Ruth Bader Ginsburg Alone Was Never Going to Save Us

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Alone Was Never Going to Save Us
Photo:AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File (AP)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on the eve of the Jewish new year, and I learned the news as I was wondering how on earth to spend the evening. This is the first time in memory that I have spent Rosh Hashanah without family, a minor grievance in the scheme of a year filled with unquestionable sorrow. It had already seemed impossible to celebrate; at once it seemed preposterous.

Almost instantly, Ginsburg’s death was linked to the tragic symbolism of its timing. “Those who die just before the Jewish new year are the ones God has held back until the very last moment [because] they were needed most,” Nina Totenberg wrote on Friday night, citing a Jewish parable. This is, of course, a profound understatement. Ginsburg was sorely needed. That her seat will almost certainly be filled by a likely ghoulish person of Donald Trump’s selection is another tragedy, in a moment in which they seem to have compounded—a pandemic which has taken more than 200,000 lives in the United States, a president who offers no care or concern, and a contentious election that feels like a referendum on the very tenets of basic equality that Ginsburg spent her life attempting to progress.

The crowds that gathered at the Supreme Court to light candles and recite the Kaddish seemed to be grieving less for a woman than for a way of life. “Who is going to take care of us?” one mourner asked the Washington Post.

To many people, especially women, Ginsburg meant everything. But the image of her as a benevolent matriarch, while comforting and inspiring, was never quite in step with reality. It was discordant, even, with her own idea of feminism. Ginsburg fought for a vision of gender parity in which women might be seen simply as human and treated as flawed, ordinary equals under the law. It must have been odd for her to watch herself transformed into an exemplary, unimpeachable figure mimicked in adorable Halloween costumes, posters, and memes.

The image of Ginsburg as a benevolent matriarch, while comforting and inspiring, was never quite in step with reality

In this idea of Ginsburg, she is almost always alone—a singular figure of Marvel superhero-style fame. It is fitting that in the hours after her death people circulated a photo of her law school class on Instagram: It’s hard to spot the petite Ginsburg amongst the suits, a lone white woman tucked into a sea of young white men.

Yet while Ginsburg’s death is gutting, her presence on the court was never going to be enough to save us. Ginsburg espoused incremental change and dutiful compromise. At this particular moment, both of those principles seem lifted from a different world, a path to stagnation rather than lasting change.

Especially in her later years, as the court drifted rightward, Ginsburg was a plug in the dam wearing a dissent collar. Congressman John Lewis, another sorely needed person who died at the edge of the New Year, through his youthful activism helped pass the Voting Rights Act; Ginsburg earned her “Notorious RBG” fame when the Supreme Court gutted it. Her rousing dissent, which she chose, in a breach of process, to read from the bench in 2013, was a beautiful and galvanizing moment. But it also didn’t change a damn thing.

The legacy of that decision lives on in our faulty election system, in lines of citizens waiting in the Georgia heat this summer, attempting to vote safely amidst faulty machines and purged rolls. Ginsburg was visionary in her continued insistence that abortion was a fundamental right in a functioning society. Yet Roe has stood, in many ways, because of luck rather than strategy—while states are functionally free to chip away at access under the privileges afforded to them by Casey.

In processing Ginsburg’s death, I’ve found myself thinking about the symbolism surrounding Rosh Hashanah, a holiday that is often misinterpreted. Unlike the secular New Year, the Jewish holiday is not a passive call for celebration, it’s an individual reckoning. In Jewish tradition, it’s when the book of accounts is opened, giving the wicked and the righteous ten days to account for their actions. The holiday’s name translates roughly to the “day of shouting,” and participants are encouraged to scream and bellow to force the coming year into the shape of their will. Apples are dipped in honey, to wish the year into sweetness; the shofar, a ram’s horn, is sounded as a wake-up call. It’s a final chance to make amends and shift to the year ahead. It is a moment of individual contemplation. It is an urgent cry to course correct.

Call her death an accident of timing, or a capstone to a very bad year. At best, it might be a final wake up call. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an exemplary person, but she was never going to save us. It’s time to take up the future in our own hands, and force it into a very different story.

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