Jared Holst: RBG – Political Incorrectness v. the Merch Machine (From the Archives)

Yves here. It is never a good thing when someone who has neither run for office nor is/was a celebrity (that include athletes) has their likeness used to sell stuff. The once-mistakenly-sainted Robert Mueller is the classic example. The extent of Fauci merchandise says his fall is inevitable. And then we have the curious case of Ruth Bider Ginzburg, too familiarly RBG.

I’ve never been a huge fan. If RBG really cared about keeping a left-of-center or at least not right wing majority on the Supreme Court, she should have taken up Obama’s suggestion that she retire while the Democrats could assure the approval of a replacement, on the condition that she would approve of a very short list of candidates before she announced her retirement.

By Jared Holst,  the author at Brands Mean a Lot, a weekly commentary on the ways branding impacts our lives. Each week, he explores contradictions within the way politics, products, and pop-culture are branded for us, offering insight on what’s really being said. You can follow Jared on Twitter @jarholst. Originally published at Brands Mean a Lot

Katie Couric released a memoir this month. Although I personally can’t imagine reading it, much less buying it, there is at least one juicy tidbit. Remember when Colin Kaepernick kneeled? Of course you do. Here’s what deceased Supreme Court judge of nearly 30 years and unintentional mug/t-shirt/pillow persona Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to say about it:

“I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act.”

The person conducting that interview? Katie Couric. In her memoir, Curic reveals that Ginsburg, a progressive icon, had more to say. First, Ginsburg opined the kneeling athletes were displaying…

“…contempt for a government that has made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life.”

The players’ parents and grandparents, like Ginsburg, lived through Jim Crow, amongst other things. The then-83-years-old justice continued:

“…Which they probably could not have lived in the places they came from…as they became older, they realize that this was youthful folly. And that’s why education is important.”

Couric ended up not using the full interview because she was a “big RBG fan” and the words were “unworthy of a crusader for equality”.

Both sides of this are equally bananas. That a journalist would suppress newsworthy information from one of the most powerful people in the country in service of fandom is half of the bananas. Ginsburg already had a spokesperson, Couric’s services weren’t necessary. The other half of bananas is that a sitting Supreme Court justice who’s supposed to be a leading proponent for equality managed to somehow hold even more regressive and racist opinions.

The cherry on the bananas is RBG’s belief that education would remedy the situation, allowing the players to see the folly and ingratitude of their protests. I guess it depends which sort of education she’s referring to? Given her retrograde POV, perhaps she’s referring to her own? Save for the historical events that occurred in the years between her and I attending school, our historical educations probably weren’t all that different (I’m 36). Given the current debates about critical race theory, and our education system’s general reluctance to acknowledge the enduring effects of slavery on America, it’s unclear to me how education—without some very intentional omissions—would be the salve she thought it would.

With the above in mind, it felt like a good week to re-share my piece on Ginsburg from a while back. It’s below, uncut.

Finally, if you’re jonesing for even more of me, I wrote a long form piece on the economics of Hampster Dance for Tedium. It’s a very different topic. Still good though!

I’m Often Lazy

These days, I eat a lot of meals where I work. Thus, a daily allotment of silverware, plates, and glasses get used at my desk. Often, a coffee mug will linger on the desk long past its cupboard buddies. I’ll get up from my desk, pick up the used plates and silverware, look at the mug, acknowledge it needs to go to the sink then decline to do so, despite having a free hand. This can go on for days: I look at the task that needs to get done and put it off to chase the sliver of pleasure that comes from not doing a chore. Eventually, my twin desires for tidiness and the ability to go about my day knowing everything’s in order outweigh the fleeting feel-good of chore abstinence.

What’s Mug Got to do with it? (Tina Turner voice)

A few reports last week revealed that in 2013, fearing the senate would flip Republican in the 2014 election (it did) and block the appointment of a liberal judge, then President Barack Obama had a private lunch with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to gingerly convince her to step down. Ideally, she’d do so in time for the senate to confirm a liberal replacement.

