September 24, 2020
Originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune.
With the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, our thoughts turn to the legacy of such a unique, progressive and outstanding woman. Today in our bitterly divided country, one lesson from her legacy ought to stand above the rest: the unique and beautiful friendship with one of her seemingly most staunch ideological opponents – Justice Antonin Scalia.
Those who rightly admire and lionize one or both of these two formidable leaders for their legal and intellectual accomplishments should consider the following question: Can we properly respect their memory and accomplishments if we do not seek out and maintain similar friendships across political and ideological differences?
Ginsburg’s own words suggest the answer. In her foreword to a collection of the late Scalia’s speeches published in 2017, titled Scalia Speaks, she wrote:
If our friendship encourages others to appreciate that some very good people have ideas with which we disagree, and that, despite differences, people of goodwill can pull together for the well-being of the institutions we serve and our country, I will be overjoyed.
We, the authors, maintain such a cherished friendship. One is a liberal, the other a conservative. We are ideologically different, but united for the common good.
For those lacking such a unique, counterintuitive and beautiful human connection in their lives, we can confidently say that you are missing something that will bring you more personal fulfillment and life satisfaction than any political victory or ideological advancement will ever achieve.
Such friendships bring more than just personal satisfaction and enjoyment. They are essential to the survival of the United States and the progress of the ideas of human equality, liberty and civil rights that this nation represents (and has always represented).
A newly elected President Abraham Lincoln once implored the nation: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Because Americans proved unable to heed Lincoln’s wisdom, the result was a civil war that killed an estimated 750,000 Americans and nearly destroyed the nation.
Some who are reading this (and many who are not) may question the idea that friendships can have any significant power in such a divided nation. They will dismiss the importance or impact of “kumbaya moments” between those with political and ideological differences as being too small and insignificant to have much impact in a perilous historical moment in our nation.
These skeptics should heed the wisdom of novelist Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot). In the 1870s, Eliot wrote in one of English literature’s greatest works that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.”
We are in this polarized predicament as a nation not simply due to a few moments of bad political behavior, but because millions of Americans have repeatedly failed to follow the path of wisdom, humility and decency when faced with a differing opinion from another American.
We have not recognized the opportunity to create a new human connection and learn from someone with a different perspective – acknowledging our own limited knowledge and the value of a person different from us in the process. Instead, we have too often taken the intellectually and emotionally juvenile path of dismissing the other person as lacking intelligence or morality for the personal affront of seeing the world differently than we do.
The death of Ginsburg (and Scalia too) is an opportunity to change our national political trajectory and renew – even save – our country.
The source of our national salvation does not start with politics, but people. The solution begins with the relationships, human connections (or lack thereof) and applied moral principles and values that create and change our politics. Her close friendship with Scalia illustrates an intellectual depth, emotional strength and moral confidence sorely needed in our politicians and our people alike.
If we truly respect and honor the legacy of Justice Ginsburg, then we should worry less about achieving the ultimate ideological or political victory on either “side.” Instead, we should worry about whether we are people who, like Ginsburg, can create and maintain the kinds of friendships that she cherished. Then her legacy will endure.
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