116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
July 4 reminds me of sitting down by the pool or beach with sweet corn on the cob and a grilled hot dog, maybe a lemonade or a beer on hand. The heat usually swelters and makes me dizzy, but I’ll hop in the water to cool off and later listen to some live music at a town festival before the fireworks take over the sky in brilliant explosions of color. It reminds me of being picked up on the shoulders of my grandfather and carried around while he told me stories of how he wanted to go into the U.S. Air Force but had to stay stateside to take care of a family that needed him.
In Iowa, July 4 reminds me of much of the same things, minus my grandfather. It reminds me a little more of the arts and army bands. Sweet corn is even more prominent in Iowa, though — and I’m not complaining.
But most of all, July 4 reminds me of the feeling that I don’t quite know what it feels like to be an American, nor understand what one really is.
I was born in the United States and never left (except for a couple months vacationing in Europe, where I visited 13 countries). I was brought into this world rather chaotically and prematurely via emergency C-section, as my mother’s body wasn’t equipped to carry me and collapsed in a pool of her own blood as the firefighters knocked down the kitchen door to transport us to the hospital.
Growing up, the idea of patriotism and being proud of this country and its accomplishments was one deeply rooted in my immediate family, which consisted of me, my mother and younger sister. And that was mostly because of my mother, who was a staunch believer that America was the greatest country in the world for allowing its citizens to live freely in a democracy that our predecessors fought hard for.
Myself, I wasn’t so convinced that the United States was the greatest country in the world. I suppose it’s because I’ve always been somewhat of a skeptic about everything and thrust doubt on the things I don’t know everything about. That skepticism cemented itself in my time at the University of Iowa as a budding professional journalist, who was taught to question everything until the truth was unveiled.
I certainly don’t know everything about the history of the United States, but I do know this: it is on the brink of being in a very dangerous place, one where the truth is masked and hidden in favor of more comfortable narratives for the privileged (see: conservative attacks of critical race theory, which has its faults but also its merits; proposed bans on teaching the 1619 Project by Iowan and Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones; and more). Iowa is no different in this respect, as recent legislation like House File 802 actively censors the teaching of certain concepts in diversity and inclusion training, creating a complacency in accepting a nicer narrative that ignores the inequity, oppression and slavery in Iowa and U.S. history.
I know July 4 commemorates this country’s Independence Day, the day the United States rid themselves of England’s reigning power and unfair taxation of colonial settlers. It’s supposed to be a holiday U.S. citizens bask in because of their privileges compared to the rest of the world — and we do have many, like our right to free speech and assembly, among other things.
In actuality, though, I don’t know how free the people of Iowa are. As I’ve previously written, LGBTQ+ rights are being whittled away; women’s rights are a serious point of contention (with Iowa having the most extreme restriction on reproductive rights in the nation); and the state seems hellbent on preventing the teaching of America’s true history as it pertains to the horrors of slavery and the reality of racism.
I’m not one to tell anyone how to live their life. I believe that people have the right to live their lives as they see fit, so long as they’re not harming others in the process. And that seems to not be the case in Iowa, with state representatives and legislators passing bills that seem reminiscent of less progressive times where to not be a heteronormative white man was a living hell because of the limitations on how the government allowed you to live your life.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was not always granted to every person, and I fear that Iowa will come to a day where it mimics the reality of life in the 1960s and before for those that don’t fit within pretty prescribed societal boxes of normality.
House GOP Leader Matt Windschitl said this was “the year of freedom for Iowans,” according to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch.
And that might be true for some, as my colleague Adam Sullivan highlighted in the new constitutional carry law that cements rights for those in favor of the Second Amendment, easier alcohol delivery to residences and purchase of alcohol before 8 a.m. on Sunday, as well as more school choice for parents and no more mask mandates.
However, what about the Iowans who are having their speech censored to fight against perceived “indoctrination”? What about the freedom to assemble and protest being perceived as rioting? What about the stringent voter suppression happening in Iowa counties? What about real independence?
How are Iowans supposed to celebrate this year of freedom when they’re not allowed to independently make their own choices about how to live their lives in the way that seems fair and fit to them, without harming the rights of lives of anyone else?
Now, that may seem like a lose-lose situation — and I get that. How do conservatives win if liberals win and vice versa, right? But what if there was this thing called open discourse and proper negotiation? What if the foundation of every policy and law that went into effect was based in truth instead of political exploitations of power?
The past year, we’ve been in the thick of an intense culture war rife with identity politics. Perhaps the way that Iowans can honor July 4 this year is by reflecting on what it truly means to be an American, to unpack what independence from tyranny and oppression really is, and apply it to their life and policy moving forward.
Nichole Shaw is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org