At the point of this conversation, Ginsburg was near 81.1 years of age, the average life expectancy of an American woman. She was also well past 66, the average age Americans expect to retire. When asked about how Obama might regard her potential retirement, she said:

“I think he would agree with me that it’s a question for my own good judgment.”

In a certain way, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat resembles my mug. The issue of her passing away in the midst of a conservative-majority senate was obvious, and her stepping down midway through Obama’s second term was a simple solution to that problem that went ignored for too long. Ignored because it felt good to avoid doing anything about it. It felt good because she was an iconoclast, and the longer she sat in her seat, the more we could congratulate ourselves for having someone like her around in such a powerful position.

Unlike the mug, Ginsburg had agency, and chose to remain in her seat. As her career showed, she refused to be placed anywhere simply because someone wanted it that way.

Put an RBG on It

There’s a ton of merch out there with RBG’s face on it: mugs, coasters, t-shirts, earrings, figurines, Christmas ornaments, and throw pillows, to name a few.

In addition to her face, many of these same items have her wearing a tilted crown, with the slogan ‘Notorious RBG’, an appropriation of the infamous picture of rapper Notorious B.I.G. Given her age, and her love of taking in opera (often with Antonin Scalia, close friend and person responsible for writing that constitutionally granted same-sex marriage was a “threat to American democracy,”) I find it unlikely Ginsburg was familiar with B.I.G.’s music. Moreover, of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem kneeling protest, Ginsburg had to say:

“I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act.”

With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine her co-signing the appropriation of the image of an artist whose music often referenced actual legal transgressions, not just kneeling or cloth burning.

Our Notorious Stupid.It.Y.

This isn’t to say Ginsburg was bad, she wasn’t. She was just a person: she made mistakes, had rotten friends that were difficult to part with, and occasionally said some stupid stuff.

The brand built around Ginsburg gave us those same slivers of serotonin that caused us to overlook more important issues. If we’d completed a simple task to put things in order, we’d not find ourselves facing down our current predicament: the nomination and likely lifetime confirmation of a 48-year-old judge who is anti-abortion, thinks Obamacare is unconstitutional, and is anti-gay marriage.

Owning merch with Ginsburg on it was a way to momentarily forget the fact that the odds of her drawing breath versus her heart stopping were far worse than they should have been for anyone in her position. Unintentionally, it was also a visual reminder of our outdated Supreme Court system, and gave us unwarranted optimism about that same system of which she was a part.

Whether you bought the items or not, they reinforced a halo around her that discouraged people from asking that during her lifetime of opening doors, she leave us with good odds they would stay that way.

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  1. jr

    Not long after RBG departed this plane of existence, a shop window (of course) in Manhattan, close to Union Square, featured a large, framed portrait of her surrounded by flowers or some such. I wish I could recall it completely but there was a word such as “Legend” or “Hero” or some such (crap painted on the window. Groups of people, mostly youngish women, could be seen posing with and photographing it, completely oblivious to the harm she had levied on them. They are desperate for something to believe in. Then there is this:


    Recently, I think it was Jimmy Dore show, there was an interview with Stephen Breyer, who laughingly shrugged off suggestions he should retire because it was, after all, his decision and no one else’s. Pure egoism, no concern for the bigger picture.

    1. Eric377

      He doesn’t want to retire and that is exactly his decision. There is no bigger picture. He’ll retire or die and someone will take his place.

      1. jr

        The notion that the career decisions of a Supreme Court justice don’t inhabit a bigger picture is belied by the words “Supreme Court justice”.

  2. Tom Stone

    Racism is so effing tiresome and so effing damaging to American Society.
    The waste of a large portion of the populace who are prevented from contributing to society by the color of their skin and subjected to lifelong stress and abuse is appalling.
    I lived in Oakland for decades, both my father and Daughter were born there and the callous brutality with which our society treats minorities is something i have seen firsthand
    It drives some mad with rage, I have twice had African American Men try to kill me specifically because I was White.
    Complete strangers.
    “This is For Rodney King” and “Honkie Bastards” made the motivation clear.
    One was drunk ( Later arrested) and the other well may have been.
    If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that if I had been born black in America I would have gone postal in my teens, outraged by injustice.
    Women are also denied equal rights in our Society, also keeping half of the populace from contributing to our Society.
    Idiotic, but not a surprise to anyone who pays attention to what people actually do.

