The odes and elegies to Ruth Bader Ginsburg have proceeded apace, seemingly endless and inexhaustible and essentially banal.
We do this with heroic Americans. We repeat all the cliched talking points and tropes until we have memorized them. And then we repeat them back to each other, perhaps on a yearly basis.
Then we place the great man or woman on the national mantelpiece as a petrified or stuffed artifact — this was something other than the rest of us. Something too fine for this world.
Thus we never have to try to be that thing ourselves.
The late Sen. Phil Hart, of Michigan, was often called, at the end of his life, “the conscience of the Senate.” That meant, he said, “they don’t have to listen to me.” He was not going to be dealt into the game.
You don’t make a conscience a player. He or she is a curio — a lovely thing set apart. But not a utilitarian thing; not a practical person or means.
We do this with Martin Luther King. He has his day. It is set aside.
But so is what he taught.
We bow our heads for Dr. King and repeat the pieties. But listen to him? Hear what he said about the content of our character as the test for each one of us? Take in his message of integration, reconciliation and love? Take to heart and attempt to practice nonviolence? Forget it.
Here’s the thing about Justice Ginsburg: She lived her values.
She actually lived them out.
Her life was not a Hallmark card.
It was an active, living expression of her values.
And those values cut across ideological lines, and challenge us all.
She subordinated self to a higher cause, two causes actually — the Constitution, specifically the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and equal legal and workplace rights for women.
How many of us are able to put a cause above our egos and our wants, even for a day? She did it for a lifetime.
How many of us know that corner of our great founding document — the 14th Amendment — even a little?
Many years ago, I met a man who had clerked for Justice William O. Douglas. He said he doubted Douglas was a great jurist, but he felt he was a great human being.
We know Justice Ginsburg was a great human being. We could all see that. Books and movies have told us so, in case we did not see. But what made her great?
Not a soft heart but a sharp mind, a hard core and a principle.
Equal protection is a profound concept — a life-changing and nation-changing rubric. She knew that, internalized that and, like Thurgood Marshall, ran with it. Both had risked much and changed the law, and were legends, when they came to the Court.
In an interview near the end of her life, Justice Ginsburg gave young people advice: Fight for what you believe, but do it in a way that actually advances your cause. Learn how to collaborate.
She might have been even more blunt: Figure out how to win. Figure out how to make wine out of sour grapes.
She said that she was born “under a very bright star.”
Well, she said, her inability to find a job in a law firm, despite being first in her law school class, sent her to teaching, and that gave her the time and context and resources to do the groundbreaking work she eventually did.
Without the adversity and rejection, she figured she would have ended her days as a retired partner of a big law firm.
The bright star was disappointment and diversion.
Life sends you down paths you don’t want or expect. And that is often the blessing.
The point is not that Justice Ginsburg was “an icon for women’s rights,” but that she claimed, expanded and, arguably, established women’s rights.
And how did she do that? Study, discipline and tenacity.
Her landmark cases, the ones she tried, were masterpieces of legal strategy. She set aside the belittling insults and kept her eyes on the prize, following her star.
And, most important, she made change with devotion to a revolutionary constitutional principle: equal protection.
Very few people work as hard as she did (through her husband’s cancer and death and through her own cancers), but the point was not to be acclaimed superhuman and it was certainly not to be woke.
The point was to be the opposite of woke. It was to change the law and, ultimately, the country.
So let’s not make RBG a saint, or an icon or a meme enshrined on a T-shirt. Let’s not give her a day and put her on the mantel. Let’s listen to her life, and work like hell like she did, and read and absorb the Constitution. Let’s learn to collaborate and build so we can continue to form an ever more perfect union. Let’s recognize our bright stars and let them light the way.
Keith C. Burris is editor, vice president and editorial director of Block Newspapers.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!