The Notorious R.B.G. (15 March 1933 – 18 September 2020)
I have sent three Tweets in my life and one of them was to Justice Ginsburg. It was an inquiry asking if she was going to make the season at our great Opera here in Santa Fe. She visited in the summers and could be seen with her omnipresent Secret Service detail headed to her seat in the lower central section of the open air house.
The first time we met her, however, was a big surprise. It was September 27, 2000 and we were at a conference in Ottawa, Canada with a group from The World Bank Ethics Office. Being interested in circumpolar artifacts, Donna and I took some time to visit a shop that specialized in Inuit art. While browsing the great wares a guy with an ear bud attached to a spiraling line came in, stopped and gave a slow survey to the store. He reminded me of the Secret Service executive protection guys we would always see around Washington, DC and it made sense as we were in the capital of Canada. Just the day before I had taken a really atmospheric portrait of Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien, 20th Prime Minister of Canada.
Suddenly a second ear-bud guy came in. Then in walked a diminutive woman who was unmistakably Ruth Bader Ginsburg followed by yet another agent. My first impulse was to go to her and simply say how I admired her and the work she had always done. So, of course, I stepped toward her. Immediately the Secret Service guys took alert positions and the front one moved to block my advance. I quickly realized how stupid I was to make such a sudden move so made an apology and had my say from where I stood. She graciously acknowledged my fandom and we all went about looking at the art in the shop.
“She had this uncanny ability to be very much in the weeds, if you will, of the intellectual legal arguments and yet never lose sight of the human impact of her decisions,” was a description Former President Clinton used to describe Ginsburg.
No doubt part of her common-sense nature came from being a mother before she went to law school and having a difficult time getting a job with a top-flight firm even after graduating first (shared with another graduate) in her class. My wife has reminded me that when she was a young woman she needed a man’s signature to open a bank account and it was also impossible for most unmarried women to get a home mortgage. The Dean of Harvard Law reportedly invited the female law students (only 9 in a class of nearly 500) to dinner at his family home and asked the female law students, including Ginsburg, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?
We have Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with a host of other talented and determined women, to thank for leading the way to necessary and long-overdue changes in the way we men handle affairs that affect everyone. Alas, we are just not that good at sharing.
The Notorious R.G.B.* will be sorely missed.
* a law student bestowed this moniker on Ginsburg that is take-off on the nickname of the late (also) Brooklyn-born rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
Thoughts on watching the body of Civil Rights and Justice Warrior,
Representative John Lewis, being ferried in a horse-drawn wagon across the
Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
“And before I’d be a slave I’ll be
buried to my grave”
‘Oh Freedom’, an African American freedom song associated with the U.S. Civil Rights movement but actually written after the U.S. Civil War (12 April 1860 – 9 April 1865). A version was first recorded by Earl R. Nance (with Clarence Dooley, Tenor Vocal & Guitar; Madie Nance, Soprano Vocal; Helen Nance, Alto Vocal & Mandolin) August 26, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana. (video, above)
Most of us are more familiar with the Odetta (1957), Harry Belafonte (1960)
or Joan Baez (1963 March on Washington) versions but the original recording
takes me to an earlier place in our country’s history.
“get out there and get in the way, get
in good trouble, necessary trouble, and be yourself.”
– John Lewis, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020 (a
motivator to the end!)
John Lewis also spoke similar words to young people at the Children’s
Defense Fund Freedom Schools National Training in June 2014. Marion Wright
Edelman, founder of the Fund wrote, “As he spoke to today’s young Freedom
Schools leaders John Lewis told them that when he was their age getting into
“necessary trouble” shaped his life’s mission. As he explained, he grew up poor
in rural Troy, Alabama, where his father, a former tenant farmer, had saved
enough money to buy his own land. He worked on the farm alongside the rest of
his family but was always desperate to get an education. A teacher encouraged
him over and over to read all he could. Although he wasn’t allowed in his
segregated county library like so many of our generation, he did his best: “I
tried to read everything, the few books we had at home, the magazines. We were
too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had
one, and when he would finish reading his newspaper each day, I would get that
newspaper and read it.” He also listened to the radio to learn more about the
news outside his small community, and eventually started hearing about new
events that would change his life: “In 1955, 15 years old in the 10th grade, I
heard of Rosa Parks. I heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his voice on an
old radio, and it seemed like he was saying, “John Lewis, you, too, can do
something . . . You can make a contribution.”