    1. jim truti

      I wish someone could define the meaning of the word racism today because I dont think it means what the dictionary says.
      If America is a racist country, why are thousands and thousands of colored people flooding our southern border?
      Why would one put their life and livelihood in danger, flee their own country and government where they are in absolute majority and come to systemically white racist america to be oppressed and discriminated against?

      1. barefoot charley

        Because they’re even more oppressed and discriminated against where they come from, with a planter-descended white caste *really* in charge. It ain’t complicated.

        1. Pat

          Not racism then, but greed and classism.

          Unfortunately try as you might you probably won’t be able to make the case that America is better on that score. Just that the oppression takes a different form.

        2. Prairie Bear

          Yes, and said in-charge caste continually aided and abetted, to say the least, by USA elite policy.

      2. Mrs. Labor-creates-all-value

        I wish I wasn’t such a cynic, but this seems to me like a comment posted in bad faith.

        Unless I missed the sarcasm?

        I don’t see how any of the points above preclude the existence of race-based violence and inequality perpetuated by those who seek and benefit from the oppression of others (both within and outside of US borders.)

      3. James Simpson

        This Brit knows very well why poor people of all ethnicities are made to be desperate enough to leave their homes permanently to make a perilous, often-lethal journey northwards to the border of a country then know doesn’t want them. Why don’t you know the reasons? Do you need lessons in US history of its deep and catastrophic interference in the sovereign nations to its south?

  3. Dr. John Carpenter

    She may claim she “lost a lot of sleep” over pruning Ginsburg’s comments (which seem pretty on brand really), but that she ultimately decided she needed to “protect” her says she didn’t lose enough sleep over the issue. Just another day in America, I suppose.

    I am curious about something brought up by this. It seems like the fan merchandising of political figures is a fairly new phenomenon. I know there’s always been campaign trinkets, parody and anti- merchandise and heck, JFK memorial stuff was practically an industry of it’s own. But, I just don’t recall seeing this kind of merchandising of a serving political figure, especially a Supreme court justice, before Obama and that iconic Shepard Fairey “Hope” piece. The stuff on Ginsberg, Fauchi, Mueller, etc. has just been bizarre to see (and, for all the libs want to crack on Trump worship, this does seem to be a left thing.)

    Am I missing something here? I just don’t remember seeing much more than “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for…” bumper stickers or campaign buttons worn after the election until not too long ago.

    1. Prairie Bear

      It seems like you are mostly right. Some people used to have portraits of POTUSes (poti? potusi?) in their homes. JFK especially comes to mind. Maybe the merch thing kind of started with Clinton? Like bobbleheads, or something, don’t remember for sure. But yes, it seems to have gone into overdrive more lately.

    2. Randy

      > I am curious about something brought up by this. It seems like the fan merchandising of political figures is a fairly new phenomenon.

      Seems like half the country has lost its mind and, no longer having religion or family or friends to pin their hopes on, have decided to replace those things with public figures or marvel media franchises or whatever. If you kill god and then tell us we’re all brands in constant competition with eachother then we have to find new things to look up to.

      1. Dr. John Carpenter

        That would also explain how you can have a figure who is almost always business as usual (or worse) but they say one thing people want to hear and they’ll defend them to the death. Never mind all the other ways they actively made the world a worse place, it’s all “yaaas qween” because they were marginally better on one thing.

        I have thought this too as US politics have begun to resemble pro-sports more and more. I see some of the same behavior among the sports fans I work with, although they seem to have a lot less tolerance for coaches or players who don’t deliver than the political partisans I see.

        1. James Simpson

          Sports fans are notoriously ignorant of how statistics work, especially regression to the mean. That’s why they instantly call for the resignation of coaches when their corporate, profit-reaping professional club loses a couple of games.

      2. Swamp Yankee

        Yes, we got rid of religion — often for very understandable reasons — but didn’t replace it with anything except The Market. Thus our current conundrum.

