RBG and Greek Tragedy

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The tragic dramas of Ancient Greece often follow a common arc: an unwary but usually unobjectionable hero commits a blunder or series of blunders culminating in personal disaster, followed by fleeting personal enlightenment.

The story of heroic downfall is explained by an ancient concept called hamartia, or a fatal character flaw that ultimately dooms our tragic hero. Hubris, or personal pride, often seems to be the cause of this demise, and thus the dangers of pride are a recurring theme throughout Greek tragedy.

Of course, warnings about pridefulness aren’t exclusive to Ancient Greece. “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” says the Book of Proverbs, written long before Sophocles or Aeschylus ever scripted a play, and pride has always been held as one of the seven deadly sins in Christian theology.

Shakespeare picks up on the concept of tragic irony in his great works: the lowly gravediggers enlightening an aristocratic Hamlet on the reality of human life, for example, or King Lear wandering aimlessly through a storm guided by a wise fool, losing his eyesight, his daughter, his kingdom, and ultimately his life.

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The point, it seems, is that there exists a certain irony that accompanies pride and manifests itself in the most wicked and poetic ways, at the most inopportune of times. A stern dose of humility is required for enlightenment, so the lesson goes. This familiar theme recurs throughout the great works of history because it is timeless. It is just as true today as it was when it was first written.

A storyline worthy of Ancient Greece seems to be manifesting before our very eyes in the case of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

During her lifetime, Ginsberg was hailed as a women’s rights icon for the left, affectionately branded “the Notorious RBG” by her supporters. Lace collars adorned necks and t-shirts to mimic her iconic look, and she was heralded as perhaps the ultimate icon of female empowerment and abortion rights in modern America.

But nobody lives forever, and as she continued to age under President Barack Obama it became hardly an open secret that she was waiting to retire under a President Hillary Clinton, so that she could be replaced by the first female president, in keeping with her persona. Some on the left questioned this strategy; the election of Hillary Clinton wasn’t a sure thing, in their mind, and waiting wasn’t worth the risk. But Ginsberg, like much of the country, stuck around because of her confidence in the inevitability of the progressive cause.

Of course, this prideful confidence, call it hamartia, if you will, was interrupted by a deus ex machina, another Greek thematic import, when renegade outsider Donald Trump swept the country off its feet with his 2016 election victory.

President Trump moved swiftly to fill the two vacancies that presented themselves to him, thus shifting the Supreme Court to what many considered “toss-up” status. Conservatives were optimistic that they were only one vote away from overturning Roe for good and wondered if that chance would soon come.

For Ginsberg, health scares came and went all the while—fractured ribs, cancer, infections, and hospitalizations—but the Notorious RBG always pulled through, it seemed, by sheer force of the will.

But, like a Greek tragedy, the irony of fate asserted itself in history once again. On September 18, 2020, a mere month and a half before the presidential election, Ginsberg passed away at the age of 87 from cancer complications.

Of course, irony could not rest; her replacement was another woman with a three-letter nickname of her own, announced only eight days later. But that’s about all Ginsberg and Amy Coney Barrett had in common. The Republican-controlled Senate acted quickly to confirm, and Barrett took the oath on October 27, just a week and a half before the election.

As we know, President Trump and the Republican Senate would not remain in office, but Barrett would, as all lifetime Supreme Court appointments do.

On May 2, 2022, it was reported that the Supreme Court would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, in a leaked draft majority opinion joined by Barrett as a deciding vote. The irony has continued: RBG’s replacement, it turns out, appears set to play a key role in overturning the ruling she so desperately sought to uphold.

The lesson here is the lesson of the ancients: The wheel of fortune rolls onwards, twists and turns of fate are rapid and often unpredictable, and hubris employs irony as a cruel teacher. Aeschylus has his next script. Ginsberg, the longtime icon of abortion rights, ultimately played a key role in its collapse. It was true in ancient Greece, and it is true now. The force of human will still has its limitations, and pride still cometh before the fall.

Garrison Grisedale is a policy analyst for the America First Policy Institute. Previously, he served as the speechwriter for Secretary Ben Carson in the Trump Administration, and a fly-fishing guide in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

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