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Cape Town, South Africa
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  • Ellen Bassett

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I rarely cry when I read the news, but tonight while watching The News Hour on PBS, while also cruising through my news feeds (as my students who get all sorts of email at late hours know I do), I saw the news that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.

I cried.

There are many, many reasons to mourn her passing. Her remarkable life and her tenacity. Her intelligence. Her relationship with her husband. What she has done for women’s rights. Her love of dissents. Her dissents. Her sartorial flair.

But I decidedly cry because what it means for the longer term outlook on social progress in the United States.

I have little faith that the standard set for Merritt Garland’s nomination by Senator Mitch McConnell will be followed right now. I do have some hope that very vulnerable Senators (I’m calling out you, Susan Collins!) will be very worried about electoral consequences. My mother, dead for several years, last lived in Maine. She admired Susan Collins, but I think that admiration would have waned by now.

I was born to Massachusetts’ liberals who relocated to Ohio in 1960 and at an election returns party found themselves a bit astonished to discover they were the only persons present who voted for John F. Kennedy. My whole world, my upbringing, has been about the power of government to help people excel and the importance and pride we should take in public service.

I proudly teach at a public university (actually they have all been publics). I hope to infuse my students, already idealistic, with my enthusiasm and faith in the power of government to do good. My mother died at 91 — not in poverty — because she had the assistance of Social Security. I have achieved what I have — my advanced education, my role as an educator — because I have gone to fine public universities (Go Blue! On Wisconsin!) supported by taxpayers who believe in the importance of access to higher education and the power of education as an agent of social mobility. I can afford to own a house (actually two) because the tax system gives me a big (and unfair) tax break on my mortgages, a policy instituted to widen homeownership (but denied to African Americans due to redlining and federal policy.)

I’ve been told I’m not allowed to cancel classes on a certain Tuesday in November in order to encourage my students to vote. Thankfully I’m not doing so. I’m cancelling class because I’ve volunteered to be a poll worker. Can’t be in two places at once.

I’m going to wear my mask and marshal all those vigorous antibodies I have after a decade+ in Sub-Saharan Africa to help people to vote. I believe my father, a dyed in the wool New Deal Democrat, would be proud. (And my favorite story around him is that he went to the University of Chicago, which he visited as he hitchhiked home from San Diego at the end of WWII and his Navy service in the Pacific. When I asked him why that university, he said “I had heard it was a good school.”)

No one would expect to get into such a school today just because he/she was a veteran. Yet that -- the GI Bill -- was critical to my family's social mobility. We need to revisit the promise of America -- we need to reverse our slide into income inequality, two nations with two different forms of economic opportunity and expectations for social and legal justice. To do that, we need a Supreme Court with integrity and a commitment to social welfare broadly construed.

We need more Ruth Bader Ginsburgs.

Addendum: September 21, 2020

Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater.

Photo Credit: Tom Spademan.

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