In Iowa

April 17, 2011

There’s an announcement coming over the PA at gate C-2 in Des Moines, advising that some unfortunate soul (name withheld) has left an item back at the gift shop on the far side of TSA inspection. In New York or Detroit this kind of announcement is so unusual that the mind immediately suspects terrorist activity or a DEA bust. But in Des Moines, you assume that someone just left a credit card at the counter after buying some magazines and candy for the plane ride. The airport folks are just being helpful.

These assumptions of Gemütlichkeit get further support when a whole crowd forms of people who need a little extra time and assistance in boarding. Elsewhere, you need triplets in arms or a wheelchair to qualify for this, but in Iowa families with 10-year olds and oldsters with no more gray and no less mobility than me feel entitled to press forward in response to the pre-boarding announcement. And why not? They probably don’t travel more than once or twice a year and the anxiety created by those TSA guys (actually pretty non-threatening in Des Moines) is enough to make you feel like you need a little extra consideration.

When I was a ten year old, I would occasionally get tired of playing one of the two LPs I had in my own name and put on one of my Dad’s records. I was very likely to hear these lyrics:

Oh, there’s nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you
Which we may not do at all.
There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
We’ve never been without.
That we recall.
We can be cold
As our falling thermometers in December
If you ask about our weather in July.
And we’re so by God stubborn
We could stand touchin’ noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.
But what the heck, you’re welcome,
Join us at the picnic.
You can eat your fill
Of all the food you bring yourself.
You really ought to give Iowa a try.

The scene I was witnessing at C-2 was the upside of Iowa contrariness, but there is a dark mood in Iowa these days that reflects a less welcome and innocent side of “Iowa stubborn.” I use the word dark here advisedly because I am privy to some events transpiring in Iowa farm politics that are both unsavory and that I cannot discuss in a public forum. And my short visit there last week picked up two other totally unrelated domains of farm politics where people said that they could not say everything they knew. Whether for fear of reprisal or scotching the broth, it is not a good thing when people feel unable to speak what they know in simple conversation over beer.

These secrets swirl among some themes a bit more public. I’m told the Pork Board was stunned when visitors to the Des Moines zoo reacted to an exhibit of sows confined in gestation crates with shock and horror. (Now, I get that there’s an issue here, because it’s arguable that these pigs are better off than pigs in pens where they are subject to bullying and battering from more aggressive individuals. But the question of who really does have the better bacon is going to have to wait.) Now the legislature is considering action that would make photography or videotaping of animal production facilities without the owner’s consent a felony. It would also criminalize possession of such photos or videotapes. At least a few influential Iowa farmers are on the side of darkness it seems.

In my obsessive quest to tell both sides of a story, I am compelled to note that animal activists have secretly sought employment on livestock farms, then goaded other employees into Abu Graib-like photo ops. The results have been disseminated over the Internet as if they represent the norm for intensive livestock production. And as I’ve just said above, even accurate portrayals are difficult for the novice to read.

It’s a sad dark place our farm politics have gotten to. Anyone need a little extra time in boarding?

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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