Let’s end the culture of idolization

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Angelica Tsvetkov, Contributing Writer

Our culture is obsessed with turning elected and appointed officials into celebrities and idols. The most recent name to receive this glorification from Americans is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I was listening to a podcast dedicated to remembering the life of the late Supreme Court justice, when one of the hosts excitedly suggested a line of cheeky feminist merchandise dedicated to Ginsburg.

We have seen a wave of people across the U.S. mourning the loss of Ginsburg, praising her historic career and celebrating her life. Many have said she made historic strides for feminism, but her judicial career was narrowly focused.

To me, Ginsburg embodied the failures of white feminism. She spoke on issues that intersected with her own identity, directly resolving her own oppression. However, when it came to advocating for other oppressed groups — such as indigenous, transsexual, Black and working class women — she turned a blind eye with ease.

To me, Ginsburg embodied the failures of white feminism.

In 2016, a reporter asked Ginsburg to share her thoughts on former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police violence against Black Americans. Ginsburg said: “I think it’s dumb and disrespectful.” 

In her court rulings, Ginsburg has a mixed record in cases regarding tribal law and Native American sovereignty. 

In Sherrill v. Oneida in 2005, Ginsburg stated that the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin could not reassert sovereignty over land granted by a 1794 treaty because federal standards of law and equity practices “preclude the Tribe from rekindling embers of sovereignty that long grew cold.” This language describes Native American people as something of the past and does not account for present day tribes.

However, to understand the nuanced history of Ginsburg, or any political figure, it is important to see her as a human who is transformative and has the capability to change her perspective. In many of her later decisions, including her last, she did a better job of affirming Native American rights in a way that takes indigenous histories, needs and struggles into account. 

I respect that Ginburg overcame several obstacles as a woman. I am grateful for the precedent she set on the court regarding gender equity and reproductive rights. However, I do find an issue with the culture that was built around her and other political figures.

Ginsburg is not an elected official, but she still has a strong influence on political culture through her rulings, interviews and lectures. When Ginsburg’s nickname, “The Notorious RBG,” was coined in 2013 by a fan on Tumblr, the romanticization of the Supreme Court justice began. A culture among liberals was born, one filled with Ginsburg pens, stickers, coffee mugs, T-shirts and so much more. No matter how inspiring a political figure may be, we should never become one of their fans.

When Ginsburg’s nickname, “The Notorious RBG,” was coined in 2013 by a fan on Tumblr, the romanticization of the Supreme Court justice began.

Growing up in the South, I often encountered groups of teenage boys wearing T-shirts with “Reagan Bush ‘84” plastered on them. It was so strange to see people glorify a leader who was overtly racist, funded the war on drugs and ignored the AIDS crisis as thousands were dying. Conservatives, however, continue to reference former President Ronald Reagan’s administration as a nostalgic and idealistic time in American history.

When most people think of former President Barack Obama, they think of his dad jokes, inspiring speeches, comforting smile and brotherly relationship with former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. However, these warm and fond memories cloud our judgement of Obama’s policies. His legacy is not usually associated with detainment camps for immigrants in the U.S., although hundreds of children were separated from their families under his presidency.

In many ways, Ginsburg is a great example of why we need intersectional politics to be amplified. An intersectional approach would take into account the overlapping social statuses and identities that apply to individuals or groups. For instance, when writing court opinions from a feminist angle, it would be important to account for the interests of not only middle class white women, but also for working class women, black women, indigenous women, women of color and trans women. 

We can be supporters, but our job is to hold politicians accountable. If they slip up, you should not come to their defense just because you have an emotional attachment to them. Let’s remember that public servants are here to serve the people; we must celebrate their strengths and hold them accountable for their errors.

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