Monday, December 26, 2011

My own take on something lots of people have had fun with

Stephen Bloom has finally achieved nationwide recognition. Alas, he has done so by writing one of the year's truly pathetic (on several different levels), unintentionally self-revealing articles for The Atlantic. A good parody has been done by Iowahawk, who focuses primarily on the supercilious tone by which Bloom makes himself look far worse than those whom he wishes to ridicule; and a brisk fisking has been turned in by Lileks, whose focus is on the genuinely dreadful quality of the writing. (Note to The Atlantic: so your editors, what, went on strike that week or something?)

But several things especially leapt out at me (by the way, in what follows, the non-Baptist term "pig shit" is used purely as an allusion to Bloom's own apparent fixation on the stuff -- I hope any profanity-averse persons, my parents for example, will forgive my usage in this context):

1. I'd bet a gold eagle against a plugged nickel that Bloom is only in Iowa because no high-status university wants him. By his own testimony he came to Iowa City from San Francisco and disliked it at sight. Every line of his article drips contempt for the Neanderthal Jesus-lovers who, you know, pay his salary through taxation (which is the only evidence the article provides for the proposition that they really are as stupid as he thinks). Yet he has stayed there in Iowa City for twenty years. You don't think that if Hah-vahd or Berkeley or even the Amherst Preparatory School for Girls had offered him a job amongst the Right Sort Of Folks, he'd've had his name signed before they got to the end of their sentence? This guy is in Iowa City because, for him, the University of Iowa is the ceiling. He's just not good enough to get out.

And boy, is he bitter about not getting out.

A genuinely intelligent person, of course, who has been stuck in the same place for twenty years, would pretend to like it even if he hated it, just so that people wouldn't know that none of the places he would like to live, are interested in having him live there. But then a genuinely intelligent person might do a great many things -- none of which would include "writing this particular article for The Atlantic."

2. Bloom's piece is actually pretty brutally inaccurate in every respect that matters, because he does not understand the people whom he attempts to describe. And the reason is simple -- he has neither humility nor charity. He gets facts and figures right (I presume -- I didn't bother to check his statistics for crime rates in Mississippi River towns, for example). But anybody with access to Google could look those up for himself. If his article is to have any value at all, it has to be in explaining how ordinary Iowans think about life, what motivates them, why they do what they do and live as they live. For his article to have value, he would have to be able to take us inside the Iowans' minds with at least some degree of empathy and insight.

Um...nope. Insofar as we get any insight, it is only into the peculiarly cramped and provincial mind of Bloom himself, which is of little conceivable interest to the world at large. The Iowans of his article are cartoon cardboard cutouts, with about as much reality as the talking dog on "Family Guy". Too bad Bloom's Labrador didn't write the article; the dog probably understands Bloom's neighbors better than Bloom does.

Look, to a person who is genuinely curious about people (as anything other than as a sop to one's own ego), and who genuinely likes people, the folks who are different from you are the people most worth getting to know -- and getting to know on their own terms. Public figures (including internet bloggers) are not real people to most of us (for example, if I knew Bloom in person, I almost certainly would find some things to like, though none of them are on display in his disastrous article; and then I would probably set those things off against his knee-jerk bigotry and standard-issue academic narrow-mindedness and declare him on the whole to be a decent guy). But your neighbors and your co-workers...why, those people you can get to know, if people interest you. I've made friends in New Jersey (which I hated as cordially as Bloom hates Iowa); I have friends who are Kazakh Muslims in Temirtau; I sent my then-wife to attend a friend's two-week-long wedding in Tunisia because I couldn't go myself; I spent a year attending a Hispanic church here in Houston; the church I'm in now is Chinese, as are my wife and stepson and in-laws; I've worked for months at a time in London -- and everywhere I've gone the people have been different from me, and in very many places the people I've been around have had moral habits I think are wrong, and political or religious opinions I think are not just wrong but destructive. But I still liked the people, and still found a great many things about them to admire. I have a low opinion of the beliefs of the political Left -- not perhaps such a low opinion as Bloom's opinion of Christian savages such as his benighted fundy students, but pretty low all the same. Yet one of the best friends I've ever had is also one of the most politically liberal people I know. So what? Her good qualities are legion, and my life is much richer for having known her (and since she's in solidly Republican Texas, her voting habits can't do any real harm).

But it's clear that Bloom both detests, and is utterly without understanding of, the people at whom he takes such pleasure in sneering. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that his sneering makes himself look much worse than his targets.