John Lewis decided then that was exactly what he would do. He started with
the library: “So in 1956, 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and
cousins, we went down to the public library in the little town of Troy,
Alabama, trying to get a library card, trying to check out some books, and we
were told by the librarian that the library is for Whites only and not for
coloreds.” A year later, as a high school senior he decided to apply to Troy State
College (now Troy University), a White college close to his home—but his
application was ignored and unanswered. John Lewis was stopped temporarily—but
he was not finished.
He told the very rapt audience that getting into necessary trouble in order
to stand up for what is right is required of us all: “If we fail to do it,
history will not be kind to us.” And he reminded us that this is true even when
there is a terrible cost, as with the murders of the three Freedom Summer
volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi: “Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and
James Chaney. I knew these three young men. On the night of June 21st, 1964,
almost 50 years ago, these three young men were detained, taken to jail, taken
out, turned over to the Klan, where they were beaten and shot and killed. They
didn’t die in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Vietnam or in Central or
South America. They died right here in our own country, and they must be looked
upon as the founding fathers of the new America, a new way of doing things, a
new way of life.””
Looking across the aisle, I also found this interesting scene on the morning TV show The View (transcript from The Decider):
“[Meghan] McCain offered her own reflection on Lewis’ legacy with a personal
story about meeting him at her father’s office when she was 14. “It was
important to [her father] that I heard this man’s story and knew who he was,”
said the co-host. “I can remember when I was 14 not really ever seeing my dad
deferential or in awe of anyone, and that was one of the first times.”
McCain added that while Lewis and her father “ended up having a political
disagreement” when Sen. McCain ran for president — “I have no interest in
rehashing it right now,” she said — but they were able to squash it. “When my
dad passed, John Lewis put out one of the more beautiful statements of anyone,”
There are myriad qualities that make us human but few, other than the wide bailiwick of ‘culture’, have tentacles that reach – or should reach, as far into our psyches as the pursuit of justice.
All the qualities are evolutionarily useful, of course, and some are shared with other species: tool use for example. Plus we have the category of emotions – but we have no lock on exclusivity there, either; witness your dog jumping for joy when you return to your home (even after being gone for only 10 minutes!) or elephants grieving their dead. Then there is the neurological brain and unfathomed mind terrain of morality, ethics, mutuality, competition and the like.
I, and millions of others on this hunk of rock speeding through the universe, think the historical Buddha was onto something when he hit upon desire as a main cause of human misery. And, again, when he taught that wisdom and compassion were two primary keys to the alleviation of much that passes for our distress in this world. Notice that I used the past-tense ‘taught’ (teach) and not ‘preach’, a signal difference between Eastern and Western approaches to the divine. Preaching is an activity wherein someone with a supposed special insight and connection to the spiritual expounds to a (mostly) passive audience. Other than the “call-and-response” in traditional black churches there is precious little two-way communication going on.
Teaching in the active sense is a whole other endeavor altogether. It is what Doris Lessing (“Introduction” to the Grove Press edition of Ecclesiastes) identifies as the “experiential Path” vs. the “passive” one. When we hear and learn of concepts like “Justice” in our schools and places of worship we internalize, if we do at all, an intellectual concept. When we grow up in an environment with parents and a community that teaches us about “Justice” we internalize it in our hearts. It is closely linked to compassion for the Other. To see a black citizen beaten or killed on an anonymous video stream causes every right-thinking person unease. To walk out of the house knowing that this treatment might be your own lot brings on another level of apprehension altogether.
In many ways ordinary, middle-class white people in our society are privileged not so much by what has happened in their lives as by what has not happened.
The last time I drove cross-country from Ohio, then to Chicago for a Leica meeting and then home to New Mexico I was stopped not once, but twice by states highway patrol. In Illinois the trooper was right behind me as we drove 70+ mph along the Interstate. I decided to move back to the right lanes after passing a car and in a few seconds saw the flashing lights go on in the patrol car. I dutifully pulled over and awaited the standard visit from the cop at my Mercedes Sprinter van window.
