RBG and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death also felt like the end of a series of myths about American politics.

The day after Donald Trump was elected president, I texted my friend, a trauma therapist, about a weird experience I was going through. I told her that I was suddenly having strange sensory flashbacks to a traumatic event I’d experienced as a teenager. I still have her reply: 

“Oh, Cait. Yes, trauma will do that - pain or fear will cause all those memories to come back. And the fact that this is the situation that is causing you to go back into trauma memory is so disturbing, isn’t it? I bet last night was the absolute worst for you, and full of panic. Love you so so much.”

It turns out this is essentially a form of PTSD, which felt painfully obvious to me as soon as I googled it. I didn’t experience anything quite like that again in the years following Trump’s election—until last Friday night, when I got the alert saying that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.

Does that feel dramatic? It might be. I’m still deciding whether to call it an overreaction, though. I’m sure that much of the anxiety and dread I felt at that moment was part of an inevitable culmination of emotions about the last six months and the six months to come. But it was also very specifically tied to Ginsburg’s absence on the court, and the almost assuredly devastating impact it will have. The Supreme Court has always seemed to me to be far more important than any singular elected official, and it’s an institution that’s undergone a serious degradation in the last four years. The death of RBG felt like the toppling of the last Jenga piece holding up a deeply wobbly institution. 

My feelings on RBG—and the court itself—had themselves become fairly wobbly before her death last week. I count myself among those who appreciated and even engaged in the fanfare around her during the Obama years. She was a pioneer and hero to many, as well as an indispensable force in the story of gender equality in this country, a powerful example of someone who overcame immense institutional barriers to achieve success, and an influential liberal voice on the court for decades. She also had a record that belies the image RBG stans have in their mind. Most notably, Ginsburg had a complicated environmental voting record, sided against asylum seekers, and was inconsistent on criminal and racial justice, and prisoner rights. And now she’s the reason we’re faced with the nightmare possibility of a 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court.

The fact that Ginsburg was complicated isn’t novel—basically every single person in power is complicated, often by virtue of that power—but the fanfare around her transformed her into a liberal icon, and something of a false god. Throughout the 2010s, the attention she received was so florid that I feel compelled to use too many words to describe it: feverish, rapturous, adoring, breathless. We embraced RBG memes, Halloween costumes, books, movies, clothes, playing cards, stickers, mugs, and even pet apparel. We obsessed over her workout routine, her biography, and eventually, her insistence on staying put in her role on the court, even as an octogenarian with multiple cancer scares under her belt. This hagiographic treatment felt both perfectly suited to the era, and like the kind of attention America would only ever give to a sweet old woman (particularly a white woman) defying cultural expectations. (The postmortem Fearless Girl tribute for Ginsburg was absolutely *chef’s kiss*—a perfectly misguided and myopic display of public feminism that signals a kind of uniquely 21st-century brain rot.)

As the idea of Notorious RBG exploded, her notoriety became increasingly tied to her mortality—and even more so after Donald Trump was elected president. The conversations regarding her retirement began well before November 8, 2016, and were decried by many as sexist or ageist. Slate’s Emily Bazelon wrote one of the most widely shared pieces on the subject in which she said that telling Ginsburg to retire was “counterproductive.” Earlier this week Bazelon recanted: “In hindsight, I think it’s clear that it was a mistake that she didn’t leave the court earlier.” Still, many others in the predictably hellish online discourse last week dug down and insisted both that Ginsburg was faultless and that it was monstrous to even suggest otherwise. I wish we lived in a world where Ginsburg’s death didn’t cause a national crisis, but we don’t: Mere hours after her death was announced, Mitch McConnnell vowed to replace Ginsburg with a Trump appointment.

It goes without saying that McConnell and the conservatives who sat next to Justice Ginsburg on the bench are far more deserving of our ire, but in the days following her death, the larger public insistence on viewing RBG uncritically struck me as a bizarre disservice to her, the court, and ourselves. It also feels slightly unhinged in a time when people literally can’t afford to live because of wide-ranging and systemic governmental failures. The fact is, Ginsburg was a woman in her late 70s when Barack Obama and Democrats had a majority in the Senate. She had survived multiple serious health scares. Knowing what was at stake, she chose to continue serving on the Supreme Court, a position that by definition has massive consequences for U.S. politics and the people in this country. In the ensuing years, we expended absolutely unreal amounts of energy in very real anguish over her health and now that she’s gone, it’s only logical to ask why she made that choice. Of course she thought that a Democrat would win in 2016. Many of us did. Even with that assumption, she was taking a very big risk. It didn’t pay off, and what comes next might mean disastrous things for this country, and—not for nothing—the legacy she had spent 87 years building. 

Her death also comes at a time when many of us are looking around, maybe for the first time, at the walls closing in around us. If the Trump presidency wasn’t horrendous enough, the events of the last six months have galvanized many Americans into action, and led many of us to wonder why we ever had faith in systems like the Supreme Court in the first place. Part of it is by necessity of course, but the countless crises of this year have created a clear line in the sand between those who think we can reform all of this, and those who don’t. The myth of both RBG and the Supreme Court are two of many myths created about the history of the American government. They are pedestals held up by the comfortable and powerful, creating a tunnel vision that obscures a possibility for something better. And as we careen toward something far worse, I’m questioning whether what we had was ever any good.

In the days since the news of Ginsburg’s death I’ve had more than a few delicate conversations with women in my life. I would like to say these conversations revolved around grappling with RBG’s legacy, but in all honesty, no one really wanted to grapple with me. I was told a few times over that her trailblazing and contributions to women’s rights were paramount. That her choice was her choice. That what happens next is Trump’s fault. That my age makes it hard to see just what a revolutionary she was.

