Sunday, January 08, 2012

Finding what you look for?

I can't tell if Stephen Bloom's commentary on Iowa (That's not the original, but it's a writeup of it, quoting him) is really satire, as he claimed it to be. It sounds pretty pointed and unpleasant to me. ("The elderly waiting to die"? Really?)

I read about this little tempest in a teacup when I was up visiting my folks - I think Investor's Business Daily had a bit on it?

And my first reaction was frustration: This is why people hate professors. This is why the more populist-minded commentators say stuff like "don't send your kids to college" and snark about college-educated people.

But then again: we have freedom of speech in this country. Bloom's free to say or write what he wants, even if it's nasty - or even if it's satire that's not well-enough-done for people to recognize as satire. (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here; it seems these days "just kidding" is often the last refuge of a scoundrel).

But then again, again: there are some limitations on, or rather, consequences for, what a professor says. I know - in our Policies and Procedures manual it notes that we're free to write letters-to-the-editor but we are in no way to imply that we are speaking for the university, which is fair enough - I have colleagues across the entire spectrum, from people I agree with, to people I disagree with but respect because they are level-headed and make a good argument, to people who immediately go into ad hominem territory if there's a person or politician they don't like for some reason.

And as my dad's often said: one of the unexpected beauties of freedom of speech is that the jerks tend to out themselves. And that includes professors writing supposedly-satirical essays about the state in which they live. (I know that the job market is awful right now, but if you truly hate the place where you live, might it not be easier to just move? There's a reason I didn't apply for jobs in southern California, or in any of the big East Coast cities, or places known as "progressive" hotbeds).

But thinking on it more - and presuming that when Bloom originally wrote it, he was not intending it as pure satire but rather his observations of what he believed the state to be like - it strikes me that you find what you're looking for.

I experienced this with a colleague a few months back. Hanging around before a meeting, he got to talking about how "stupid" or "clueless" some of the people working retail here were, and how he enjoyed kind of baiting them. (Ugh. It's one thing to look down on people, but to be unpleasant to them for amusement value?). I quietly said I didn't talk to people working checkstands and such much, but that's not really true - I do talk to them. But one thing I've learned over the years is the art of small talk - mentioning the weather, or if there's some piece of clearly good news in the community, bringing it up - and just plain saying "please" and "thank you" and telling them to have a nice day.

I suppose some of Bloom's criticisms of Iowa could be applied here as well - we're chronically an economically depressed area (though right now, we're doing better than some places - and I think we've seen considerably fewer foreclosures than in my parents' town in Illinois). And methamphetamine is a considerable problem. (Dammit, I wish that stuff had never been invented...or that it ONLY worked in medical applications. It's ruined way too many lives.)

But on the other hand: a lot of the people here are hard-working. A lot of the people try to do what's right, based on their faith and morals. If someone has a big emergency, like someone gets burned out of their house, people will rally around to help. There's still sort of a "pioneer spirit" here, where people seem to believe in "Today you, tomorrow maybe me" in terms of people needing help - and they give that help, sometimes to complete strangers. Many kids are still taught to respect their elders - I regularly hear students calling us faculty "sir" and "ma'am." And people do care about the land - there's been a big fight to stop sales of water to a couple of the big cities in the region, because the farmers and ranchers and other citizens say that they know the water is the lifeblood of this area, and that if they start selling it, they may find themselves in a time when they can't keep enough to keep this area going. (And this came when some of those "city folk" thought our citizens would just roll over if they showed them enough dollars...). People are generally pretty live-and-let-live - they're not particularly interested in getting up in other people's business, like with restrictive HOA covenants and such.

One thing I've found is that you do tend to find what you're looking for in life. Now, granted, maybe if I wasn't (largely secretly) in agreement with the politics of many people around here, I might not be as positive about the local citizens. Then again, I don't know. While people often frustrate me, and it leads me to lash out here (and other places), on some level I do like people and I want them to be happy. And I find I'm happier myself when I'm looking at the good things.

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