I’m from Iowa originally, and being a smallish, quiet state, there was never much to brag about — no professional sports teams, no especially big cities, no astounding geological spectacles — so to express pride about our home state we bragged about almost any superlative we could lay claim to: largest corn producer (or was it soy beans?), best state fair (sorry, Minnesota), and most literate state in the Union. I don’t know if the latter was ever true — and how exactly was literacy measured or defined back in the 70s? — but I hope so. We had an excellent newspaper, The Des Moines Register, with its Pulitzer Prize-winning writers and reporters. And we were home to the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so that indicated high levels of literacy, right?
And there was another trait back then (OK, I’ll date myself: in the 60s and 70s) that characterized my home state and made me proud: the surprisingly liberal leadership of a state located in the heart of the generally conservative Midwest. We had a well-regarded Democratic governor, Harold Hughes, from 1963 to 1969 and a string of prominent Democratic senators like Hughes and Dick Clark and John Culver and Tom Harkin. There were examples all around me of moderate Republicans, too: Robert Ray, Iowa’s governor from 1969 to 1983, and Republican Representative Jim Leach, who left Congress to become the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
So I was proud of this compassionate leadership whose values echoed my own and were reflected in our close-knit community and high school class. But I left for college out of state in 1972 and since then have seen changes in the state that make it unrecognizable. The moderation I grew up with has vanished, replaced by strident, partisan voices.
And that literacy rate I was so proud of? Well, it’s not so high anymore, and if you look at what’s happening in the state regarding books in schools, it seems to me that no one’s thinking about how to make sure young Iowans grow up learning to love reading, a sure path to high school graduation and college enrollment.
Just look at Iowa’s “parental rights bill,” signed into law at the end of May and made effective July 1. According to a New York Times op-ed provocatively titled “This Summer I Became the Book-Banning Monster of Iowa” (Sept. 1, 2023), by Bridgette Exman, a former high school English teacher and the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for public schools in Mason City, Iowa, “The law mandates that school libraries may only contain ‘age-appropriate’ books free of any ‘descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act’ as defined by Iowa Code. In a particularly draconian move, the law holds individual teachers and school librarians accountable for violations.” For her efforts to defend certain books from removal from the curriculum, she was deeply hurt “to hear messages left on my assistant’s voice mail calling me a Nazi, a communist pig, an idiot and a danger to society.”
She writes that she believes in parents’ rights and thinks “all the parents in our country [should] be actively making the decisions they believe are best for their children” but warns that we must “not overlook our collective responsibility to achieve the goal of the American public education system — to ensure that every child has access to the highest quality teaching and opportunities for learning. Much of that opportunity can be found in the discoveries that await on library shelves.”
Those books, besides teaching information and facts and figures, also contain stories that can instill empathy and tolerance and understanding — just what we all need to re-learn right now. And when I read accounts of a recent trip by ex-President Donald Trump to a rally in Iowa, I realized just how pressing a need we have to re-learn those and other important values that help us live tranquilly with our neighbors:
He and other speakers at one of his 2024 campaign rallies in Des Moines “lobbed insults, made crude references and casually tossed out baseless and false claims designed to belittle his opponent and critics in vicious terms. Children wandered around in shirts and hats with the letters ‘FJB,’ an abbreviation for an obscene jab at President Biden…” (Washington Post, Nov. 20, 2023). The attendees also referred to Vice President Harris with startlingly crude name-calling.
In subsequent campaigning, Trump referred to his opponents as “vermin,” echoing the language of fascists such as Mussolini. In an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, historian Jon Meachem explained why this language is so dangerous: “to call your opponent vermin, to dehumanize them, is to not only open the door, but to walk through the door toward the most ghastly kinds of crimes.”
Trump has given permission for even the highest politicians in the land to use such puerile name-calling. Witness Nikki Haley calling Vivek Ramaswamy “scum.” Referring to the relatively restrained language he had used to describe President Biden, Trump “claimed he used to hold back a bit ‘out of respect for the office of the presidency,’” “’But now you can say it,’ he added” Washington Post, Nov. 20, 2023).
You “can say it,” I would argue, because Trump seemed to have made it permissible. But here’s a good lesson I learned from growing up in Iowa — maybe you learned it, too, wherever you were raised: “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” And anyway, whose words do we remember today? It’s the words of Lincoln and Churchill and Mandela and King. It’s the aspirational, motivational, uplifting words that we quote and remember, not the words scraped up from the gutter, from the trash bin of history.
—Ann Friedman, founder of Planet Word