Friday, January 6, 2012

Sticks & Stones get personal

How do we protect ourselves from a verbal assault? The Stephen Bloom Affair (okay, that's what I'm calling it) has made me think about that more than a little.

Bloom's article in The Atlantic hurled a stream of vindictive comments at rural Iowans, calling them "lacking in educated, (sic)" "old people waiting to die," "toothless meth addicts" and "wastoids."

I read his article with interest but also some detachment. After all, I'm educated, drug free, have a full set of teeth (including wisdom), hold an advanced degree and even though I grew up on an Iowa farm have lived in urban areas for many years. As an Iowan, I was affronted by Bloom's article, but more interested and confused - able to view the writing with professional detachment. I could deflect the actual hurt of the attack because, of course, Bloom wasn't talking about me.

My distance was safely in place until I read Peter Feldstein's opinion piece published in the Des Moines Register.  Feldstein is the photographer and co-author with Bloom of The Oxford Project, a book that tells in words and photos the stories of 100 residents of a small, rural Iowa community.

Bloom spent more than a little time with the people of Oxford, getting to know them, writing their stories, presenting them to the world with what felt like both honesty and compassion. When Bloom wrote his diatribe for The Atlantic, he did it from the perspective of knowing those real rural Iowa people up close and personal.

When the folks of Oxford read his article, they can't retain a protective distance. For them his words are personal. They have every right to feel insulted and betrayed. They don't have that protective shield of  distance. Bloom knows them. And now they know what he really thinks.

Peter Feldstein offered the most stinging indictment of his co-author's essay when he concluded his own essay this way: "A few days ago, I picked up the book for the first time since the brouhaha. I had a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wish Stephen Bloom's name was not on it."

The sticks and stones Bloom threw at Iowa all of a sudden feel very personal. His words landed hard on the good people of Oxford.  And they hurt.


  1. I'm still trying to figure out what changed for Stephen Bloom. I read through his introduction in The Oxford Project book. He handles the people of Oxford with care and sincerity. (He interviewed 100 of the residents. Peter Feldstein photographed 670 residents the first time around.)

    He tells of how open and forthcoming his interview subjects were with the stories of their lives.

    "The language of not just a few was pure poetry," he said.

    He talks about some of the problems Oxford and rural America face -- almost word for word in some cases -- but he turns it into something positive regarding the "vital assortment of families and individuals" of Oxford. (He didn't say anything about toothless meth addicts and wastoids.)

    His last paragraph of the introduction says, "Peter's portraits of the residents of Oxford and their own deeply felt words combine to create a national portrait of overlooked triumphs and travails. In the faces and voices of these strangers, we grow to understand ourselves better. They remind us of who we dreamed we would become, and who we turned out to be."

    I wonder who Bloom dreamed he would become and what he thinks of who he turned out to be.

  2. Becky - Your comments and the entire discussion bring me back to my original question - Why? Barring something forthcoming from Bloom to the contrary, I'm left to conclude with the same cynicism I felt originally - he sold out - to sensationalism - to make money. Because either he lied in the Oxford Project book, or he lied in the Atlantic essay. Either way, he cannot be proud of his effort.