lee is Coloradoan by birth — and with Oklahoma City thriving nearby and presenting a kinder, 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).

As for corn, it runs on a billion dollars a year from Washington, D.C., a form of white welfare. 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.)

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 probably 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.

Bonus 1: from The Iowa Review, Winter 2017/2018, Cammy Brothers’ interview with James Alan McPherson in 1987:

Bonus 2: 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:

Originally published at on April 13, 2018.

“Globalization needs regulation, but everyone is reluctant to demand it for fear that it may discriminate against them.” [McMafia (2008)]