3. The next thing that struck me, also struck Lileks's commenter Lars Walker, on whose comment I can't possibly improve:
Things he didn't mention, which I'm pretty sure have happened to him during his time in the hellish midwest: The time he accidentally left his car unlocked, and came back to find that nobody had stolen anything at all from it. The time he left his credit card in a restaurant, and came back to find that some kind soul had left it with the cashier for him. The time he broke down on the highway, and a friendly stranger gave him a lift to a service station (the stranger very likely told him about Jesus at the same time--THE HORROR!) The time his wife got sick and the neighbors brought food and offered to watch the kids.

The infamy goes on and on.

4. He has a cowardly trick of not standing up for his own opinions by hiding behind the phrase "some say" when for some he reason he doesn't dare to just say, "in my opinion." Here, for example...does anyone doubt what opinion Bloom personally has of Rep. Steve King?
Insular Iowa is also home to the most conservative, and, some say, wackiest congressman in America, Republican Rep. Steve King, who represents the vast western third of the state. Some of King's doozies: calling Senator Joe McCarthy a "hero for America"; comparing illegal immigrants to stray cats that wind up on people's porches; and praying that Supreme Court "Justice Stevens and Justice Ginsberg fall madly in love with each other and elope to Cuba." Keith Olbermann named King not only the worst congressman in the U.S., but the Worst Person in the World six times.
Personally, I hadn't heard the Stevens/Ginsburg line, which is hilarious; so at least I got something useful out of this article. And just how far to the left do you have to be to consider Keith Olbermann a citable authority, rather than merely certifiable? Bloom may be the only loyal viewer Olby still has.

"Some" also "say" this: "Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state like Iowa should host the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president isn't at issue." (laughing) Apparently Bloom thinks that his readers aren't bright enough to realize that Bloom, personally, considers Iowa to be culturally challenged to about the same degree that Somalian orphans are Armani-challenged.

4. A lot of his pontification unwittingly betrays ignorance. "Rural America has always been homogenous, as white as the milk the millions of Holstein cows here produce." Um...rural Minnesota, certainly. Rural Iowa and Indiana, arguably. Rural Texas? Rural Oklahoma? Rural Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia? Um...never mind. "Elevators in rural America raise and lower grain, not people." I'm pretty sure Bloom would consider me to have grown up in "rural America," and my high-school girlfriend had an elevator in her house -- which elevator was used for people, not groceries. (But not often, because boy, did that thing ever make your electricity bill spike.) Furthermore, a "grain elevator" in the Midwest isn't even the thing that raises and lowers grain -- that's a bucket elevator, which is one of the pieces of equipment that can be found within a grain elevator, which is a great big tower where you store grain. For a man who considers himself qualified to Explain The Primitive Iowan Aborigines to the Enlightened Elite to which he fondly fancies he belongs, he is singularly ignorant of his subject matter. Though, to be fair, since Bloom later says, "In the large towns (population more than 2,500), towering grain elevators are what you first see from a distance," I suppose that it's possible that he knew that what he was writing was nonsense, but he just kept it in because it was the closest he could come to a funny one-liner. But in that case, some editor (are you listening, Atlantic?) should have pointed out gently that if a man can't do Funny One-Liners better than that, then he should opt for being dully but precisely well-informed.

And other lines make you wonder whether the man is even bothering to read his own writing. "Many towns are so insular that farmers from another county are strangers." Great googly gobsmackers, what percentage of The Atlantic's readers know even ten percent of the people who live within a single square-mile radius of their houses??? Where in the name of heaven is Bloom's "insularity" bar set? The Neanderthals of Iowa are to be criticized for "insularity" because most of them draw their circles of acquaintance with no more than a twenty-mile radius?? How many of the people living in Iowa City do you think Bloom himself knows?

5. The pompous ass despises Christianity and Christians, and has as little tolerance for them as he thinks he can get away with -- and yet is fatuously certain that it is the Christians who are intolerant. I love this paragraph:
After years and years of in-your-face religion, I decided to give what has become an annual lecture, in which I urge my students not to bid strangers "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter," "Have you gotten all your Christmas shopping done?" or "Are you going to the Easter egg hunt?" Such well-wishes are not appropriate for everyone, I tell my charges gently. A cheery "Happy holidays!" will suffice. Small potatoes, I know, but did everyone have to proclaim their Christianity so loud and clear?
(sighs with pleasure) Ah, so much to enjoy in this paragraph. Let us deal, first of all, with the basic proposition of Bloom's self-righteous little lecture, which is that his students are behaving inappropriately by wishing strangers "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter." Well, let's see...let us assume that I am in Iowa, and that a stranger (like, from a whole different county!) has just held the door open for me as I left the corner store with an armful of groceries. What should I say (after "Thank you!") that will be most likely to brighten the stranger's day? There are four scenarios possibly in play here:

