What Will Happen Now Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Dead?

You cannot understand the confirmation process of Amy Coney Barrett without understanding that of Robert Bork. Nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1987, Bork was a polarising figure, known for his disdain for the supposed liberal activism of the court. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, deeming Bork to be too radical for the court, turned away from the bipartisan tradition of assessing a nominee’s qualifications rather than values. The Judiciary Committee hearings featured hostile questioning, and Bork was ultimately rejected by 58-42 in a Democratic-majority Senate. The events produced the term “borked,” referring to the vigorous questioning of the legal philosophy and political views of judges in an effort to derail their nomination. The legacy of Bork lives on today.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) has triggered a high-stakes nomination process just weeks before the election. The Supreme Court is the highest level of the judicial branch in the US, with Justices nominated by the President and voted on by the Senate. The process usually takes a few months, with nominees being interviewed privately by senators, and then publicly by the Senate Judiciary Committee, before being forwarded by the committee to be voted on in the Senate. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2014. (Credit: Ruven Afanador)

However Barack Obama’s final year in office altered the traditional conception of nominating Supreme Court Justices. With the death of Justice Scalia in 2016, Obama, in alignment with the Constitution, nominated Merrick Garland to fill the seat. However, in what political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt deemed “an extraordinary instance of norm breaking,” the Republican-controlled Senate refused hearings. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell argued that in an election year the Senate should wait until a new President has been elected, thus giving “the people” a say in the nomination process.

His position proved polarising. The practice of the Senate blocking a specific nominee (as in the case of Bork) would usually be fairly uncontroversial, even happening to George Washington in 1795. The issue was McConnell preventing an elected President from filling the seat at all, something that had never happened in post-construction US politics.

Yet the death of RBG has shown this precedent to be short-lived. Despite a Court seat opening up even closer to the election, the vast majority of Republicans have accepted McConnell’s present claim that his own precedent doesn’t apply in an election year if the same party holds both the Senate and Presidency. Thus, President’s Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, looks set to be confirmed.

It’s unknown how polarising her confirmation will be. The hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991 were dominated by the questioning of Anita Hill over her allegations of sexual harassment against the then-nominee, with Thomas then accusing the Democrat-led hearing of being a “high-tech lyniching for uppity who in any way deign to think for themselves.” The 2018 Kavanaugh hearings echoed this process, with the then-nominee accused of attempted rape in a widely-viewed public hearing. Although the Barrett hearings are unlikely to prove as sinister, it’s likely the Republicans will accuse the Democrats of finding any means possible to block a conservative justice, as was seen in the Clarence and Kavanaugh hearings.

Barrett is set to be ‘borked’. Her views have been well-documented over her career, and, most notably, Republican Senators seem confident she’ll vote to overturn Roe vs Wade, the 1973 ruling that protected a woman’s liberty to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. The Committee hearings process will likely rally each party’s base going into the election, but the long term implications on civil rights and the legitimacy of the Court have yet to be determined.

Sam Lazenby


Bibliography

The Economist. “Courting trouble: The knife fight over Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement.” (26 Sep 2020) https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/09/26/the-knife-fight-over-ruth-bader-ginsburgs-replacement

The Economist. “What does Amy Coney Barrett think?” (26 Sep 2020) https://www.economist.com/united-states/2020/09/26/what-does-amy-coney-barrett-think

Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D. (2019) “How Democracies Die.” Great Britain: Penguin

Liptak, A. “Barrett’s Record: A Conservative Who Would Push the Supreme Court to the Right.,” New York Times (26 Sep 2020). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/26/us/amy-coney-barrett-views-abortion-health-care.html

Pruitt, S. “How Robert Bork’s Failed Nomination Led to a Changed Supreme Court,” History (28 Oct 2018). https://www.history.com/news/robert-bork-ronald-reagan-supreme-court-nominations

Siddiqui, S. “Kavanaugh hearing recalls Clarence Thomas case,” The Guardian, (27 Sep 2018). https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/27/brett-kavanaugh-clarence-thomas-anita-hill-hearings

Victor, D. “How a Supreme Court Justice Is (Usually) Appointed,” The New York Times, (26 Sep 2020). https://docs.google.com/document/d/1880187lYZ4z9gXjkVeNDsSsN8F0ZdRK1MIrua4CQmIk/edit

‘Accepting Violence and Violent Language Against Women:’ How Language is Used to Belittle Female Politicians

