“Her dissents were not written for today but for the future.” These words were uttered moments ago from Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt while presiding over the commemorative ceremony in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol for the first woman and the first Jewish woman to lie in state in that place.
Dissent, the opinion of the minority on a panel of judges, does not carry the day, at the time the decision is rendered. Dissent merely records views and their reasons held by others not bending to the majority opinion. And, while issuing ever more “dissents” in recent years Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nevertheless, prophetically shines light, wisdom, insight, vision and hope down the dark tunnel of now. Henry David Thoreau wrote: “ I think it is enough if 9resistors0 have God on their side without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbours constitutes a majority of one already…..(and) wary of the majority, he advises the minority that it is “powerless while it conforms to the majority…but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. (Civil Disobedience)
Another historic and supporting quote, often attributed to Jefferson and also to Andrew Jackson, (without evidence) puts it this way: “one man with courage is a majority”
The revered writer, Mark Twain teaches: “Whenever you find yoursele4f on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).
And Tolstoy, too, the Russian literary giant takes a different perspective: ‘Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.”
Playwright Henrik Ibsen: I don’t imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over.”
British philosopher Bertrand Russell: That fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.
Mahatma Gandhi: The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still small voice within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.
Samuel Adams: It does not take a majority to prevail…but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.
Cornel West: Of course, the aim of a constitutional democracy is to safeguard the rights of the minority and avoid the tyranny of the majority.
And W. B. Yeats, the renowned Irish poet and writer:
In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our minority> In the little towns, and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there, perforce. Every man is himself a class; every hour carries its new challenge. When you pass the inn at the end of the village you leave your favourite whimsy behind you; for you will meet no one who can share it.
Soren Kierkegaard: There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there is also truth. There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd, there is untruth.
Prophetic voices, by definition, are not in conformity with the majority, given that for the majority, to belong has a higher premium and value than to be an outsider. There is another irony that those whose eyes are fixed on the future have no connection with the past, when, precisely the opposite it true. Only those, like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who have steeped themselves in the tradition and history of both the law and the Jewish faith, know deeply, feel even more deeply, and take extreme care to posit thoughts, opinions, views and prophesies that can and will withstand the onslaught of incoming tides of opposition that are inevitable.
Entrusted with the position, the podium, the library, the history and the reverence of being the second woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, Madame Justice Ginsburg, took on the robe and the mantle of both authority and responsibility in a manner honouring the office, while at the same time giving voice to the millions, who, like her, have experienced rejection based on identity and deeply rooted unconscious and systemic bias (a woman, a mother and a Jew) when she was unable to find employment in a law firm upon graduating at the top of her class at Columbia Law School.
One of the most elusive, and yet at the same time, rhetorically and ethically pursued notions or ideals in the democratic state is this thing we call equality: between men and women, between and among races, between the rich and the poor, between the educated and those excluded from a higher education, between rural and urban, between farmers and industrialists. Nevertheless, while rebounding in the echo chamber of the media, the political campaigns, and the protest movements, as various groups seek legitimate redress, someone like Madame Justice Ginsberg offers a living example of marriage, motherhood, professional career success, grandmother-hood, and ultimately social and political icon. The cliché, she not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. And in doing so, she exposes the many who prefer the talk over the walk, as the easier and less dangerous path.
It has to be at least considered as something of a cosmic “synchronicity” that only a few weeks after the deaths of civil rights hero, John Lewis, and his compatriot Elijah Cummings, the nation mourns the death of “RBG.” These three, almost completely ignored in death by the president, and often ridiculed in life (especially Mr. Cummings) offer a dramatic character foil for the current occupant of the Oval Office, whose words and walk never concur.
Madame Justice Ginsberg’s often repeated words about the equality she pursued between men and women, resound around the world, underlined by the recent, brutal, racially motivated death of George Floyd, with a police officer’s knee on his neck: “I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” The metaphor of feet/knees pinning another’s neck to the floor/concrete is once again being held as a magnet uniting those forces among both blacks and women, at a time when the chief executive office of the most powerful nation on the planet, daily exhibits contemptuous attitudes to both groups.
