R.I.P., R.B.G. – The Lesson She Lived

“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

There are few people known for their whole name – first, middle and last.

Even fewer known just for their initials.

And maybe no other white, Jewish, woman in history to be christened with an honorific reminiscent of martyred rap royalty.

But Ruth Bader Ginsburg was all that and more.

R.B.G.

The Notorious R.B.G.

Let it never be said that she was given that title out of public relations or pique.

No matter where you stood, she earned the designation “notorious.” Because she WAS. In nearly everything she did.

Whether it was issuing the dissenting opinion on Bush v. Gore or lifting weights in a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “SUPER DIVA,” she was in your face and indomitable.

She was an icon, a pioneer, a living piece of “that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,” as Tennyson might say.

And though she made her most indelible mark as a Supreme Court Justice, in a 2018 documentary about her life, RBG, she said she felt like a teacher:

“I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex-discrimination existed. One of the things I tried to plant in their minds was, ‘Think about how you would like the world to be for your daughters and granddaughters.’”

She did eventually teach law at Columbia University where she enumerated the changes in sexual discrimination litigation throughout her career. While in private practice, she won five cases involving women’s rights before donning the Supreme Court robes. At the time, she was quoted in Time magazine as saying her strategy was to “attack the most pervasive stereotype in the law – that men are independent and women are men’s dependents.”

To live at the same time as such a figure is not that uncommon.

We’re often surprised to read obituaries of great historical heroes we hadn’t known were still alive until their passing.

But that such a model was still WORKING, still doing that for which she had built her reputation, still holding together the fragments of our system as it threatened to crumble! That was truly amazing.

She was there. STILL there. For all of us.

Working well into her 80s through colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer.

And now she’s gone.

It’s hard to fathom.

This is the horror story we’d been warned about every election season for as long as I can remember. This is the nightmare scenario used to shepherd the Democratic flock together, to keep us all under one big tent while lightning flashed and thunder raged.

And it is here. Now. Today.

I never met Justice Ginsburg. Never talked with her. Never had the honor.

But I don’t think she accepted being used in this way. After all, if her biggest concern was the Chief Executive or even Congressional politics, she could have stepped down near the end of President Barack Obama’s first term and been replaced.

Or could she?

Perhaps she had to rethink her own retirement plans after the whole Merrick Garland affair when Senate Republicans refused to even discuss Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death a full nine months before the election.

There’s no way to know for sure.

But given Ginsburg’s record of tenacious dissent in the face of injustice, I can’t imagine her counseling moderation as solidarity.

She stood for justice when no one else would.

That’s what she did!

In 2007, her dissent in a case involving Lilly Ledbetter – a supervisor for Goodyear Tires – was so compelling it sparked the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She literally explained why the court was wrong and that this was a case of discriminating against women in employment, and that led to a change in the law two years later!

In 2013, when the court all but struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, her dissent was equal parts logic, prophecy and prescription. The majority of the justices made the bizarre argument that the Voting Right Act – and one of its features, known as “preclearance” – had already solved voter suppression.

Ginsburg responded:

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

When she read the dissent aloud in court, she went beyond her written remarks quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then she added that it only bends that way, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

Her remarks about what would happen in the wake of this decision have largely proven true with waves of voter suppression sweeping the country – especially in areas where this would have been impossible had the court ruled differently.

There’s a lesson here for all of us.

Dissent should not be dismissed as divisive.

In the presence of injustice, it is the only proper response.

When refugee children are being locked away in cages at the border, there is no other viable response than dissent.

When police are being militarized and used as thugs to violently put down largely nonviolent protests, there is no appropriate response other than dissent.

When the President is lying to us, flouting our laws, and Congress refuses to hold him accountable, there is no other response than dissent.

We must all have the courage of the Notorious R.B.G. to stand up against injustice and call it by its true name – even to its face.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so will somehow be enough to dismantle that injustice.

But we have to try.

And even if we don’t succeed today, we will have saved ourselves from becoming a part of the injustice around us.

Just days before her death, Ginsberg told her granddaughter, Clara Spera:

“My most fervent wish is, that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

If Republicans retreat from their own precedent and push through a new justice 47 days or less before the election, there are still things we can do.

We can fight like Hell to get rid of the worst President in American history, Donald J. Trump, and elect Joe Biden. We can vote like our lives depend on it to get a progressive majority in Congress.

And when we win, we increase the number of justices in the Supreme Court and pack them full of progressives.

We undo all the chicanery Republicans have done for decades – end the filibuster, make Puerto Rico and DC states, end gerrymandering and pass a new Voting Rights Act that actually protects the most important principle of our system of government – the one without which our system is nominal at best.