a. The stranger is a Christian, and one who believes that in-your-face anti-religiosity -- you know, things like journalism professors who use their journalism class platform to call undergraduate students rude for (horrors!) mentioning religion in public -- is out to drive Christianity out of the Christmas season. We're talking the kind of person who not only knows the phrase "secular humanism," but uses it frequently. Such a person will be distressed to hear someone say, "Happy Holidays," a statement that in Iowa is only used by persons who consider reference to religion among strangers une gaucherie. You will brighten this person's day by saying, "Merry Christmas;" but to say, "Happy Holidays" is worse than saying nothing at all. Whether you consider that this makes them a godly person who has his religious priorities straight (the majority view in Iowa, I imagine) or a narrow-minded fundamentalist proto-Nazi (Bloom's apparent opinion) is beside the point: all you're trying to do is brighten a stranger's day. So in this case, you would definitely -- if you are a polite person whose concern is the stranger's feelings rather than your own religiopolitical agenda -- want to wish the stranger "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays."

b. The stranger is a Christian who doesn't feel very strongly about the difference between "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Holidays" because he knows that what is important is that you wish to express friendship and good cheer. Being Christian, he will enjoy being told "Merry Christmas" more than "Happy Holidays;" but the stakes are lower. Still, here the better choice is, "Merry Christmas."

c. The stranger is not a Christian, but he is a friendly and charitable person who thinks the best of others, and who knows that he is in Iowa where most people are celebrating Christmas and celebrating it for primarily religious (but not therefore malicious) reasons. Therefore if you wish him "Merry Christmas" he will take it in the spirit in which it was intended -- and almost certainly wish you "Merry Christmas" right back. (I note that pretty much every Jewish or Indian friend I've ever had has cheerfully wished me a "Merry Christmas" whenever we got to this time of year.) With such a person, either "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" will do perfectly well, since, being well-bred and open-minded, he will respond to the friendly tone of your voice and the obvious good intent of the wishes rather than to some purely imagined "Confess, you infidel!" subtext. And therefore "Merry Christmas" is perfectly appropriate for this stranger as well.

d. The stranger not only is not a Christian, but he comes from that unpleasant American subculture that, finding any serious belief in dogmatic religion to be at the very least distasteful, wishes to demand that the rest of humanity cater to its private psychological peccadillos by refraining from mentioning religion in its presence. (Note that in Bloom's mind, a professor making a joke in class about how the back pews are notoriously the most popular in church, represents "in-your-face religion," whereas he describes his own hijacking a lecture nominally about journalism in order to deliver a lecture on his students' supposed religious insensitivity with the words, "I tell [them] gently." The lack of self-awareness is just delightful.) Now this sort of person is much more interested in his own social agenda than he is in you, the stranger who probably smells like pig shit, and therefore he is likely to react not to your intent or to the friendliness in your voice, but to the purely imaginary religious persecution he is suffering by being subjected to your "in-your-face" religion.

In this last case, since you really are just trying to be friendly and you (being yourself well-bred, courteous, and generous in spirit) are interested in improving his day rather than pushing an evangelistic agenda, then you would want to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" -- if, that is, you knew in advance that he was one of the very small minority of persons in Iowa who walks around with an antireligious chip on his shoulder. But, ex hypothesi, this person is a stranger -- which means you do not know that he is such a person. What you instead know is that you are in Iowa -- and therefore it is overwhelmingly likely that the stranger will react more positively to "Merry Christmas" than to "Happy Holidays," and rather more likely that he would react negatively to "Happy Holidays" than that he would be offended by a cheerful and well-intentioned "Merry Christmas." Which means your default choice, if you have a lick of sense and any shred of courtesy, is "Merry Christmas."

In short, if you're in Iowa, the polite thing to do when you meet a stranger about whom you know nothing, is to say, "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays." Indeed, that's actually what you should say even if you personally happen to be Jewish or an atheist. In fact, if Bloom's interest in such an exchange is truly the other person's feelings, rather than his own, then he should be saying "Merry Christmas," not "Happy Holidays." It is Bloom, not (as he so patronizingly calls them) his "charges," who is behaving rudely and inappropriately when he greets strange Iowans (granted, to him this is a redundancy) with a cheery "Happy Holidays." But then, for Bloom to be able to recognize this, he would have to be an intelligent and generous individual with an open mind and an adult-sized helping of genuine courtesy. So I don't think we should be holding our collective breath.

