We are long past the point where things “go without saying.” So much of what we took for granted — that, for instance, medical science would predominate and prevail in a pandemic — has been attacked or left for dead that I no longer assume that a majority of Americans agree on basic values and principles. Trump seems determined to goad the country into a kind of internecine war in his quest for power. For that, he counts on what the Times called “the breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts.”
Millions of Americans need a remedial course in truth, reason, idealism and fundamental humanity because Trump has made a mess of those things.
So, when I review the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I see an opportunity to reflect on what her experiences and accomplishments represent, and how they might be held as an example to the rest of us, especially the coming generations. After all, she epitomized America at its best.
Here’s some of what I take from the life of the Supreme Court justice who, after long and courageous battles with illnesses, died on Friday, the first day of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah.
We need serious and competent people in government and the courts: RBG was a serious, hard-working jurist devoted to the Constitution and to protecting the rights of her fellow Americans. I state the obvious here because, again, nothing goes without saying these days: For this democracy to prevail, for the government to be effective and the courts to serve justice, we need competent men and women to work for us. It has been shocking to watch Trump and his crowd sabotage the fundamental institutions of government and to emphasize ideology over competence in nominations for the federal bench. Trump, of course, is too lazy to make judicial nominations of his own so he has deferred that responsibility almost completely to the conservative, libertarian Federalist Society. His cabinet selections have been awful. He has rolled back federal authority to protect the environment and walked away from climate change. The coronavirus pandemic has been a disaster for the country under his watch. Ronald Reagan ramped up the anti-government rhetoric 40 years ago. You can’t expect the government to function effectively in a national crisis if we keep electing anti-government know-nothings to public office. And we won’t have fair and objective judges and justices if any president defers nominations to organizations of one narrow ideology. RBG was brilliant and we were lucky to have her on the nation’s highest court for 27 years.
When you see something wrong, or unfair, get busy: This is exactly what RBG did when, in her own life and in the lives of other women, she saw discrimination and violations of constitutional rights. She got busy. She learned the law and made the arguments as a litigator, winning five out of six cases before the Supreme Court.
America is a nation of immigrants: RBG’s parents were immigrants. At a time when Trump and his ilk have treated thousands seeking asylum here with cruelty or smears, RBG’s life is a testament to the profound contributions immigrants have made to the country. Instead of resolving our differences over how to manage immigration in the 21st Century, Trump has used the issue as a fire-starter. It’s one of many reasons why we need a new president and a Congress willing to make compromises.
Education opens doors: Trump represents the dumbing down of America; no president in my lifetime, including George W. Bush, ever exhibited such ignorance. Trump is a terrible role model for young Americans. RBG, by contrast, was a great one, especially for young women. She got the college education her mother, Celia, wanted but was unable to attain, and she finished first in her law school class at Columbia. America needs to encourage more education and skills training at all levels, and we need to make higher education affordable for generations to come.
Progressives should be proud: Some Supreme Court observers say RBG turned out to be more liberal than expected, and that she moved left to balance a court that had shifted right. But she was a progressive long before we used that term in its modern sense (as a replacement for liberal); RBG was proud to have been on the advancing side of history for women. Today, as I watch the hypocritical Mitch McConnell drooling at the prospect of replacing her as soon as possible with a strident conservative, while he refuses to move more pandemic relief to the unemployed in the provinces, I ask again: What is he about? What do Republicans who support Trump want out of all this? They certainly don’t seem interested in helping average Americans. They stand against Obamacare. They fight attempts to raise the minimum wage. They actively resist efforts to make voting easier for their fellow Americans. McConnell sees a conservative judiciary across the land as his legacy. To what end? To what progress for the country? Is there a single Republican idea that improves life for Americans, a single initiative to make healthcare, education or housing more accessible and affordable, to prepare the nation for the coming disasters related to climate change? It’s impossible to say what Republicans are about besides maintaining power for power’s sake. By contrast, we knew what RBG stood for, and she was proud to be on the side of social progress.
Service to your country is patriotic: I respect those who step forward to serve us, from police officers and firefighters to school teachers, trash collectors, prosecutors, public defenders and judges. First as an attorney fighting for equal rights for women, and then as a federal judge and Supreme Court justice, RBG devoted her career to making this a better country. She was a public servant in black robe and frilly white collar. May she rest in peace. May we not forget what she left us.