The Longed-For Values of Gentler Times

The passing of Justice Ginsburg reminds us of a time when ideological adversaries could be warm friends

Much electronic ink already has been spilled since the passing on Friday of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And while some of the comments and the commentary, from both the left and right, have been inspiring, much of what’s been posted—from social media to mainstream media—has not done justice to what Justice Ginsburg lived and stood for. 

Last week, in my syndicated newspaper column, I urged civility and respect for, or at least quiet tolerance of, those whose politics differ from one’s own. This year is part of a dyspeptic stretch in American political life, with profound deficits of humanity and humility across the political spectrum. It’s easy to point fingers at professional politicians, but the blame lies as much with ordinary citizens, who elect those politicians and demand that they mirror and amplify those voters’ rancor.

To reverse an old axiom, it’s difficult to dip muddy water from a clear stream. The shift in perception from “opponents” to “enemies”—catalyzed by the caustic chemistry of social media—is a troubling and dangerous phenomenon. Anyone who feels the blame lies entirely on the other side of the aisle has not thought nearly enough about his or her own side’s excesses.

Which brings me back to Justice Ginsburg. There are many things to celebrate about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career. My personal favorite, though, is her close, deep friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia—two friends who were about as philosophically distant as possible within the confines of our national Overton window. It’s often mentioned that they shared a deep passion for opera, but their comity seems to have been marrow-deep. 

The American polity has struggled through several dangerously schismatic epochs. The awful 1850s and 1860s is our historical nadir, with murder on the prairies, violent assaults in the halls of Congress, and, of course, the bloodiest war in our history. The early 1800s and late 1910s also come to mind. But for much of American history, it was common for political adversaries to share meals or drinks or vacations. The fact that many of us cannot tolerate the thought of an evening at an opera, sporting event, or restaurant with our political opposites is perhaps the most distressing aspect of contemporary American life. 

In the coming weeks, vitriol over Ginsburg’s seat will doubtless spread across the landscape like a sulfurous cloud. People on both sides of the aisle will shriek against the other side’s Scalia-vacancy-versus-Ginsburg-vacancy rhetorical inconsistencies as proof of malicious intent and treachery. At the same time, they will hide their own side’s equivalent inconsistencies beneath a smog of petulant dissemblance. Opportunism will masquerade as principle.

Not to overly romanticize the past, but this writer longs for the sort of erstwhile leaders who did not change their principles as others change their socks—Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield, Margaret Chase Smith, Pat Moynihan, Barry Goldwater, and George McGovern come to mind. Would that we could all be as charitable toward and respectful of our philosophical adversaries as they were, and as the principled Ginsburg and Scalia were. 

Here’s hoping that the afterlife has opera. If so, our two most recently deceased justices, who saw no conflict between radically different viewpoints and the iron bonds of friendship, no doubt have tickets in hand and center orchestra seats.

Image credit: Karin Cooper/Getty Images