This and more is the dissent we must wage.

They give us injustice, we respond with its opposite.

We must look this fetid, decaying nation in the eye and say with all the ferociousness of our fallen Supreme Court Justice:

I dissent!

I dissent!

I dissent!


 


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The Lone Voice of Dissent Against Standardized Testing

Businesswoman shouting through the megaphone in the open air.

 

Everybody wants to fight the good fight.

 

Until the battle begins.

 

Then many of us are all too ready to give in to what was intolerable just a moment before.

 

To paraphrase Thomas Paine:

 

 

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in times of crisis, shrink from service, but those who stand up in time of need deserve the love and thanks of every man and woman.

 

I see this almost every day in our schools.

 

Ask nearly any teacher what they think about high stakes standardized testing, and they’ll complain until they’re blue in the face.

 

They’ll give you gripes and grievances galore.

 

The tests take too long. They’re not valid assessments. They narrow the curriculum. They’re dumbing down the teaching profession and ripping away our autonomy.

 

To which I say – Amen, Sister!

 

Standardized tests more accurately measure economics than academics – poor kids generally fail and rich kids pass. They’re culturally biased, poorly put together, unscientifically graded and demonstrate a gobbsmacking conflict of interest.

 

Two conflicts of interest, actually.

 

First, the people who make the tests, grade the tests and thus have a financial interest in failing the most students possible because that means we have to buy more remediation material which they also conveniently sell.

 

Second, these test scores are used by the school privatization industry to unfairly label public schools failures so they can more easily sell fly-by-night charter and voucher schools.

 

So, yeah. Almost all of us agree standardized testing sucks.

 

But when there’s an administrator present, I too often find I’m the only one willing to speak that truth. My colleagues, who are pleased as punch to gripe in private, suddenly go quiet in the presence of their superiors.

 

What’s worse, some of them don’t just stay quiet – they offer arguments to support whatever nonsensical test-based solution our boss has in mind today.

 

Let’s say an administrator suggests we do something about the handful of students who opt out of standardized tests.

 

We could just respect the rights of parents who have handed in their written intention to opt their children out under a religious exemption – the only option in Pennsylvania. Or we could do as the administrator suggests and force kids who’ve been opted out to take a standardized look-a-like assessment.

 

I hear something like that, and I’m on my feet ready to fight.

 

But I find myself standing there alone.

 

“You can’t do that,” I say.

 

“It violates state law. In particular, Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4.

 

(Okay, I had to look up the particulars later, but I made sure the administrator got them.)

 

Consider subsection (d) (4). And I quote:

 

If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied…”

 

Or how about subsection (d) (3):

 

“School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians [have]… (3) The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.” (Emphasis mine)

 

In other words, parents have a right to excuse their children from the tests and/or instruction such as test look-a-likes.

 

If we go forward with requiring students who are opted out to take tests that are just like the ones their parents instructed us NOT to give, we will be violating parents’ rights under state law.”

 

That seems pretty airtight to me.

 

But the administrator disagrees.

 

And I look around at the assembled mass of workaday teachers for support.

 

Not a peep.

 

Instead I get this:

 

-We’re being evaluated on these standardized tests, we have to make sure kids take them seriously.

 

-I see where you’re coming from but we have to do something about these kids who are opting out just to get out of doing the work. They don’t have any real intellectual objection. They’re just lazy.

 

-We’ve got to do something about grade inflation.

 

Oh. Em. Gee.

 

Yet after the meeting, some of them cautiously walk up to me asking my opinion of what went down.

 

YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR MY OPINION RIGHT NOW!

 

Take my word for it.

 

Tomorrow or the next day or the next week, they’ll be complaining again.

 

I’ve seen some of these people reduced to tears by administrators unfairly manipulating them based on their students’ test scores.

 

Yet none of them have the guts to stand up and be counted when the moment comes.

 

I say again – everyone wants to fight. But no one wants to do the fighting.

 

They want someone else to do it for them.

 

Does that make you angry?

 

It makes me furious.

 

But if you feel that way, you’ve got to do something about it.

 

You think teachers are too cowardly? What have YOU done to fight corporate education reform today?

 

You think too many administrators are quislings. You think the lawmakers are bought and sold. You think the public schools are under attack.

 

Well, get off your ass and do something.

 

I am tired of being the lone voice of dissent here.

 

All across the country there are people like me – people willing to stand up and fight.

 

But it’s a big country, and we’re usually spread pretty thin.

 

We need people willing to put their money where their mouths are – right here, in our hometowns.

 

Put up or shut up, America.

 

Do you want a school system that serves the needs of children?

 

You’ve got to make it happen.

 

I can’t do this all by myself.