Meanwhile, the hollowed-out, sanctified version of RBG was being pushed as strongly as ever online. One of the stranger developments in the hours after Ginsburg’s death was the repeated sharing of one of her quotes on social media: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” What is this quote? At best, it’s confoundingly banal and at worst it epitomizes the terminal liberal mindset that’s helped to usher us into this situation in the first place. I know for sure that Ginsburg said more powerful, inspirational, interesting, and rousing things in her long and public life. I frankly wonder how hard anyone thought about this particular snippet before sharing. 

This is the problem with stanning. My experience in writing this piece was feeling perpetually torn between wanting to be nicer and go harder (can you tell??), which is a struggle entangled with the performative politics we all engage in as people on the internet in 2020. In my darkest moments, I often imagine Harry Potter fans, Hamilton fans, Pod Save America fans, and every #resistance figure on Twitter are gathered together in a room creating an endless number of innocuous metaphor memes to post into the void. I try to find some tenderness. They’re desperate too, I tell myself. 

In the past few years, Ginsburg became a potent totem for those people — a symbol of their mostly unquestioning faith in a kind of blurry, all-purpose “Team Blue” liberalism. And as we continue to move through the post-2016 era, it is this kind of relationship to politics that has become more and more alienating to people like me. Whatever happens in 2020, the tension between the “vote blue no matter who” crowd and the leftists who want more than just that is only going to get more strained. This is a good thing; those two camps overlap in some ways, but they don’t all want the same things, and people shouldn’t act like they do. One group wants things as they were. The other is fighting for something better. But there’s a toxic and corrosive tendency to treat dissent (lol) as simply a negative attitude—one of petulance and bad faith, often ascribed to progressives. It’s odd to be at that vantage point—feeling a desire for something more, an investment in what happens in this country, a dissatisfaction knowing things could be better—and feeling that holding such a position alienates you. As if not clapping for anyone who’s not evil makes you sour. People love to talk about how cynicism isn’t productive, but neither is false hope. And from what I can tell, discontent is a much better force for social change.

Which is why, as the days drag on, and any expectations for a fight against a Trump appointment go from dwindling to zero, I’ve found it necessary to shift my perspective entirely. The Democratic Party is barely functioning; it’s paralyzed by a pathological need to fail, and would rather tell people to vote and pretend there’s a universe in which they could “win over GOP senators” than actually do anything worthwhile, despite a myriad of options. At this point, I feel fairly confident that establishment Dems are simply trolling us with their gentle condemnations and complete inaction. Senate Republicans don’t give a shit about Ginsburg’s dying wish or cries of protest over McConnell’s hypocrisy (and the online movement to oust him is increasingly reminiscent of other widely publicized efforts that end up sending absurd amounts of money in a ridiculous direction). Mitt Romney is being Mitt Romney. Turds are gonna turd. They are the scorpion and we are the frog. All of this is unbelievably predictable. 

Congress won’t save us from this hell, and the court itself was never our great protector either. My hope now is that we’re forced us to rip this system to shreds, including the very seat RBG occupied. Of course it shouldn’t have come down to her in the first place, but it’s never been clearer that our system is uniquely terrible in many, many ways. Lifetime appointments must end, but the court is part of a larger criminal justice system that should simply be leveled. The system’s refusal to meaningfully charge any of the officers who killed Breonna Taylor while she was asleep in her bed is proof enough that the problem is much deeper than the cops

Those problems are also painfully clear when it comes to the state of abortion in this country. While many women—including myself—spent Friday night in a spiral over abortion rights, many others quite rightly pointed out that abortion is already inaccessible for so many people. The law as it stands fails to provide access to services we need the most. As writer and activist Robin Marty said in an interview with The Cut about the very real possibility that we will lose Roe v. Wade, “If we’re relying completely on the government in order to help us, then we’re always going to be stuck in this idea of What can an election win? rather than What do people deserve?” 

What do people deserve? We certainly deserve much better than the situation we’re currently in. Maybe all this public panic will help Joe Biden, a small consolation. Maybe the Democrats will locate a sense of professional or moral obligation (either will do!) and enact a successful strategy for blocking Trump and Senate Republicans, but I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I find myself focused on predictions about a larger crisis, and calls to fully dismantle the legal structures that are designed to work against us. We’re caught in a nightmare cycle of the personal responsibility myth, but 2020 is making a very strong case for picking up our pitchforks and sharpening our guillotines in an effort to save the environment, each other, and ourselves. 

It was never Ginsburg’s job to be our savior, but she could have safeguarded the court. No matter how you view her choices, that’s the truth. Her final conviction, in a life full of strong convictions, was ultimately a weakness. It’s plausible to me that as someone who spent decades attempting to interpret the law outside of a political agenda (eye roll), Ginsburg might’ve aimed to operate outside of politics herself—refusing to perform the strategic retirement move that fellow Supreme Court Justices have engaged in for decades. It’s a bleak game to decide whether an alternative option is preferable. In response to questions about her retirement, Ginsburg said “There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.”

She was wrong. And while an unintended aspect of her story hangs on what happens next, the precariousness of that final note in her legacy is a situation of her own making. In all likelihood, RBG’s death will pave the way for a far-right judge and a slew of legal decisions that will have deep and long-lasting effects for Americans. And with that seemingly inevitable outcome, it’s never been clearer that none of this is working. After nearly a week of obsessing over Ginsburg’s death and what it might mean for us, I’m ready to move on. Protestors spent the night demanding justice for Breonna Taylor following months of sustained demonstrations. That movement will continue, no matter what happens with the presidential election or the Supreme Court, all while our elected and appointed officials bob around making useless, bullshit statements. It’s beyond time to burn it all down. It’s time to shift our attention from those who have the power, to those who are trying to take it.

Image: Screenshot, YouTube