On Thursday the 23rd American Congresswoman for New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came before congress to call for a point of personal privilege. Ms. Cortez sought to address her recent confrontation with Republican Congressman Ted Yoho who was overheard by a member of the press as calling her a ‘f***ing b***h.’ Mr. Yoho has denied using this particular phrase but has apologised for the ‘abrupt manner of the conversation [he] had with [his] colleague from New York,’ referring to his aggressive confrontation with Ms. Cortez on the steps of the Capitol during which he, according to Ms. Cortez, called her ‘disgusting,’ ‘crazy,’ and ‘out of [her] mind.’ 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at New York City’s Women’s March, 2019. (Credit: Dimitri Rodriguez, via Flickr)

Ms. Cortez remarked in her address that she expects no sincere apology from the representative from Florida, ‘a man who has no remorse over calling women and using abusive language towards women.’ Throughout her address, Ms. Cortez continually returned to this point of contention, using her encounter with Mr. Yoho as but one example of a wider cultural issue. Citing two more instances of verbal abuse issued by male colleagues, one being the President of the United States himself, Ms. Cortez incisively remarked such encounters expose ‘a cultural lack of impunity, of accepting violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports men.’ Ms. Cortez’s speech highlights that her highly-reported altercation outside the physical heart of US political discourse is but one of many identical interactions between congressmen and woman on both sides of the bench that occur far less publically but with concerning frequency. 

This issue is not endemic to the United States alone but has been found to be globally pervasive. A recent study on ‘Violence Against Women in Politics’ in the UK conducted by Delyth Jewell, a women’s right’s campaigner at ActionAid UK, interviewed female members of parliament to ascertain the frequency with which female politicians experience some form of violence (verbal or physical). Jewell interviewed one member of parliament who told her ‘everyone knows it happens; it happens to all women [in politics].’ Jewell’s study also highlights the frequency of abusive encounters associated with female politicians is alarming given the comparatively short period of time that their admission to parliament has even been legal. Jewell notes, ‘since gaining the right to be elected as members of parliament in 1918, a total of 489 women have been elected. This represents only 9% of all members of parliament elected over this time period.’ During this short history, women have been far less visible in politics and have faced harsh censure for aspects of their person outside of their political presence, a reality that is seemingly absent from the male political narrative. One only has to look to the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death on which ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ re-entered the UK charts at number two, extending a lifetime of criticism beyond the grave.

What Ms. Jewell’s study reveals is that female politicians in the UK have historically faced a heightened threat of violence in the comparatively short period of time that they have been politically active. As Congresswoman Cortez exposes however, attacks on female political competency and simply female political participation come just as frequently from within the house as without. In 2011, former prime minister David Cameron was criticised for belittling a female colleague across the bench. During a lively debate discussing the NHS, Mr. Cameron told shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle to ‘calm down dear’ as she, among others, opposed his remarks surrounding former Labour MP Howard Stoate. Like Ms. Cortez, Ms. Eagle did not expect an apology from the Prime Minister (nor did she receive one) but instead remarked that ‘I don’t think a modern man would have expressed himself that way,’ adding ‘women in Britain in the twenty-first century do not expect to be told to “calm down dear” by their prime minister.’ Whether they expect to be addressed in such a manner or not, Mr. Cameron’s rebuttal rings of the systemic dismissal of female political voices; a dismissal that, as Ms. Cortez’s experience attests, can often cross the line into confrontation. This begs the question, when will it be time to tell politicians like representative Yoho and former prime minister Cameron to ‘calm down dear’ when they attack the female political voice.

Lily Riley

What Stonewall 1969 can Teach Us About Activism

Photo by Diana Davies depicts the Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square 1969, accessed via The Guardian.

Understanding the historical construction of LGBTQ+ movements is imperative to furthering current activism. A prime example of this is the creation of the ‘Stonewall Myth’, as the Stonewall riots are now revered as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in the US. Given the current situation in the US it seems more important than ever to understand how protests shape the historical narrative. Understanding how activists construct social memory around particular events enables us to further the gains of the current LGBTQ+ movement as many grapple with how to further the rights of, and protect the more marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Stonewall riots were started by African American transgender woman Marsha P. Johnson. A series of riots began on June 27th 1969 after police raided a homosexual bar in New York (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 724), they are now remembered as a catalyst for the gay civil rights movement in the US. However, sociologists Armstrong & Crage note that there were similar instances of activism prior to this such as the 1965 New Year’s Ball raid in San Francisco (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730), which were not committed to the collective social memory. They use these instances to highlight the two conditions that are essential for an event to permeate the collective memory, which are that ‘activists considered the event commemorable and had the mnemonic capacity to create a commemorative vehicle’ (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730). Unlike previous raids in other parts of the country, Stonewall was able to achieve these criteria. Activists used the raid as the basis for commemorative marches which became the first gay pride and has since solidified the event in US social memory. The significance of Stonewall also highlights the extent to which the movement grew between 1969 and the Black Cat raids a few years earlier (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 736). Events that fit into existing genres are generally seen as more commemorable. Much like how the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in the US demonstrate a maturation of the black lives matter movement, Stonewall showed a maturation of the gay civil rights movement, which meant that the Gay Liberation Front was better financially equipped to create mnemonic resonance.

