Everyone's equal when you're Iowa nice

Listen to the podcast segment "Elite and egalitarian at the same time" from the August 4, 2018 episode

As I was leaving a store the other day, I went to hold the door for an incoming customer. But I totally biffed it. She was approaching from my right, and the door swung in her direction...so instead of holding it open for her, I inadvertently left her holding it open for me (after an awkward stutter step of me trying to get out of the way).

To anyone who, like me, was raised with a traditional sense of gentility, making someone else hold the door for you induces a pretty guilty feeling. How much did I feel guilty because it was an imposition (it wasn't that big a deal, after all), and how much was it because I violated the traditional gesture of holding open a door for a woman (even though I think most of us, being "Iowa nice", try to hold doors for others regardless of gender)?

So here's a question: Can we be Midwestern courteous (doing things that may appear to be anachronistic leftovers of old traditions) and truly egalitarian at the same time?

Lots of Iowans come from Nordic (and northern German) stock. Just last weekend, they celebrated Nordic Fest in Decorah. Elk Horn and Kimballton claim to be the "largest rural Danish settlements in the United States". You can find the Swedish-American Museum in Swedesburg, or travel to Norway without leaving the state.

The Nordic countries pride themselves on their egalitarian streak. It's a cultural tradition from Europe that survived the Atlantic crossing: Meaningful effects of that egalitarian culture still show up in economic results in the Upper Midwest. That's pretty wild, considering those immigrants mostly arrived a century or more ago.

Everyone's noticed the populist, anti-elitism streak in America. It would have been hard to miss. And I commented on the air back in June 2016 that nobody is ashamed of elite performance in most careers -- from farming to genomics to actuarial accounting -- and that "We should similarly want some people to be our political and public-policy elites."

Elite performance is needed more than ever, particularly as the world becomes more complex (which it inevitably and invariably will). That includes elite performance in areas where maybe sometimes we don't want to admit that it can occur (like politics).

But Iowa and the Midwest in general could stand to model the best of egalitarianism for the rest of the country. Some people are better at doing things than other people, and that elitism should be celebrated. But nobody should be treated like a better person at the expense of others, whether they expect that treatment because of what they do, or where they were born, or how they got to where they are.

Egalitarianism of that stretch, though, doesn't work if people are hostile to each other. Or distrustful. Or suspicious. I think we can do better. Iowans ought to dig deep into our historical cultural reservoir of respect for everyone's equality -- and demonstrate it proudly as a model for America in general, even as we celebrate the elite performance we need from all corners of society as we grapple with the challenges of the 21st Century.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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