She warns other women, and all those engaged in the long road of struggle for equality, dignity, respect and the opportunity that accompanies those rights, in these words: “Yet what greater defeat could we suffer than to come to resemble the forces we oppose in their disrespect for human dignity.” And, for those thousands of women who, in living out their dreams and their ambitions, have fallen in the very trap of thinking and acting in a manner similar to those men (mostly in navy suits) who, themselves epitomize the antithesis of respect for human dignity, these words are a worthy and notable caution.
Watching those political, legal and cultural icons mourn as they processed around the coffin of Madame Justice Ginsberg, one could not but take note of the notably missing: Senate Majority Leader McConnell, House Minority Leader McCarthy, and the president himself, who, upon paying respects yesterday at the Supreme Court, was booed and harassed by the crowd outside: “Vote him out” was their chant!
Leadership of what amounts to monumental social and cultural change, a subject that finds itself at the top of the currently political theatre playing out in the presidential campaign, as well as around the world on behalf of racial justice and equality, and certainly on behalf of environmental protection and security. And while the instruments of the law, the courts, the institutions and the establishments within, have a significant role to play in moving the prospect of a safe and healthy and respectful future for all, the voices of the outsider has never been more needed.
Once again, Madame Justice Ginsberg offers insightful guidance:
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
It is her demonstrated and proven ability, creativity, sensitivity and empathy to work with those whose views were and are diametrically opposed to her’s that qualify her as a role model for the process of evolution, and not revolution. Her caution that change that will last can and will only come slowly reverberates in the streets, as well as in the control rooms of many radio and television stations, themselves glued to the latest uprising engendering the most listeners and viewers, not to mention social media ‘hits’ and ‘likes’. The concept of instant gratification, while inordinately powerful among especially the young, in their private lives, does not have a similar application in the public square. Nevertheless, the legitimate demand of both women and racial minorities for justice and equality is finding resonance around the world in ways and places previously silent and out of mind.
Madame Justice Ginsberg’s personal and professional kinship with Antonin Scalia, the far-right justice who shared a seat on the court with her for most of her tenure, attests to her incarnating the adage, one can disagree without being disagreeable. At a time when political rhetoric in too many quarters, especially south of the 49th parallel, has slid into the slough of both despair and contempt, her breath of clean and healthy oxygen into the most contentious of deeply rooted issues and causes, carried by the most diligent, penetrating and cogent research into the most intimate details of each legal precedent could only inspire her critics. She not only out-worked them; she out-shone them in her command of the intricate details of each case, both the precedents and the current cases.
Justice Ginsberg argued, for example, in the United States v. Virginia case, that VMI* failed to show “exceedingly persuasive justification” for its sex-based admissions policy, violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Claus. By providing a parallel program for women (Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, VWIL), Ginsberg argued that it would not provide women with the same type of rigorous military training, facilities, courses, faculty, financial opportunities and/or alumni connections and reputation. The argument was so deeply and soundly rooted in the constitutional argument, not merely on the special needs of women, (in fact taking such a wide berth around such stereotypical arguments) that she won a surprising 7-1 decision in the court. (Justice Thomas, a graduate of VMI, recused himself.) (Wikipedia)
And now as the sun sets on the lives of American icons, human examples of the best the human spirit can and will offer to humanity, the world is holding its breath that the sun will also set on the worst of the American leadership examples, and remove the occupant of the Oval Office permanently, without doubt, without rancour and without violence.
Doubtless, however, we can not expect that the removal will be without litigation, already marching through the lower courts, on the most banal, trivial, specious and narcissistic of issues. One blatant example, concerns the Depart of Justice’s contention that all naked ballots in Pennsylvania be removed from the count as ineligible. (Naked ballot is one not inserted inside the second, interior, anonymous envelope prior to mailing.)
Unfortunately, given the army of jurists already appointed and affirmed under the current administration, the likelihood of a decision that would be adverse to the administration is becoming less with each passing day.
How do we hold such platinum human spirits in our minds and hearts while having also to face the despicable details of political insurrection on behalf of a demonstrable unfit presidential candidate?
*VMI Virgina Military Institute