It is the highest honor to have a comic opera composed about you. The premiere of Derrick Wang’s opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” in 2015 was a success, and most of its audience were both members of the U.S. Supreme Court and staff of the highest judicial presence in the country. They were the last to say goodbye to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 25, 2020, a Supreme Court Justice, who died at age 87 on Sept. 18.
The casket with the justice’s body, draped with the American flag, was carefully carried down the numerous steps of the Capitol. Perhaps this was one of the most impressive and largest farewells in the world’s political history even though it was not a president, not a guru, but a justice who had died.
After Donald Trump’s inauguration, Ginsburg defiantly went to work with her “dissent” collar as a sign of her dissenting opinion. (Ginsburg’s fans readily bought this collar for $98.) She often disregarded his State of the Union Addresses. In principle, she did not like these kinds of speeches and once fell asleep during one by Barack Obama, admitting that she was able to appreciate this type of speech only after drinking a very fine California wine.
In general, everything she said publicly caused her friendly audience fits of unrestrained laughter. She was a Jewish grandmother but extremely fit (20 pushups a day) and dressed stylishly (she was called a fashion icon); not necessarily one to joke, many of her sayings were perceived as “chochma” in the original meaning of the word — Jewish wisdom.
They said she wanted to be an opera virtuoso but became a rock star instead. How many justices have acquired such a status in history? Hence, an opera was composed about her. Or more precisely, about the debates in the U.S. Supreme Court with a perpetual opponent and at the same time, a close, personal friend in her private life, the already deceased Antonin Scalia.
Further explanation is required here. Scalia was a conservative judge while Ginsburg was moderately liberal. In U.S. history there were various courts which, depending on their members, decided cases and interpreted the provisions of the U.S. Constitution in different ways. For example, there was the “Warren Court” period (1953-1969) when the chief justice of the Supreme Court was Earl Warren, a person of liberal views who contributed a lot to promote racial equality.
Ginsburg, while working her way through her brilliant legal career in a predominantly male environment, fought for women’s equality. At the distinguished Harvard Law School, she was one of five female students. The dean’s question has become a classic: “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” When Ginsburg became pregnant with her first child, she was demoted. Following that, she was paid less based on her gender. Her way of practicing law with victory after victory in the courts, step by step changed conceptions of equal rights for men and women — rights not based on feminism but on legal grounds.
Ginsburg had a favorite amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 14th, which was adopted in 1868. It deals with issues of citizenship and ends with the words “equal protection of the laws.” When this clause was interpreted in history by law enforcement, it was not always in favor of equal rights. Only in 1954 was it finally used to end racial segregation for the first time.
On the women’s issue, things were even worse. Ginsburg, in her own way, was amused by the legal argument of uplifting a woman in order to deny her equality. This refers to a phrase in the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in the case of Bradwell v. State of Illinois in 1873: “The civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman … The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” It’s poetic.
One hundred years later, in the 1970s, the draft of the 27th Amendment for equal rights of women was not ratified. However, it was during these years that Ginsburg, with her methods, turned fighting for equality into a daily routine. Over three years, while representing the American Civil Liberties Union, she won five trials in the Supreme Court arguing for women’s equality. Before that, in 1971, she was involved in the lawsuit of Reed v. Reed and that is when, following her position, the Supreme Court applied the 14th Amendment (“Equal Protection of Laws”) to substantiate the equality of men and women. At the same time, she ushered in the use of the word “gender” and not “sex” when referring to gender.
Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg as a judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Bill Clinton then appointed her, as one of few women in history, to the Supreme Court as a justice in 1993. In a way, Ginsburg could be called “Justice Dissident,” namely, in the sense in which the word “dissident” is familiar to us from Soviet political history: dissenting but firmly adhering to the existing “letter of the law.” In fact, the dissident movement began in December 1965 with the demand for an open Sinyavsky-Daniel trial with the slogan “Respect the Soviet Constitution.”
Ginsburg was a thorn in Trump’s side. As soon as she died, he immediately announced that he would soon nominate a new justice to fill the vacant seat. This contradicts the wishes of Ginsburg — she wanted the seat of the court’s newest member to be filled by the new president. Of course, she hoped that it would not be Trump and that the judge would not be a conservative, so that a balance of positions and views would be observed in the Supreme Court.
Supporters bid farewell to their icon, role-model, moral authority, and in a literal sense, the nation’s guide. In any case, it is these qualities that are not attributed to the red “silent majority.” It is them who supposedly weren’t given a voice for decades so they elected Trump for president.
Ginsburg, like John F. Kennedy, was called by the first letters of her name, RBG. Even this was a symbol that everything about Ruth Bader was iconic: the old lady voice, the oversized glasses, the famous set of collars/jabots for her judge’s robes. One of them symbolized that dissent was coming in the form of a dissenting opinion. Stories of her happy decadeslong marriage in which marital equality was asserted (Martin Ginsburg sacrificed his own career for the sake of his wife’s) and battle with cancer is also well-known and worthy of emulation. For the Jewish community, Ginsburg’s death on the eve of the Jewish new year was evidence that an extraordinary person had died. And of course, opera was the judge’s passion; she said she sang arias only in dreams or while taking a shower, just like one of Woody Allen’s characters.
Each nation has its own icons and extraordinaries. The ability to admire one type of moral authority or another speaks volumes about the political culture of a nation. We have “Valentina and Valentina” (Valentina Tereshkova and Valentina Matviyenko) and also Elvira Nabiullina, who is a little more similar to Ginsburg, but at the ruble’s current exchange rate it is unlikely that she could become an object of widespread adoration. Moreover, she is not at all responsible for the “geopolitical” component of our inescapable economic challenges.
In Russian culture and history, there are no female icons who could at the same time be considered intellectual and moral authorities. Yes, Lyudmila Mikhaylovna Alexeyeva was such a person. But authority is not for everyone; it is solely for the thinking part of society. A member of the unthinking majority was selected and at a mass protest managed to strike this great woman. This is the attitude of the majority.
Indeed, there was a time when we were a nation that was not ashamed of having its own intellectual and moral guides: the academic Andrei Sakharov, the priest Alexander Men, the academic Dmitry Likhachov and philosopher Merab Mamardashvili. Where did it all go wrong?
Where is our next Ruth Bader Ginsburg? And where are those millions who would be able to admire such individuals like Ginsburg?
Ultimately, if a nation has no dissenting opinion, it is incapable of following those moral authorities, who have such a dissenting opinion.