“Ruth is gone and we grieve.” So eulogized Chief Justice John Roberts on Wednesday as Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg came home to the Supreme Court for the last time. And grieve this country has done. But now, as the public grieving ends, a new phase of life without RBG has emerged, at least for me.
Ruth is gone. Now what?
It’s a question of paramount importance. In recent years, the courts have been the one saving grace in an increasingly dysfunctional and destructive federal government. Trump may have been hell-bent on destroying the institution of the presidency (not to mention the Constitution) and Republicans may have been relentless in destroying the Senate (with, let it be said clearly, assistance from Democrats), but at least we had the courts as the ultimate backstop. To both expand equality and to defeat efforts to take those expansions away. But those days are likely gone (and will only get worse if Biden loses and the Senate does not change hands). You see, while a lot of well-meaning liberals were busy calling Mitch McConnell names and posting meme after meme (after meme) denigrating Republicans, the Senate, under McConnell’s brilliant leadership, was focused on appointing very young, very conservative federal judges. 200 of them to date, 70% white men, and almost all in their 30s or early 40s. These judges know their #1 job: Dismantle Obamacare. Dismantle Roe v Wade. Dismantle workers’ protections. Dismantle protections to trans Americans. And, very possibly, take away my right to marry. Joining them are 53 new appellate judges also appointed since Trump came into office. One of them is Latino. Zero are Black. Those judges already are at work dismantling our right to vote, as they recently did in Florida where an appellate court upheld a law that prevented former felons from voting unless they paid all court costs. Given the age of these new judges, their conservative views are likely to define America for ten, twenty, maybe even forty years to come. Since I’m already fifty-five, that means I could be part of a group of Americans who are born without rights, then receive those rights, then have them taken away….and die before they are restored.
That realization has left me wandering through more than one sleepless night this past week. Asking myself why I had walked away from a life in politics and why I had ever been so stupid as to think that a battle won is a battle over. Wondering if I, now soft with middle-age, had it in me to get back into the fight for equality. And knowing how very long ten, twenty, and forty years. Especially given America’s non-existent attention-span, especially given my age. This kind of self-reflection (did someone say “navel-gazing”) can make a fella hungry which is what I was around 1:23 on Thursday morning. And, so, I got out of bed, careful not to disturb my bed hog of a dog, and made my way for the kitchen where I planned on scoffing down a few handfuls of Fritos along with several chugs of diet tonic water.
Yet, as a I crossed the living room deep in introspective thought, a ghost stopped me. It was a female ghost, not very large. She was sitting, all ladylike in a brocade chair in the corner. I’d love to tell you the ghost was RBG, but I’m fairly certain it was my Gran who, let me assure you was/is every bit as formidable as the former Associate Justice.
The ghost said but two words: Buck up.
Well, that was enough for me (I mean, do you argue with ghosts? I don’t!). I left the Frito’s for another day–er night–turned around and went back to bed. Because I knew my few nights of navel-gazing were over. I knew Gran, RBG (or maybe Sandra Day O’Connor or Bella Abzug…though not Phyllis Schafly) was right. Rather than have a pity party for myself or lament the state of things in our courts and our country, I needed to buck up…and get to work.
Which is what I have resolved to do, in my own small way and, this time, with words and stories instead of bills and elections. As I have set that resolve, I also have set my intention. I share it here in case you’ve resolved to fight for our country’s future and are maybe looking for a little intention-setting yourself!
I intend to keep things simple. When I first got into politics, I loved to make things complex. Because it made me feel important (and used up a helluva lot of fax paper). But over the years, I’ve learned that life is simple. It’s only we humans who make it complex. And the simple truth of this fight I’ve resolved to fight is that everyone has a fundamental right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not by the definition of a tiny group of white, straight, Christian landowners, but by their own definition. That is the essence of freedom: the ability to make your own choices, live your own dreams and, yes, love your own loves. And any systems that get in the way of that need to come down. It’s that simple.
I intend to do by best. This used to be such a given with me. Gran insisted on it. Mom insisted on it. Teachers like Mrs. Passmore and mentors like Congressman Studds insisted on it. But then, somewhere along the way of my pursuit of money and witty social media updates, I got a little sloppy. I started doing just one draft of things, instead of fifteen. I started parking articles and books on my Facebook feed, instead of reading them. I started paying groups to watch out for my rights and the rights of others the way I paid my housecleaner to dust my home. Now there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Not when life is good and the living is easy. But even when Joe Biden wins, America’s courts are likely to enter a prolonged period of darkness. And that is not good for a lot of people I know and love and many more I do not. You can’t win the kind of battles we’re facing with a half-assed effort. You have to outsmart, outwork, outlast the opposition. You have to do your best.
I intend to preserve my humanity above all else. Racism thrives on the dehumanization of Blacks, Latinos and Asians. All inequality works that way. But, as James Baldwin and others have noted, the long-term impact of dehumanizing others is the dehumanization of yourself. That is why, if you look beyond the rage in Mitch McConnell or Lindsay Graham’s eyes, you see a hollow emptiness. It’s the same emptiness I see in the eyes of neighbors here in north Texas. Many Democrats and progressives I know run that same risk of dehumanization, not because they’re extreme racists, but because they’re extreme ideologues. They see their opponents as not only wrong, but also stupid and hateful. They seem them as less than human. Gone is any ability to see themselves in their opponent. And when that happens, gone, too, is any chance of winning. Because if we win the fight for equality by destroying our notion of humanity, well then, what have we won?
Now, I get that all of this is hard work. Believe me I do, because I’ve done this work before. But then I think buck up. Ruth Bader Ginsburg put in the hard work until Death came for her at eighty-seven. John Lewis put in the hard work until Death came for him at eighty. We’ll never know what hard work Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daniel Prude and countless others might have put in.
Because the police came for them.
But neither Death nor the police have yet to come for us. So here we are.
One of my favorite lines from all the remembrances of Justice Ginsberg came from one of her former clerks. She was talking about how tireless Justice Ginsberg was in her pursuit of justice. How it was nothing to receive a fax or email from her at 12:30 a.m. “Her black coffee always brewed strong,” she said in explaining how Justice Ginsberg kept herself and her clerks going. I love that line. May it be so for those of us who resolve to carry on.
For Ruth is gone. And there is work to do.
Photo courtesy: Columbia University; collar made by Elena Kanagy-Loux for RBG’s 25th anniversary as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
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