Of course, if you happen to meet Bloom himself, then you should certainly say, "Happy Holidays" (assuming that you know he has this particular psychological hang-up, and that your intent is to spread the good cheer of the season rather than to amuse yourself by playing the admittedly entertaining game of annoy-the-pompous-ass). But that is simply an application of a standard principle: always deal with the most precise generalization you have (which has, as its corollary, "If the person who is talking to you doesn't know you personally, and he assumes something about you on the basis of a generally valid generalization to which you happen to be an exception, cut the guy some slack, eh?"). If all you know is that the person across the way from you is a John-Deere-hatted white dude in deepest, darkest, pig-shittiest Iowa, then you say "Merry Christmas." If it's a pleasant-faced middle-aged lady in jeans and a t-shirt coming out of the Wal-Mart in Iowa City, you say "Merry Christmas." If it's a not-very-virile-looking middle-aged guy who just got out of his Prius in the faculty parking lot and he's wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, then maybe you want to say "Happy Holidays." And if it's a guy clutching a copy of The Atlantic and wearing a nametag that says, "Stephen Bloom"...well, in that case I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to resist saying, "Merry Christmas, though of course it won't be merry for damned-to-hell infidels like you," just to see the look on his face. And then of course I'd have to apologize to him, and also go to confession to discuss my lack of charity.

One last point about this annual lecture of his: the vast majority of those students have either gone into debt, or worked their own butts off, or used up some of their parents' hard-earned money in order to learn something at college. And when they were choosing their classes, the class they signed up for purported to be about journalism. When Bloom takes it upon himself to "gently" deliver his self-righteous little diatribe, does he refund the students for the money that they have, as it turns out, been induced under false pretences to spend? These are not elementary or even high school students, to whom Bloom would stand in loco parentis; they are not his "charges" in the sense that he seems to believe they are. They are adults who are paying for a service, namely to be taught the principles of journalism. Insofar as any of his students may have resented having to sit through a moral lecture about holiday greeting manners when they were supposed to be learning about journalism, their resentment would have been entirely justified -- and Bloom would have owed them a sincere apology -- even (to wield a contrafactual) had the moral advice had been sound and well-thought out, rather than thoughtlessly asinine. "Score one for sticking it to the ethnic interloper"? No, score one for standing up to the shallow-minded, pompous bigot who chose not to give the paying customers their money's worth, and expected them to be grateful for his condescension.

Ah, well, we needn't worry too much about Bloom's bad behavior. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and the universe has already seen to it that Bloom is receiving the due penalty for his sins of intellect and motive -- he has, for twenty years now, been condemned to Hell. Which is to say, Iowa.

UPDATE: As Anonymous pointed out in a comment, Bloom, despite being a "professor," has only a B.A. I have therefore removed the "Dr." from in front of his name throughout the post. Also I think the dog was a Labrador and not a golden retriever; so I fixed that too.

Several of Bloom's colleagues at the University of Iowa have published a co-signed opinion piece that makes clear their disdain for the "journalism" he practices, including this rather deadly paragraph:
...[W]e have a profound and professional disagreement with Bloom concerning the practice of “good journalism.” We do not believe, as he does, that good journalism entails scathing attacks on powerless people, nor do we endorse any work riddled with inaccuracies and factual errors and based on sweeping generalizations and superficial stereotypes.

And Ken Fuson pretends to take Bloom's piece as a hilarious parody that was never meant to be taken seriously here. It's worth reading the whole thing, but I especially liked his list of ten things Fuson himself (a native Iowan) learned from Bloom's piece, beginning with:
1. All Iowa men wear hats (Note to self: Get a hat).
I also liked this one:
7. When driving “ostentatious” Ford F-150 pickups to the nearest tractor pull or demolition derby on date night, Iowans will often allow other motorists to merge ahead of them.


At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do you call him "Dr. Bloom"? The man no more possesses any kind of doctoral degree- let alone a PhD - than do the Iowans he so despises; his website at the University of Iowa shows that earned merely a BA- and, since he mentions no honors, not even a distinguished one at that.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Do you know, I just assumed that, as he was a professor, he had a doctorate. Nice catch; I have corrected the error.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Logical assumption; most people think of the liberal arts, or a Faculty of Arts and Sciences, when they think of a university; and there, indeed, no degree lower than a PhD will suffice (ie no EdD., DD, MD, DBA, JSD). But *journalism* is not an academic subject, but a professional one; there is no such thing as a doctorate of any kind in journalism- same thing with schools of government; the "professors" who profess the subject are mostly retired politicos, not research scholars. But one probably has to be a member of the guild in order to be alive to such differences.

At 12:03 AM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Very interesting; today is a day I learned something. Thanks!

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

NB Just for the record: Harvard, rightly so, does not have a journalism school (although, alas, it has made the egregious error of establishing the pernicious Kennedy School of Government- which is nearly as bad); I believe the only really top university to stoop as low as a journalism trade school, if I am not mistaken, is Columbia.

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