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In Defense of Iowa

By Steven V. Mazie

IOWA is not the potato state.

Nor is Iowa synonymous with "Ohio" or equivalent to Nebraska. Believe it or not, there are real states west of Massachusetts and east of California with real identities and real people.

You would think that Harvard students--hand-picked for their intelligence, worldliness and cultural literacy--would have some vague idea of what states lie west of the Ohio River.

As it turns out, I have found East-Coast Harvard students no better-informed about the Midwest than most other Easterners. Residents of the East-Coast states suffer from a severe case of "Eastern-centrism," a common mental disorder that causes the sufferer to believe that the universe revolves around an epicenter located somewhere between Boston and Washington.

Those afflicted with acute Eastern-centricism also have the annoying symptom of thinking that the word "Iowa" is hysterically funny.

"If I were to send you a letter," said one ailing patient, "would it be it O.K. just to write 'Steve--Iowa' on the envelope? Or does the Pony Express man need a more complete address?"

It's all right, Mr. Potomac, Maryland Elite Dork, save your postage. The Pony Express is terribly slow this time of year. But if you do send me something, include my last name. If you just write "Steve," there's a good chance that the Massey Ferguson tractor dealer down the road--the other Steve--will get my mail. It happens all the time.

And no, please don't send me a box of corndogs for my birthday. They will spoil en route.

Occasionally, Iowa humor can be funny. (Example: What's the difference between yogurt and Iowa? Yogurt has active culture.) But after awhile, it starts to cut an edge. Behind the protective facade of a joke, genuine chronic Eastern-centrism prevails.

I don't have cows grazing in my backyard. I don't bail hay for weekend fun. My friends who rib me interminably with Idaho--sorry, Iowa--humor are really Midwest-ignorant and patronizing.

"Hey Steve--I met someone named Fred from Iowa. Do you know him? He says he hangs around the general store a lot."

AND the affliction is not limited to my witty peers. Eastern-centrism, I recently found out, manifests itself in every generation. Many perfectly civil, seemingly educated 60- and 70-year-olds are just as ignorant of the Midwest and its affairs as my Harvard friends.

I was sitting politely at my friend's Passover Seder in quaint Newton, Mass., when the inevitable question arose: "Where are you from?"

My East Coast audience was noticably taken aback by my answer. I wasn't from Long Island, Washington or New Jersey. They looked curiously at my bow tie, evidently wondering how I learned to tie one while slopping hogs and milking cows. I think they were more surprised that there were actually Jews living in Iowa.

After the first cup of Passover wine, the inhibitions of one gray, distinguished woman lifted. She looked at me confidently, slapped her hand on the table and asked in a deliberate tone: "Where exactly is Iowa on the map?"

I explained that Iowa is south of Minnesota, north of Missouri, east of Nebraska and west of Illinois. I used my hand as a visual aid. She still looked confused. I'm not sure she could have placed any of those states on the map.

The nice old woman then told me that she had never even learned where the birthplace of her husband--Omaha, Nebraska--could be found on the map. I smiled, chewed on a piece of matzoh and waited for the next evidence of Eastern-centrism to slap me in the face.

It wasn't long before the gentleman next to the geography whiz asked me a question, hoping to show his thoughtfulness and concern about issues in Iowa. "So, what's this whole thing about an abortion battle in Iowa?"

Now I was confused. Had there been an abortion battle in Iowa? Not that I could remember. My friend realized the mistake. He explained, "You're thinking of Idaho, sir." So he was.

That enigmatic cloud of Idaho/Iowa/Ohio/Et Cetera was somewhere between the coasts. It's sad, but that's the way a lot of otherwise educated Easterners conceptualize the Midwest.

ITRY to explain that there is a lot more to Iowa than eight-row combines and the first presidential caucus. A lot more. It may surprise you that the average SAT score in Iowa was the nation's highest last year, or that Iowa's literacy rate leads all states.

The tragedy is that so many Easterners close themselves to the Midwest. When they get a glimpse of happenings in Iowa, it is either watching Field of Dreams on videotape or Dan Rather--looking spiffy in a Golden Acres Seed cap--interviewing a tearful Iowan whose family farm is going on the auction block.

They also see the lady who predicts that the world will end on April 26, not to mention the fundamentalist town where dancing is legally prohibited. Of course, these happenings are in Wyoming and Missouri, but to victims of Eastern-centricism, it's all the same state.

Think about it. In the meantime, I'll be shining up my new combine for the upcoming square dance. And I'll be detassling Iowa corn and tenderizing Iowa beef for a real Iowa bash.

But I won't be skinning potatoes.

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