    3. Pat

      It was a quick search, but I was curious about the first time a Justice was given an adoring film biography. Now the Court has been a character in films about events, so there have been portrayals of various Justices practically forever. But here was a film honoring RBG’s early work on gender discrimination written by her nephew and hilariously starring a very upper crust British actress Felicity Jones.
      While it was the first for a sitting justice that I could find, a year earlier there was a biopic about Thurgood Marshall starring Chadwick Boseman. So not the first but both are recent and play to the fetishized nature of our current political commentary.

      We have come so far from decks of cards with the face cards either being honored or dissed.

      1. Carolinian

        Yes Felicity Jones–surely a dead ringer for RBG /s

        But then to flip a familiar quip, Hollywood is Washington for pretty people. And if you are going to fetishize then might as well do it up right.

    4. witters

      Perhaps the most usual way of merching is the (supposed) “Childrens Story”:

      “The project is a blockbuster in a genre that has become increasingly popular over the past decade: children’s books by political, or politics-adjacent, figures. Recent examples have been written by Kamala Harris, her niece Meena Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Charlotte and Karen Pence, Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Sonia Sotomayor, Callista Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Jenna Bush Hager, and Barbara Pierce Bush. These join the realm of a related subset of picture books that are not by politicians themselves but that ride the coattails of political celebrity. The hagiographies include I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark; Mayor Pete: The Story of Pete Buttigieg; Revolution Road: A Bernie Bedtime Story; Little People, Big Dreams: Michelle Obama and Little People, Big Dreams: Kamala Harris; Joey: The Story of Joe Biden; Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls are Born to Lead; Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope; Journey to Freedom: Condoleezza Rice; Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice; Today’s Heroes: Colin Powell and Today’s Heroes: Ben Carson; My Dad: John McCain (by Meghan); The ABCs of AOC: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from A to Z; a series comprised of Donald and the Fake News, Donald Builds the Wall! and Donald Drains the Swamp!; Elizabeth Warren: Nevertheless She Persisted; and, most recently, Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor. Forthcoming this fall: Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi Calls the House to Order and Pinkie Promises by Elizabeth Warren.”


  4. David in Santa Cruz

    I’ve reared a daughter and I fervently believe that our young women need role models, but the late Justice Ginsberg ain’t one I’d pick for my girl to emulate. Ginsberg was a small-minded elitist snob.

    I hold Ginsberg personally responsible for the collapse of the Rule of Law in the run-up and aftermath to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, through her outrageous judicial overreach in Watters vs. Wachovia Bank (2007) 550 U.S. 1, in which she haughtily preempted any state regulation of mortgage lending by nationally-chartered banks. J.P. Stevens’ blistering dissent outlines in detail how far off the reservation of judicial restraint Ginsberg had gone in her “elites-know-best” legislation-by-fiat.

    It was largely because of Watters that Obama’s “Justice” Department under Holder and Breuer — actually a Covington white-collar bankster criminal defense team — was able to preempt and suppress any criminal accountability for the massive lending and securities frauds that lost 9 million families their homes while concentrating power in the hands of a few of Ginsberg’s sociopath Manhattan cronies.

    That stupid crown-and-gangster-rap meme is closer to the truth than most of the ignorant people perpetuating it realize. I’m glad that Ginsberg felt that her privilege was so threatened by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. Perhaps it was her casual racism that kept her from allowing President Obama to replace her on the court. May she rot in hell.

    1. Prairie Bear

      I had heard the “Notorious RGB” thing, and maybe at some time or another knew the explanation of the source, but it hadn’t really registered. Now that I know, I can’t decide which piece of merch is more cringe-y: that or the various forms of the “RGB dissent collar.” I’ll won’t embed the link, in order to spare everyone any temptation to click on it, but it’s easy enough to type that phrase into a search if anybody wants to see it.

    2. Sue inSoCal

      David, I am not as passionate as you are, but I have tried to point out that many of her business decisions aligned with corporate interests. Imho, this is worse for the country. And I have been slapped into my corner for this opinion by the RBG lionizers. I’m sure some of those decisions indirectly at least accrued to the benefit of her husband. Yes, they were elite NY movers and shakers. I was always sickened by “as my friend Scalia says ‘get over it!’ “ I guess that’s after he met with the Koch’s at their yearly grift fest in Rancho Mirage…Yves, thank you very much for this.

