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by Mitchell Abidor
Discussed in this essay: Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. Dey Street Books, 2015, 240 pages.
I SAT DOWN to read Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s book on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Notorious RBG, with some trepidation. Though I had seen the authors speak and was impressed by their sincerity, intelligence, and articulateness, I still harbored fears about the book. The cover, showing Ginsburg in her robes, her lace jabot, and a crown like that worn in a famous image of the late hip-hop star Biggie Smalls, alias, Notorious B.I.G., is funny in its incongruousness, but I feared that it signaled an attempt to find parallels between the two Brooklynites. I have no shame in admitting that I’ve never listened to Biggie Smalls, nor have I intentionally listened to any hip-hop in my life. So reducing the impressive woman that is RBG to the level of a musician killed as a part of a feud between East and West Coast rappers struck me as ill-conceived. In fact, except as a hook for the book and the chapter headings, Smalls thankfully disappears from the scene.
The original impetus for the book also gave me pause: Shana Knizhnik, while still a law student, had set up a website called Notorious RBG, and I could make neither head nor tail of it. The book, however, is not a piece of narcissistic pop culture, but a heartfelt, well-written and -reasoned recounting of the life of the holder of Brooklyn’s seat on the Supreme Court, as well as a just and fair analysis of her life’s path and her most important legal decisions.
The hero-worship behind the book is evident on every page, but there are times when such an attitude is permissible. RBG is a woman who was, after all, first in her class at every school she attended, starting with James Madison High School (Ginsburg graduated from Madison eight years before Bernie Sanders and lived but 17 block from our future president). The adversity she had to deal with started with that first academic success: Her mother died the day before her high school graduation. She then attended Cornell (Vladimir Nabokov was a professor of hers), and Harvard and Columbia law schools.
Despite her intelligence, nay, brilliance, she still had to struggle to get jobs as a lawyer, facing the usual barriers confronted by women of her generation. So strong were the obstacles to her advancement or even entry into the legal world that despite having been one of only two women on the Harvard Law Review, she was refused as a clerk by Felix Frankfurter, and it was only as a result of “blackmail” that she ultimately got a clerkship: Her mentor told a federal judge that he’d never send him another candidate for a clerkship if he refused Ginsburg. Carmon and Knizhnik phrase her difficulties succinctly: “As RBG saw it, she had three strikes against her: She was a woman, the mother of a four-year old, and a Jew.”
We follow her rise, her role at the ACLU on the Women’s Rights Project, her professorships at Rutgers and Columbia Law Schools, her appointments to the bench, thanks to Jimmy Carter’s opening the way to women on federal circuit courts, and then Bill Clinton’s appointment of Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.
GINSBURG OVERCAME all obstacles not only through her own internal strength and forthrightness (when appointed to the Supreme Court and being prepped for hearings, she refused to in any way downplay her role at the ACLU or sell out the organization for her own personal gain), but also through her marriage to Marty Ginsburg. If RBG throughout the book comes off as brilliant but somehow lacking in human warmth (“shy and contained,” is the term used), her husband, who backed her in everything, who loved and adored her, who cooked the family’s meals (Ruth having neither the time nor the inclination to do so), who left his jobs to accommodate hers, and who was “the life of the party,” gives the book the sparkle he provided RBG. His famous final note to her shortly before his death, reproduced in the book (which is beautifully designed and richly illustrated), is as moving as its reputation.
However much they admire their subject, even for Carmon and Knizhnik there is one debatable decision on Ginsburg’s record, for which she has been roundly criticized by feminists for years: her insistence that making the Roe v. Wade decision so all-encompassing was a mistake that set up the subsequent wars over abortion. As the authors say, in Ginsburg’s eyes “the court should have acted more slowly and cut down one state law at a time.” Ginsburg said that Roe v. Wade “halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction and thereby, I believe, prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue.” In public, the authors defend Ginsburg fairly unconvincingly, though they can demonstrate how her logic fits in with her taste for gradualism. In the book, though, they guardedly support the opposition to Ginsburg, and they are on far surer ground when they do so. The issue was stalled before Roe. v Wade, and as the recent decisions on gay marriage showed, leaving issues involving fairness and justice in the hands of the states is an invitation to disaster.
WE ARE, NO DOUBT, supposed to find it admirable that Ginsburg enjoys a warm friendship with Antonin Scalia, who represents everything she finds despicable politically — but a shared love of opera really shouldn’t be enough to allow any human being to want to socialize with, indeed go on vacation and share an elephant ride with (a photo of their ride is in the book) as evil a human being as Scalia, a man who has done so much harm to this country. She seems to have a distaste for Justice Samuel Alito, who once rolled his eyes as she read a dissent. Notorious RBG gives us an especially fun fact: RBG wears her famous lace jabot for majority decisions, and a beaded one for dissents. Sadly, she’s had to wear the latter all too often.
Ginsburg has refused to retire from the court despite her age and health problems, including two bouts with cancer, neither of which caused her to miss work, for fear that the Senate would never approve a justice who would carry on her work. There can be no greater nobility than sitting in a room with Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia to save the country from certain ruin. If there is such a thing as a positive definition of patriotism, this is it.
There is another great fun fact in the book. Marty Ginsburg had shelves of cookbooks, and Notorious RBG includes his favorite recipe: pork loin braised in milk. The recipe isn’t a total shande: it calls for use of kosher salt. Barukh hashem.
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new book is Voices of the Paris Commune.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.