THE PASSING OF JUSTICE GINSBURG
by Eric Falk
It has already been a tumultuous, divisive year, filled with a health disaster, an economic crisis, a tense examination over the role of systemic racism in our society, year filled with angst, extreme stress and, yes, hate. At bottom we have before us a crisis in whether we still believe in the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all of us are created equal, each of us endowed with certain inalienable rights. Confronting us is nothing more than how we answer the question "Who are we as Americans?"
The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg brings this to the forefront, within the sharp disagreements over vastly different views in our society of how the Supreme Court interprets that very question. However, if you are reading this, you already know that. So I won't bore you with more eulogizing of Justice Ginsburg and pointing out the obvious concerns about the politics of naming a replacement. Instead, I ask you to ponder the following.
Justice Ginsburg passed on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, "the Days of Awe." That is significant and allow me to explain why.
There is a prayer during the service, and it states, in part, "On Rosh Hasanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed- how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death.....who shall have rest and who will wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted.
This prayer reminds all of us, regardless of religious denomination, that God passes judgement upon our actions, and in doing so, tells us that the thrust of life is to do good, to be good, to treat others with respect, to unite and not to divide, to heal and not to injure, to love and not to hate. We renew our vows to try to accomplish just that in the coming year.
Justice Ginsburg's passing, indeed her entire life, her eternal belief in the promise of the Declaration of Independence, reminds all of us of that Great Truth, a truth that spans all religions, spans all of mankind. Her passing on this date is not coincidence, because in Jewish tradition, a person who passes on Rosh Hashanah is deemed a person of Great Righteousness.
That is how we all should remember Justice Ginsburg, and the causes she defended.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND FREEDOM FROM SPEECH
The Facebook posts by Norwin School Board Member Bob Wayman are, simply put, appalling. While people can disagree on issues, his expressions of hate and encouragement of violence are directed toward certain groups who are, needless to say, members of our own community, including teachers, students and school administrators.
Even more dismaying is the response of those who believe that the citizens who brought Mr. Wayman's postings to light are trying to deprive him of his constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who advance that mistaken belief simply do not understand the concept of freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from speech. Freedom of speech is not a "zero-sum" concept. While respecting Mr. Wayman's freedom of speech, and defending the right as I would defend everyone's freedom of speech, his freedom of speech does not mean that any of us must remain silent. It does not mean if I speak, you must not speak; nor does it mean if you speak, I must not speak. Indeed, freedom of speech also means accepting the responsibility for the words each of us utter or write, for freedom of speech is not freedom from responsibility for one's speech.
Every once in a while, Hollywood gets it right. In The American President, Michael Douglas, playing the President, makes this point: "America isn't easy, America is advanced citizenship. You got to want it bad because it's going to put up a fight. It's going to say, you want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage, and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours".
Those who keep saying that we are trying to suppress Mr. Wayman's right to speak need to acknowledge our right to speak in opposition to his words. That opposition includes bringing his words out in the open for the entire community to see, exposing the venom that lurks within the words he wrote.
FLAWS OF OUR FOUNDERS
It hurts to realize your heroes had flaws, major flaws. It really hurts.
As a society we are now finally confronting the tangled legacy of the Founding Fathers. It is a legacy summarized in one simple, yet profound contradiction-many of the new who wrote and approved of the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," did not practice that in their own lives.
The Founders were not prophets, and they were men. They had good points and did good things, some of which we can safely regard as great things. They had bad points and did bad things, some of which we can now concede were cruel and inhumane.
We all know the story of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words in the Declaration of Independence. Monticello was built and maintained by slaves; he had a mistress, Sally Hemings, who was a slave; he fathered children with her. A recent column in The Washington Post highlighted George Washington's slave legacy, a column which recited the names of some of his slaves, and how he worked to keep them enslaved.
Yet the men of 1776 did not remove those words from the Declaration of Independence. The fact they kept those words means something for us today even as we confront their contradictions. They wanted those words in there and left it to us to figure out the importance of those words.
Those words were the most revolutionary statement of political thought then and they remain the most revolutionary expression of political thought today. Those words make this country the most revolutionary country ever conceived.
All other nations were founded, and remain founded, on some form of shared identity. A shared ethnic identity, a shared language, a shared cultural identity, a shared geography, etc. We are the nation ever founded not on a shared identity, but on a shared belief. We are the only nation founded on the idea that all people are equal in their possession and enjoyment of those rights. Those words are American exceptionalism.
America is an ideal. As an ideal, America beckons to us forever on the horizon, asking us to strive to meet the ideal, asking us to forever prove to the world and to ourselves that, yes, all people are created equal in their possession and enjoyment of those rights. America demands when we fall short of that ideal, we pick ourselves up and keep moving towards it.
In my humble opinion, that is why the Founders kept those words in the Declaration of Independence, even though for many of them, those words were not practiced in their own personal lives. They wanted those words in the Declaration for future generations, to forever remind us of the core belief that is America.
We want to idealize the Founders. We need to idealize them. Something they did, something they said, was so noble it leaps out of the pages of history. Surely, they must have been angels. Now, we confront their flaws, massive flaws wrapped in what seems to be (and perhaps is) hypocrisy. And it hurts...it hurts so much.
It is right that it hurts, because confronting that good and bad can exist simultaneously in each person, even within ourselves, is necessary in order to have the reckoning we need to have. This confrontation is necessary so we can continue to move forward with the dream that is America, and continue to make the words of the Decaration applicable to all.
Perhaps we can take solace in some additional words from Jefferson, who also wrote, "that the earth belongs...to the living...the dead have neither powers nor rights over it." He used the phrase "self-evident" to describe this observation, the same phrase he used in the Declaration.
It was a statement not just of philosophy, but of truth. It is up to us, the living, to sort through and deal with the legacy of past generations. The Founders knew this. They knew they were not perfect. They tried, and in some ways they succeeded and rose to greatness, and in some ways they failed and succumbed to their own flaws. That is fact; not an excuse, not forgiveness. It is simple fact; self-evident Jefferson might have said.
They were human, and they knew that future generations will have to come to a reckoning with what they did that was great and timeless, and what they did that was wrong and immoral.
One day, future generations will come to terms with our generation, just as we are finally coming to terms with the Founders.
Because it is true that the earth belongs to the living.