(RNS) — Over the past few days, as news of President Donald Trump’s positive coronavirus spread across the internet mediaverse, one particular meme kept cropping up: Ruth Bader Ginsberg must have won her oral argument with God.
A literal reading of the joke: Trump’s diagnosis (and any subsequent effect it has on the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, his nominee for Ginsberg’s Supreme Court seat) is a form of divine justice. Ginsburg has triumphed not just in this world, but in the next, even convincing God himself with her legal acumen and quick intelligence.
It’s a perfectly decent joke, predicated on the soap-operatic plot twists of 2020 and the surreal absurdity of the past three years. It also lends hope that, for the first time in as many years, we might be seeing something like narrative consistency: the villain infected, at last, by a heady dose of poetic irony.
But the joke is predicated on something else, too. In the head-spinning, if by now accustomed barrage of events that have come at us since Ginsburg’s death on September 18, (Trump nominates RBG’s replacement with 40 days to go before Election Day, Trump fails to affirm legitimacy of the vote or to disavow right-wing militias at his first debate with Joe Biden, Trump contracts coronavirus), our leave taking of Ginsberg was rushed, then overtaken.
Insofar as Americans took time to note her departure, it was to complete RBG’s transformation from a significant female jurist into a spiritual totem, a sanctified, but not saintly, icon of progressivism as a religious cause.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life, and work, as well as her historic place as the second woman on the Supreme Court, are to be admired and celebrated. This is something different from the empowerment narrative of “Notorious RBG,” which transformed Ginsberg from a brilliant human being into a vague standard bearer of female victory, a transformation that should be examined with more caution.
Ginsburg became in later life, especially to her younger fans, a repository for a certain kind of empowerment that elided pop culture with progressive politics. A Supreme Court justice, she was also a fantasy figure of a powerful, brilliant woman: old enough to be deemed “invisible” to the male gaze, her glamour visible to those who could recognize her radiance, she proved herself superior to her entitled colleagues on the bench.
This exaggerated avatar took on a life of its own. Progressives cheered Ginsberg’s “badass” fabulousness. She came not only to rule in favor of progressive values such as gender equality and social justice, but to embody them.
More, she represented the vindication of intelligent women, occupying a curious intermediate space between the white-feminist-capitalist “girl boss” (see: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg) and female political icons like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, who “persist,” and in so doing threaten to undercut the white male-capitalist world.
This space is patently a spiritual one, its paragons cheekily but no less reverently pasted on the sides of votive candles that mimic Catholic folk iconography. One candle widely available on Amazon refers to Ginsburg as St. Ruth, indicating she’s the patron saint of justice.
Never mind these trinkets ignore Ginsberg’s own distinctively Jewish identity. Or, that in canonizing Ginsburg, social-justice progressives wave their objections to savior narratives over working for structural change. Instead her Jewish roots and the movement’s own value became tangled with a distinctly New Age neo-paganism.
As political progressives become increasingly and often belligerently non-religious, or else wander into the realm of spiritual but not religious, their celebrities have necessarily taken on an outsized, symbolic role. Their heroes’ accomplishments, the complexities of their views and the inconvenient assessment of their failures, take second place to their secular canonization. (It’s worth noting that Hillary Clinton, once lauded as a trailblazer, never appears on these candles.)
Critics of Ginsberg have noted her own failures to live up to progressive ideals, including her criticisms of Colin Kaepernick’s anti-racist “take a knee” protests and her consistent failure to hire black staffers. But Ginsberg’s fans can’t subject her to such scrutiny.
As a successful “nasty woman,” she is valorized less for herself or her own accomplishments than for the role she plays as a foil to Donald Trump: the rebellious “witch” against the “fails”: the trust-fund scion who became the standard-bearer of evangelical pseudo-Christian bigotry.
As social justice, with its earthly concerns, takes on the character of a religion proper, it requires such demigods. It’s a valorization that threatens to rob Ginsburg, and us, of our humanity.