When he finally came up I asked what was the problem. He said that in Illinois there is a law that a driver cannot change lanes on an Interstate within 275 feet of signaling a lane change. I asked him to repeat the statement as I was trying to internalize his comment (which was not as succinct as my version of it.) Then I did a quick calculation and said that at the speeds we were driving, 275 feet go by in less than three seconds. I added that I did not have a stop-watch but was pretty certain the legal time had transpired and I had, after all, signaled my intentions. He said, yes, I had signaled but he was pretty certain I had moved into the right lane too early. When I let out an exasperated breath (I was trying to get to my meeting hotel before nightfall) he added that he was not going to give me a ticket, only a ‘Warning’, and that I should leave my van and get into his patrol car. I responded with, “Really!” He said, “Yes, you need to comply, sir.” As I opened the door and stepped out he suddenly said, “Are you armed?” I looked at him with incredulity and said, “Are you serious? No, of course not!”m
As I approached his car I reached for the back door handle but he said, “No, get in the front passenger seat.”
“Okay, cool, I can look at all the toys!”
I did not get much done by way of inspection because there was a police major in the back seat who grilled me on fly-fishing in New Mexico when he saw the Catch & Release sticker in my rear window. I got the idea he was trying to ferret out whether I knew anything about the great art of casting with a fly or had stolen an expensive vehicle.
After several days in Chicago I headed back to the Interstate toward New Mexico. That evening late, just west of St. Louis, a car kept tail-gating me closely for miles. Rather than hit the brakes, which I would have done in my youth, I simply slowed down. Who wants to get the driver behind alarmed and pissed-off enough that he/she pulls up and sends a bullet thru the driver side window?
As I slowed those flashing lights came on! He kept me waiting for a long time before coming up to the window. Tired and (again) exasperated as I was trying to reach my usual hotel, I asked what took so damn long. He said he saw I had an old arrest record at the White House but could not find that it had ever been settled. It took him a long time to find it had been adjudicated (‘don’t return to DC and cause trouble for at least 6 months.’)
Then, I got the only laugh I have ever received from a state cop during the many times I have been stopped: “Officer, first things first. I am very proud of that arrest. It is a sterling moment of civil disobedience from my youth. I made national TV and got a televised comment from my state senator, John Glenn! Second, why did you stop me in the first place?”
“I could not read your license plate or see a sticker to see
if it is current.“
“My date sticker is right there for all to see.”
“Yes, I see it now, but in Missouri it is illegal to drive
with a license plate that is hard for an officer to read. Now, I’m not going to
give you a ticket, but….”
Another ‘Warning’ ticket in my pocket after a stop that
lasted ninety minutes.
Many of you will laugh at these stories, and I can, too,
now. But, the significance of them is that any ‘untoward’ action or displayed
anger on my part could have ended badly for me. Driving while brown can be a
risky practice in many places in the United States. What proved to be
remarkable was that the very next week the NAACP issued a notice that read, “if
you are black you should avoid driving through Missouri if at all possible.”
This is an incredible piece of advice in 21st century America.
These examples of state police action would be simply idiosyncratic stories if not for the fact that they are repeated across this nation every day. I am lucky in that I am sure the officers’ calculus of behavior was influenced by my educated flat, mid-Western speech, my demeanor and my expensive set of wheels (both officers were impressed by my great Mercedes vehicle), i.e. ‘he can probably afford an expensive lawyer’.
To sum, dear Reader, do not assume that your peaceful and secure daily existence is the norm for everyone in this country. Do not assume that those who are executed with impunity by state actors had it coming. Do not assume that after we have conquered Covid-19 everyone will return to a life of beauty and personal empowerment. Do not assume we must all color within the lines as dictated by the mandates of the 1%. Yes, applaud those officers who “take a knee” in solidarity with the people they have sworn to serve and protect but remember that real change is not a cosmetic application of soothing words and easy actions. True justice requires vigilance and perseverance – the hard work of all people of good will.
“History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.” – Justice Thurgood Marshall
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” – John Stuart Mill, 1867
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass