Ours is a country where celebrities are increasingly not known for any real accomplishments. Americans are fascinated with people who are “famous for being famous,” like the Kardashians. So when a legal pioneer and eminent jurist like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg becomes a pop icon, we might consider that progress of a sort.
Yet the secular cult that emerged around her hasn’t gotten any less creepy or civically dangerous since her passing.
RBG’s achievements as a female lawyer and judge are deserving of the adulatory eulogies. Girls would do well to emulate a woman who shattered glass ceilings and forcefully advocated for what she believed. Certainly, she is to be preferred to the likes of, say, Cardi B, whose profane and sexually exploitative output has elevated her to a position of cultural eminence, with Joe Biden even granting her a rare interview.
Then, too, Ginsburg’s close personal friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she often crossed swords over cases, set an example for all of us to follow.
Still, the way she was transformed from a respected judge into the “Notorious RBG” says something unpleasant about our culture. The cult that grew up around the diminutive grandmother wasn’t so much about honoring her achievements as it was a way for leftists to weaponize her celebrity against their opponents.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with a Supreme Court justice who inspires sales of “I dissent” T-shirts, action figures, bobbleheads, coffee mugs and coloring books. But as the distance between the deeply serious and cultured jurist and the feminist “superhero” grew, it became clear that the point of all the fuss was for a leftist-dominated pop culture to use her image as a cudgel against conservatives.
The nickname, a play on the name of rapper Notorious BIG, was a clever device to recast as a revolutionary a conventional personality working very much within the system. It was used in a fawning biography and then a documentary film that was nominated for an Oscar more because of her politics than anything else.
“On the Basis of Sex,” a dull feature film about her early legal work, was another element in the campaign to elevate her into a symbol of a liberal “resistance” against conservative politicians and judges and, of course, President Trump.
The justice seemed to have been amused by her late-blooming celebrity and fed it with stunts like doing a workout with late-night, left-wing comic Stephen Colbert.
Probably even more important to the mythologizing of Ginsburg was her emergence as a character on “Saturday Night Live.” In a series of skits, comedian Kate McKinnon would play the robed justice spewing vulgar abuse at Republicans. “You’ve been Ginsburned!” McKinnon would shout at her colleague Justice Brett Kavanaugh. How edifying.
The “Notorious RBG” brand helped fuel a spirit of partisan warfare and delegitimization of those who disagreed with her opinions. The brand didn’t reflect who she truly was, yet it came to overtake the real person.
And as with all cults of saints, RBG’s only gathered fervor after her death. A ubiquitous sign that popped up — “May Her Memory Be for a Revolution” — put a twist on the traditional Jewish phrase: May the memory of the deceased, mourners say, “be for a blessing.”
Others tweeted “rest in power.” But what does that even mean? Are the dead expected to continue fighting for socially liberal causes from the beyond? Is the afterlife a campus struggle session? Is there no peace to be found?
Those who are now threatening to “burn it all down” — or to pack the court with liberals next year if a conservative jurist replaces her (a proposal she rejected) — display symptoms of a sick political culture.
To the extent that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “badass” celebrity image has taken over her legacy, it actually undermines the legal principles she stood for. Remembering her as a “notorious” mythical culture-war idol, rather than a reasoning thinker, doesn’t honor Ginsburg, the Constitution or the nation.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org. Twitter: @JonathanS_Tobin