Achieving ‘mnemonic capacity’ with regard to an event is all the more difficult now as the growth of social media makes it harder to corral attention around specific events for extended periods of time. As we have seen with the recent protests in both Hong Kong and the US, social media can be an immensely powerful tool to bring people together, even when communication is limited within society. But in order to make sure these movements are remembered and create lasting change we can take lessons from Stonewall activists in how they used repetitive action to make their message permeate the collective memory and achieve long term progress in civil rights. Zeynep Tufekci argues that modern social movements fail to ‘sustain over the long term and exert leverage over the system, which leads to frustrated protesters dropping out, and even more corrupt politics.’ Social media is a powerful tool to raise awareness of how our rights may be under threat, as we saw with the Government’s recent proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act which could have devastating impacts on the trans community. However, in order to transform this awareness into significant political power we can take inspiration from Stonewall, which showed how repetitive, radical action is necessary to make sure that the wider public take notice of movements for justice.

Alicia Bickerstaff


Bibliography

Armstrong, E.A & Crage, S.N, 2006, ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, Vol.71, No. 5 pp. 724-751, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25472425

Loong, L.L.H, 2012, ‘Deconstructing the silences: Gay Social Memory’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol.59, No.5, pp.675-688, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2012.673903

Mitchell Reyes, G & Schulz, David. P & Hovland, Zoe, 2018, ‘When Memory and Sexuality Collide: The Homosentimental Style of Gay Liberation’, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1 April 2018, Vol.21, No.1, pp.39-74, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/journal/171

Tufekci, Z, 2014, Online Social Change: Easy To Organize, Hard To Win, online video, Viewed 7th June, https://www.ted.com/…/zeynep_tufekci_how_the_internet_has_m…

George Floyd

History does not look kindly on bystanders but we must not allow our fear of this to determine our reaction to injustice.

The killing of George Floyd has emblazoned social media with messages of protest in solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter. Unlike those who came before us, we are able to broadcast our views to the world, but eagerness to not be remembered as onlookers in an atrocity should not determine the action we take. Soundbite political culture and social media allows statements to be publicly broadcast, but we must be careful that this does not supplant real meaningful political engagement. When the hashtags have stopped we must continue to act against injustice.

Posting on social media is not a replacement for real life critical engagement with our political and social climate. Public statements that ‘Black Lives Matter’ are virtue signalling if we don’t look at the flaws within our communities, families and ourselves. Racial injustice does not just occur in times like this when we see an African American man being murdered by a police officer in the US. In the UK, racism is prevalent, institutional and historically entrenched. If we are to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, they must matter always, not just when it is the done thing to post a slogan supporting justice on social media.

Unless they are backed up by action, words are dispassionate at best and dishonest at worst.

I fear that statement-led politics can be used to absolve white peoples’ guilt. Expressions of sympathy can be used as a statement that ‘I am not racist’, ‘I am not one of them’. White people are in a position of inherent privilege as their skin colour is not a basis for oppression. Does this political culture on social media make it easier to avoid conversations about race as people appoint themselves immune from being part of the problem? We must consider the use of social media in a productive way and solely expressing sympathy or solidarity is not enough to be part of the solution. White people must acknowledge their racial privilege and actively challenge racism even when it may feel uncomfortable to do so. If our behaviours or attitudes are challenged we should listen to the experiences of others and not assume that our Black Lives Matter post can make us immune from making mistakes.

Our generation’s power to engage with and combat global injustice is unparalleled and this is largely due to our connections with each other through social media. Our anger should not be used for social approval and our anger does not absolve people from wrongdoing. Our anger needs to be supported by action for radical change and active anti-racism. Social media can raise awareness, but if we don’t support these words with action, we are no better than those who stand by and watch.

I am writing this as a white person and am not exempt myself from what I have argued. I am going to do better and put more effort into being aware, listening and learning about racism and my own privilege. To find out how to help go to https://blacklivesmatter.carrd.co, this includes informational resources and links to the places where your donations and signature can be the most effective. For causes to contribute to in the UK: https://www.independent.co.uk/…/black-lives-matter-charity-….