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The Scarlet & Black

IoWhat is going on in politics? Our rights we maintain

If you’ve ever found your way to High Street on a weekend night, you might have noticed a house with two flags used as curtains. This is my room. In one window, there is a pride flag — given my previous columns, this should be  no surprise. And then, in the other window, you’ll see the Iowa State flag. As someone who grew up in Florida, this is a little bit unusual. Since arriving in Iowa, I have fallen in love with the state and its people. I have adopted the state in the same way it adopted me when I came here. I also fell in love with the flag. The general design principles of an attractive flag are not followed. There’s a fair amount of text, which is hated by many design-minded flag enthusiasts. It is also not just a flag with a seal on it, so it does earn some points there. Still, the words on it are what I find most powerful: “Our liberties we prize, and our rights we shall maintain.”

I am inspired by the values put forward in this quote. It is a charge to balance the individual freedoms that lead to full expression and the rights we all should have fulfilled. These are the kind of liberties that promote artistic expression and political activism to fight for what is right. Balanced with these principles are the right to a quality education, the right to economic justice, and many more rights that are necessary to live a full life. Given the state of much of our politics and government, this is more aspirational than anything. We have yet to realize the right to healthcare here in Iowa, and with the privatization of Medicaid, we are moving further away from realizing this human right. Even still, these words inspire me to take action. When the right to privacy in the form of access to abortions is threatened, I am upholding the words that I wake up to in my window by fighting for reproductive justice. 

I am not under the impression that everyone in Iowa imagines these policy prescriptions from the values espoused on the flag. There is a strong majority of state legislators in Des Moines who would vehemently disagree with me, making their preferences abundantly clear this legislative session. I first became aware of this difference in interpretation after reading an article about a recent public appearance by Representative Steve King, a Republican from Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, at a town hall for the Sioux County Conservatives. On all promotional materials, King includes those same words I quoted above. He is known nationally for vehemently racist actions, often during TV appearances. In one of the mildest cases, he had a Confederate flag on his desk in a mug full of other national and state flags, despite the fact that Iowa fought for the Union in the Civil War. He has stated that, “[The United States] can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” and posed the question, “Where did any other subgroup of people [other than white] contribute more to civilization?” King and those who most actively support him, members of the Sioux County Conservatives, are inspired by the same words that inspire me to advocate for policies in direct opposition to theirs. 

If I and many other progressive Iowans from my adopted state can come to such different conclusions than those who so actively support King, what are Iowa values and what is the actual meaning of those words inscribed on the Iowa flag? My urge is to try to instill my interpretation in everyone I meet here in Iowa. But at the end, that is a political consideration. A state flag is really just a piece of political publicity to associate with a specific political unit. But the quote on the flag is not the only thing that influences government decisions. When the Supreme Court of Iowa legalized marriage equality nine years ago this week, they did not rely on the state flag to make this legal decision. They were able to unanimously rule in favor of those queer couples because in an earlier legislative session, Democratic majorities in the State House, Senate and a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion were able to ban discrimination on the basis of sexuality here in Iowa. It did not necessarily matter if most Iowans considered the right to marry regardless of gender identity when they read the words “our rights we shall maintain.” And today, it matters that they think this phrase means that we should have an inclusive Iowa with a government that works to substantially better the lives of its constituents.

— Austin Wadle ’18

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