According to Iowa’s new Senator-elect, Joni Ernst, Iowa has changed a lot since I was in grad school there. It’s become a state of godless, selfish, callous, and uncharitable assholes who don’t go to church, don’t care about anybody but themselves, are indifferent to others’ suffering, neglect their own families, and can’t be bothered to give to food pantries or contribute to clothing drives. She doesn’t mention it but they probably don’t put anything in the boxes for Toys for Tots and make the Marines cry.
Things were different when she was a young Hawkeye, of course, and all this heartlessness is the fault of President Obama in particular and liberal government in general.
“We’re looking at Obamacare right now. Once we start with those benefits in January, how are we going to get people off of those? It’s exponentially harder to remove people once they’ve already been on those programs…we rely on government for absolutely everything. And in the years since I was a small girl up until now into my adulthood with children of my own, we have lost a reliance on not only our own families, but so much of what our churches and private organizations used to do. They used to have wonderful food pantries. They used to provide clothing for those that really needed it. But we have gotten away from that. Now we’re at a point where the government will just give away anything.”
Ernst wasn’t a small girl when I was in grad school, but she was only in junior high, so it’s probable she was thinking about other things at the time, but you’d think she’d have noticed that the salient economic event in Iowa in the 1980s was the failure of thousands and thousands of family farms. She might also have overheard some grownups talking about how the Reagan Administration’s economics team regarded it as a good thing all those families were losing their livelihoods and their homes because it was weeding out the “inefficient.” Ronald Reagan, the great Nostalgic, champion of traditional, small town, family values, supposedly leading America back to the glorious days of his own idyllic boyhood in an America defined by small towns and family farms, friendly Main Streets and crowded church pews, was, with his patented genial chuckle, presiding over an epidemic of foreclosures, the economic devastation of many small towns and the shuttering of countless businesses on every Main Street across Iowa, and the overwhelming of churches’ ability to help the inefficient among their congregants. You’d think someone at Ernst’s church might have pointed out to her that those “wonderful” food pantries and clothing drives were helping people who only a year before were hardworking, self-reliant members of the middle class put food on their tables and bundle up their kids in jackets and coats, hats and mittens before sending them out to wait for the bus in the cold and dark of a Midwestern winter made colder and darker by the need to turn off the lights and turn down the heat in order to save on the heating and electric bill.
The reason Ernst doesn’t see what she remembers happening anymore is that it never happened to begin with, not in the way she imagines. She’s remembering a desperate response to an economic crisis that wiped out a whole way of life as if it was a barn-raising complete with a potluck picnic and a soundtrack by Aaron Copeland.
I haven’t spent significant time in Iowa since I left there with my MFA, but here in upstate New York people still go to church, still donate food, time, and money to food pantries, contribute to clothing drives, and take care of their families and look out for their neighbors, and I can’t believe that the good folks of Iowa are more godless, uncharitable, and heartless than we are here in the our socialized dystopia.
Clothing and food drives are good things and it would be nice if churches could do more to help the members of their communities who are in need---although I’m not sure how Ernst expects churches to give flu shots and treat cancer---but our problem here isn’t that folks aren’t compassionate or generous. It’s that we can’t keep up. There’s too much misery, too many people who need help. I’m guessing things are the same in Iowa.
Of course, Ernst, who, by the way, paragon of self-reliance and true believer in getting government out of people’s lives that she is, collects at least two government paychecks, one from the state of Iowa for serving in the state senate and the other from the U.S. Army and the National Guard, and will soon be on the federal government gravy train---she’s also a graduate of a state university, but of course boasts of having worked her way through school with no government aid--- isn’t talking about a real Iowa, either the one in the past where she grew up or the one she’s about to represent in the United States Senate in the present. She’s describing fantasylands conjured up out of her dreams and nightmares.
Enst’s epitomizes the qualities of the conservative mindset: Nostalgia, sentimentality, and fear bordering on terror of the complexities, changes, and messiness of real life, combining to create a desire to retreat into a childishly idealized past.
“Things were better when I was a kid. Let’s go back in time.”
You notice how she refers to her past self as a “small girl”? Sentimentalizing, idealizing, and infantilizing themselves is another habit of conservatives. It gives the game away.
It’s not the traditional values and solid virtues of the past they miss and would like to see restored.
It’s their childhoods.
Updated after mature consideration: It’s possible I was too easy on Ernst by treating her as a mere sentimentalist and nostalgic and not giving her enough credit for her demagoguery. There’s a good chance a thorough perusal of her remarks would turn up qualifiers, implicit and explicit, that let her voters know she wasn’t talking about them, she was talking about THEM, those Others, the godless and heartless and negligent living in places like Upstate New York., because if there’s another thing that epitomizes Right Wingers like Ernst it’s a knack for Other-ing and Them-ifying their fellow Americans.
For an idea of what life was really like in Iowa when Joni Ernst was a girl see The Farm Crisis at Iowa Public Television.
Thanks to Mike the Mad Biologist for the link to Jonathan Chait’s post at New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, Republican Joni Ernst Admits Why Republicans Really Hate Obamacare.
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