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‘Iowa Nice’ Doesn’t Mean Much to Me

An Iowan reflects on the online harassment campaign he faced last September, and how a well-worn cultural label oversimplifies the state he loves.

by Aaron Calvin
Feb 3 2020, 2:57pm

Illustration by Hunter French

Last September, as I hid out for two days at a friend’s house to avoid the hatred and anger that had suddenly poured down on me, I thought of a story my grandmother once told me. Driving across the Iowa state line as a young single mother returning to her home state decades ago, she passed a welcome sign so worn that one letter had fallen away.

“Hell, Iowa,” it read.

Her view of Iowa then was of a place of damnation, where she had spent a childhood in rural poverty that demanded constant work but provided little comfort in return. My two-day hell in September was the result of something slightly more modern: After reporting on a local charity drive by viral fundraiser and local hero Carson King, I became the target of an online misinformation campaign.

People were infuriated that I had unearthed a history of racist comments from the fundraiser’s past. As a result, I was relentlessly attacked on social media, threatened with violence, and lost my job as a reporter at The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper.

Every four years, my family’s home state becomes the center of U.S. politics—a cycle that leads the national media to churn out countless articles about an otherwise minor Midwestern state that houses a total population not quite equal to that of Los Angeles. For a few months prior to the caucuses, national newspapers and TV networks return to the state to mythologize the caucus process and oversimplify the personal tendencies of the people involved. Inevitably, this partial and truncated education is packaged and shipped to them attached to a two-word phrase: “Iowa Nice.”

If I could change one thing about my home state, if I could encourage a public reckoning with just one of the many myths it holds about itself, it would be to end the idea of “Iowa Nice” and encourage a more clear-eyed examination of Iowans, inside and outside the state. Perhaps then we could properly reckon with Iowa’s complications and contradictions.

“Iowa Nice” itself is a manufactured sentiment—a marketing slogan that like many things in Iowa was co-opted from Minnesota. With increased frequency over the past decade or so, the state’s catchphrase has been found in stories ranging from breakdowns of the Democratic candidates’ temerity to explainers on the success of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s casseroles at campaign events.

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As the national media fixes its attention squarely upon the state this week, “Iowa Nice” reinforces a simple story that Iowans and outsiders both enjoy telling themselves. The phrase has subsequently become a well-worn touchstone among media and politicians alike. When I covered trending and viral news as a reporter at the Register, writing feel-good stories that played into the “Iowa Nice'' stereotype was a central part of the job.

One such story was the piece that lost me my job, about a local man’s viral charity campaign. I discovered during my reporting that the man had made a series of racist statements while in high school. As part of what I considered a measured profile I included the comments and noted how his character had matured. For doing so, right-wing bigots started a doxing campaign against me and otherwise made me the story. To many, I had become the very antithesis of the treasured ideal of “Iowa Nice.”

At its best, the conflict-averse mentality of “Iowa Nice” is a way for people here to feel proud that they are decent neighbors to one another—ignoring the fact that people in more populous and diverse places are often decent neighbors as well. The phrase has become a way for Iowans to reassure themselves about their own goodness, as with Scott Seipker’s “Iowa Nice Guy” videos from the halcyon days of 2012, which brought the phrase to new prominence in the viral age.

At its worst, “Iowa Nice” encourages deep complacency in the face of the systemic issues that are devouring the state from the inside out. Consider the continued consolidation of corporate farms in a land that more closely resembles a massive factory built for the exclusive purpose of feeding livestock animals, not people. Little has been done to combat the racist and segregating forces that have disenfranchised minorities throughout one of the country’s least diverse states or about a criminal justice system that locks up black people at 13 times the rate of white people, a not particularly “nice” statistic. The complacency extends to the continuous rot of the state’s water quality and the radical disaster that is the state’s recently privatized Medicaid program.

The history of the state of Iowa, much like the history of the United States, is a complicated one. Iowa’s population is comprised mostly of white descendents of European immigrants, who fulfilled their manifest destiny when they settled here before the Civil War as its native inhabitants were driven away or murdered. At the same time, many early leaders in the state were fierce abolitionists, who often housed escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad and made slavery illegal in the state’s constitution.

The most compelling moments in Iowa history have little to do with civility. During the height of The Great Depression, angry farmers blockaded highways in protest of a decimated agriculture market. During the height of the Civil Rights Era, tensions broke into a riot in Des Moines’ Good Park that led to heightened levels of anti-segregationist activism. The early victory for legal same-sex marriage in the state was only possible thanks to the lawsuits brought forth by couples willing to put their well-being on the line in a state that still contains virulent anti-LGBTQ sentiment. In the aftermath, its swiftly installed Republican state government has gone to great lengths to punish and alter the courts that granted that right. Nothing that I would characterize as “nice.”

When I returned to Iowa in 2017 after living in the New York City area for seven years, I sought out stories that displayed the strange heart of life in Iowa—the story of a rural man coming to terms with his own mortality while selling away his muscle cars; of a homeless woman discovering and returning a stolen work of art; and of a transgender man experiencing a mental health crisis who police officers wrestled to the ground and later charged with assault. I wrote about Des Moines’ insidious housing crisis and the high-profile murder of Mollie Tibbetts, an event that Iowa conservatives used as an opportunity to villainize immigrants against the wishes of Tibbetts’ own family.

But because the digital publishing economy demands views and shares, I was also compelled to write stories that reaffirmed and exemplified the “Iowa Nice” mentality. The exact kind of stories Iowans wanted to read and share about themselves—stories emphasizing people’s meekness, kneejerk niceness, or that otherwise proclaimed the state “the best in the nation”— were the ones that I felt oversimplified my own state.

Iowa has been and will always be home to me. After returning, my grandmother came to embrace Iowa again. It was here that she became the person I would always know her to be —a lifelong teacher with a deep compassion for all living things. She’s 80 now, as sturdy as any 50-year-old, and still lives on the land in the rural area my family has lived upon for generations.

But if there was a moment that could put to bed the infantilizing notion that Iowans are all somehow generally nicer than the rest of America, it happened to me last September, when my reporting on King was mistaken as “gotcha” journalism. I had complicated a feel-good moment, and the corporate owner of the Register fired me in response to public pressure.

I initially wrestled with feelings of bitterness, but I came to realize something else: that among the many governed by anger and prejudice, there are always people who live their lives with a commitment to kindness.

As the vitriolic wave crashed down upon me, I received messages of support not just from those who knew me and from people in my community, but also from strangers, inside Iowa and out. It was in this buoying support that I saw the truth about Iowans: That in all the assumptions about “Iowa Nice,” the reality is much more complicated.

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