The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week at 87, got her nickname — Notorious RBG (derived from the Brooklyn rapper Biggie Smalls, also known as Notorious B.I.G.) — is somewhat emblematic of our current national predicament.
In 2017, Ginsburg told NBC that the moniker was the work of a second-year student at NYU Law School (I pulled the following quotation from an article published by Bustle):
“This young woman was, to put it mildly, disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County case — the decision that held a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 no longer constitutional.
“She was angry, and then it came to her that anger is a useless emotion. It doesn’t win any friends or make any changes. So, instead of being angry, she would do something positive. And the positive thing she did was to put on that blog the announcement of my dissenting opinion in the Shelby County case, and then it took off from there.”
That young woman, Shane Knizhnik, is now a 32-year-old staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York City and the co-author of the New York Times bestseller “Notorious R.B.G.: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
With all due respect to the late, great Ginsburg, Knizhnik should’ve stayed angry for a little longer and avoided Tumblr. For far too long, liberals have met the amorality, duplicity, depravity and shamelessness of conservatives by being cool and hip or “going high when they go low.”
While mild-mannered, positive-thinking liberals decadently revel in their cultural hegemony, they look on haplessly, albeit wearing aviator sunglasses and sporting Timberlands or Notorious RBG T-shirts, as the likes of Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh take the whole country deeper into the abyss of environmental catastrophe, crippling wealth inequality and civil disorder.
We have to start acting like the threats we pay lip service during election cycles are real and meet them with the seriousness they deserve. I’m not saying we need to start acting like conservatives and Republicans, but at least understand their psychology in order to effectively counter their depravity.
The GOP will likely do everything in its power to confirm Ginsburg’s replacement, because it believes that the Supreme Court, even more than voter suppression, is the last rampart that separates the party’s idea of America (a place made for white, Christian men) from the current multicultural reality that Notorious RBG symbolized and to which Ginsburg dedicated her life.
This intense belief in the Supreme Court as white America’s end times bunker is what motivated Richard Nixon to deploy the White House and Justice Department to try to threaten two liberal justices into resigning, according to Adam Cohen’s insightful book “Supreme Inequality.” And when threats didn’t work, Nixon obsessed over the health of the court’s liberal justices, frequently asking aides “for updates on his colleagues’ medical conditions.”
When Justice Thurgood Marshall once checked into a hospital with pneumonia, “Nixon asked for a status report,” Cohen writes. “Marshall told a Navy officer, ‘Well, Admiral, you have my permission to give it to him on only one condition: that you put at the bottom of it, quote, ‘Not yet.'”
If liberals, conservatives who aren’t crazy and everybody else who just likes life on Earth hope to avoid the nightmare of a Supreme Court with a 6-3 conservative majority, we have to meet the opposition not in the arena of culture, but in the arena of raw political power — not with positivity, but with realpolitik.
So, what exactly can regular folk like us do? We can call, write and email Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth — and demand that they use every procedural tool in the shed to slow down this appointment process to at least bide some time for a Hail Mary.
Meanwhile, if you have relatives or friends in states with Republican senators, tell them to help flood those senators’ office lines and inboxes and mailboxes with demands that they refuse to take part in this sham appointment process, if only because Trump will be hand-picking the judge that may help decide the fate of his re-election prospects.
You can also vote, make sure eligible voters you know vote and phone bank for Joe Biden by calling voters in critical swing states.
If you’re a lawyer, volunteer to protect the votes of others and, in general, just push as hard as you can for a Democratic House, Senate and presidency. And don’t forget about local seats of power like city councils and school boards and statehouses. Vote Blue up and down ballot.
This is a bleak moment for American democracy, which is all the more reason to lean into it passionately.
“Stay far from timid, only make moves when your heart’s in it,” Notorious B.I.G. once said.
I feel that. And I think RBG would approve.