Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life could teach us all a lesson

by | Sep 20, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 2 comments

I am not a woman. That’s obvious. But it didn’t keep me from admiring Ruth Bader Ginsburg for years, her courage, her tenacity, her firm belief in being a fair jurist and standing up for issues she believed in.

I am not a lawyer. And I did not agree with all of Ginsburg’s yes votes or all her no votes. But it didn’t keep me from respecting the positions she took, her majority opinions as well as her dissents, as they were well argued, passionate, and true to her heart.

I am not a Supreme Court justice. But it didn’t keep me from appreciating the dedication Ginsburg brought to her difficult job every day, living in a nine-person bubble most of the time, burying herself in research, writing, listening and thinking.

I was not born in the 1930s. But it didn’t keep me from marveling at what Ginsburg had to overcome as a young woman trying to make it in the legal world during her time, coming out of law school and being unable to even find a law firm that would accept her.

And I am a long way from reaching my late-80s. But I can empathize with how Ginsburg battled cancer to stay alive, to keep working, to keep giving to this world in her final years, despite her body telling her it was about to shut down.

The passing of this remarkable 87-year old woman has brought many people around the country to a mutual mourning. Many people, who, like me, weren’t her parallel. Folks who didn’t share her gender, her skin color, her religion, or even her beliefs on the law.

In that way, she could teach the nation one last lesson.

That people are not identity politics.

And the only identity that should matter is our humanity.

Beloved by the masses

We are a nation terribly divided right now. And it’s worse than just left or right. We are slotted into subset after subset, like files in a massive cabinet. You’re Black or you’re white. You’re a citizen or a foreigner. You’re for police or you’re against them. You believe in masks or you rebuke them. You support Donald Trump or you revile him. You think Joe Biden’s incompetent or you don’t. You march or you’d never march. You call it a protest or you call it a riot. You buy into white privilege or you think it’s fiction. You own guns or you abhor them. You trust the media or you shame it.

Above all, you are who YOU are, and therefore you cannot hold up, admire, accept, or even trust someone who is not just like you. Families no longer speak because of who they voted for. Neighbors no longer talk because of what sign is on their lawn. Former friends of different races now distance themselves, suspicious of what the other really feels inside.

Yet look at the outpouring of respect, admiration and legitimate grief that the passing of Ginsburg has brought. Apparently, a white woman, of Jewish faith, with a liberal bent and dazzling judicial acumen, was not solely admired by other white, Jewish, liberal judges.

She was beloved by masses.

That should teach us something. As should the fact that, despite her inspiring story, the two films about her, or her pop culture status, not everybody loved Ginsburg. Because no one is ever loved by everyone. And no point of view is ever going to be embraced by the entire populace.

Trying to insist that it is, that we should all be of a single mind, that if we don’t all raise fists at the same time, scream the same words, cheer for the same person, that if we dissent in any way we need to be canceled out — well, that will only keep us in endless turmoil.

Remember that word: dissent.

Grace in defeat

Ginsberg was known for the rulings she helped bring about on the Supreme Court, such as allowing women to attend Virginia Military Institute, declaring invalid any law or official policy that “denies to women, simply because they are women, equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in, and contribute to society, based upon what they can do.”

She also supported majority opinions on things such as fighting industrial pollution and the right to community housing for people with mental disabilities. As a young lawyer, she battled against stereotypes, and not just of women. She argued against laws that required men to serve jury duty when women did not have to, and a higher drinking age for males than females.

She won many of those cases. But it is her losses, and her dissents on those losses at the Supreme Court level, that many deem most admirable.

She dissented on the famous Bush-Gore decision. She dissented on the 5-4 decision that struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. She dissented on another 5-4 decision that denied a woman named Lilly Ledbetter the right to sue her employer for gender-based pay discrimination, due to the amount of time that had passed. Ginsburg suggested in her minority opinion that Congress could do something about this injustice, and eventually Congress did. It became the first bill President Barack Obama signed into law in 2009.

Ginsburg also dissented in a case of a 13-year-old Arizona girl who had been strip-searched by school officials who were looking for drugs. They found none. Yet the court ruled the assistant principal who ordered the strip-search was protected by qualified immunity and therefore could not be sued personally for damages. As the only woman on the high court, Ginsburg later told USA Today that her fellow male justices, some of whom minimized the humiliation the girl suffered, “have never been a 13-year-old girl. It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn’t think … some of them, quite understood.”

In that appraisal, she brought humanity to a legal opinion that made some people stop and reconsider.

What’s critical to remember here is that these were all dissents. Losses. She did not win these cases. Yet she respected that. She respected the system, she understood things take time, and she hoped that her dissents, especially the written ones, might one day become the basis for change.

In other words, Ginsburg understood human beings. She knew that we don’t all think alike. And that we don’t all come to the same conclusions at the same moment.

“Despite our strong disagreements on cardinal issues … we genuinely respect one another,” she once wrote of the Supreme Court. “Collegiality is crucial to the success of our mission. We could not do the job the Constitution assigns to us if we didn’t — to use one of Justice Antonin Scalia’s favorite expressions — ‘get over it!’

She never resorted to screaming or name calling. She never trafficked in resentment. She did difficult, admirable work, for as long as her body would allow her, and the world came to admire her for it. Not all the world. Just as not all the world agreed with her opinions, because all the world never agrees on anything. She accepted that with grace.

Can we?

Probably not. Already they are fighting over who should replace her. And this will become another strangling debate as America tumbles toward Election Day. Sometimes I think we are only united during moments of grief: when Pearl Harbor was attacked, when Kennedy was assassinated, when the towers fell on 9/11, now today, after Ginsburg lost her long battle with cancer.

It only lasts briefly, that feeling of unity, the belief that we are more alike than different, that this nation is not about getting what’s good for me, but in finding what is good in all of us.

Ginsburg was once asked how she’d like to be remembered. She said as someone who helped society beyond her own self-interest, who did things “outside myself.” Maybe we can learn from that. Because it’s the opposite of how most of us are acting right now.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


  1. Moose67

    Very powerfully and well said, sir!

  2. Duncan Sherman

    Yo this shit lit af, Love Ruth Ginsberg


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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