September 25, 2020

BARDMESSER | Performative Activism Isn’t How to Honor RBG’s legacy

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It seems like this increasingly apocalyptic year won’t be giving us any breaks anytime soon. The pandemic continues on, as the United States breaches 6 million cases and a semi-recovered Europe braces for another wave, perhaps worse than its first. The inevitable march of climate change is manifesting on the West Coast, bloody skies borrowed from the Old Testament. The ongoing protests motivated by the extrajudicial murders by the police across every state serve as an ever-present reminder of the systemic racism in this country and the futility of fighting it within courts. And now the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 is another harbinger, with the inevitability of a third Trump appointee, one conservatives are gleeful to announce will be young, with so many years left to do more damage to the tatters of our civil rights. What are the odds that the Congressional Republicans will follow through on their principle that a new Supreme Court Justice should not be appointed during an election year? My money is on further hypocrisy.

Have we lost our chances to change what the world will become? It’s 2020 and we struggle against myriad oppressive institutions and a warming world that has started taking its victims and won’t stop. Climate change is irreversible so now we can only mitigate its effects — a mitigation that will spare a privileged few and sacrifice those in poorer countries, whose exploited resources have been warming the planet. If you think I’m being a drama queen about climate change, think about the fact that humans are single-handedly responsible for the sixth mass extinction. Despite the fact that scientists have warned us about climate change for decades, we squandered our time to change our system from one that pushes for high growth at all costs to one that values and protects the environment. The end of the world is already here, just unevenly distributed.

If we ignore climate change and the implications behind RBG’s death, the history of humanity’s progress is simplified and seems inexorable. When we operate under the assumption that political development is a unilinear, evolutionary and non-contradictory process, it becomes difficult to see the devolution in our civil rights and planet for what it really is.

Look at the history of civil and women’s rights for evidence of nonlinearity. As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, equality for Black people has been anything but a linear history since emancipation. Jim Crow laws squashed the brief moment of Black electoral power that followed the end of slavery and though the civil rights movement spelled the end of Jim Crow, mass incarceration and policing emerged as a deliberate system neutering Black voting power. The recent protests show the resilience of systemic racism to attempted reform, and how cosmetic changes are often used to placate. Abortion rights are now significantly worse off than they were two decades ago, with many states having far fewer abortion clinics, putting a wrench into any idea that women are not a distinct oppressed class. Ideas of linear, rather than messy, progress have made us complacent. Because we are inherently prone to believing that we are better off now than we were twenty years ago, we seek easy ways to address systemic issues, rather than forming legitimate movements that fight and subvert unjust distributions of power, which is where climate change and civil rights issues ultimately stem from.

Buying stickers to dress our laptops, changing labels of tampon baskets in the women’s bathroom to “mxnstruation,” buying sweatshop t-shirts inscribed “feminist” and temporarily boycotting companies now and then seems to count as activism now. These are all futile attempts at change. Since our consumer power is given far more credit than it deserves, it’s easy to think buying progressive stickers counts as activism. It’s easier still to think that this performance is sufficient especially when you only consider the progress forwards, rather than the steps backwards and laterally.

The feminists of the 60s, despite all of their issues, chained themselves to capitols to fight for rights we now take for granted. As a lawyer and justice, RBG challenged male-dominated Supreme Courts to fight for gender equality, arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court six times in defense of the cause, which she continued fighting for in her tenure as a Justice, especially in her powerfully written dissents. Now instead we are seeing a phenomenon distinct to the twenty-first century emerge, in which we treat ideologies like feminism and anti-racism as identities. Current movements challenging entrenched institutions are rare and less radical, and this development is partially to blame for the backsliding of civil rights and failure of climate change policies. We compulsively perform our activism without challenging the system in part because it gives us an illusion of control.At the end of the day, our attempts to buy an identity of feminism and supporting human rights is not praxis.

As we reflect on RBG’s life, we should interrogate how we fight systemic issues and honor her legacy. Will we buy stickers with her likeness on it and call it a day, or will we form movements that protect our rights and our planet?

Robyn Bardmesser is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at rbardmesser@cornellsun.com. Impolitburo runs alternate Fridays this semester.