      1. Pate

        My scholarship suggests the Supreme Court was created as “the final bulwark” (Charles A Beard’s terminology) against any threat to property (the very essence of our constitution is to act as a “ barrier to power” and so preserve the status quo). Supreme Court justices can be cultural/social liberals, but they are always economic conservatives. The only exceptions are progressive era appointees like Brandeis (bigness is the enemy) and the new deal court (after fdr threatened to “pack” it). Remember the entire constitutional edifice was designed to delay change (historically democratic reform or “ more democracy “) so as to preserve the status quo ( protect property interests) (hey, it’s called capitalism). So they fashioned an insulated democracy where policy makers were indirectly appointed, one or more steps away from the people’s will. In the beginning only members of “the people’s house” were allowed to be directly elected ( and only served 2years). At the other extreme the court was not elected at all, but appointed and allowed to serve for life. Their role is to act as the paramount hedge against any change that would threaten the power of the propertied elite.

    3. Eric377

      That’s a stretch there, at least as far as the part about widespread lending fraud. Securities fraud, though, fits the evidence better. No question a lot of poor loans got out there, but a normally important part of defrauding the borrower is the lender having an interest in the loan failing. That was not really the case in many of the hardest hit markets. The lenders were not generally interested in seeing their loans fail. The 2006 loans that failed in 2007 were a whole lot like the 2002 loans that worked great for borrowers smart enough or lucky enough to get out in 2006. There probably not as many good criminal cases out there to try as folks might assume. But the marketing of these securitized mortgage bundles did have a whole lot rotten with it.

      1. David in Santa Cruz

        Some believe that the hot market for bad loans to securitize and bet against (once Deutsche Bank’s Greg Lippmann figured-out the “Big Short”) led to the proliferation of hundreds of thousands of “liars loans” originated by Countrywide, New Century, WaMu, et al., whose blatant refusal to engage in basic underwriting was tantamount to loan fraud.

        The preemption of state regulation by Watters made it impossible for state prosecutors to test this theory, as the banksters could simply waltz-in and remove to federal court, where “Too Big to Jail” was the official policy of the Obama administration.

        1. Eric377

          But not loan fraud against the borrowers. They were in on it most of the time and in any case, that kind of fraud usually needs some reason that the lender benefits from the loan failure. The odds were better than normal that the loans might fail, but the lender wasn’t better off if they failed. But pitching securitized bundles of garbage was fraud on investors often. A lot of borrowers were speculators, even if it was just one property that they bought to live in. Get all the debt possible on the expectation of pricing increases making a killing -whether actualized by sale, or just instant equity pops. And it was working the 3 or 4 years before it wasn’t. I had little sympathy for them. Their low debt neighbors had the same pressure on value, but since it was their equity, somehow it was just their problem ( which, actually, it was). This is why big bailouts of homebuyers just never got the support some thought they might. Everyone on the block was “out” $90,000 of value maybe, but only a few would get $50,000 to help….don’t think that was going to work.

          1. David in Santa Cruz

            Just because the “mark” thinks they’re “in” on the “con” doesn’t mean they weren’t defrauded.

            There was also insider trading and securities fraud by these lenders, as well as the need for FHA, FDIC, and Fed bail-outs which victimized the taxpayers. There were ways to structure homeowner bailouts that benefitted everyone on Main Street rather than everyone on Wall Street — but Geithner’s charter from Obama was to “foam the runway” for the banks.

            RBG doubtlessly would doubtlessly have approved of “deplorables” losing everything because they bought the fraudulent line that a home is an endlessly appreciating asset and that interest doesn’t compound.

  5. Prairie Bear

    I was listening some years ago to an interview with RGB, maybe on NPR but I haven’t been able to find it. Somehow or other, the “Doctrine of Discovery” (hereafter in this comment referred to as DoD) came up. Pretty sure it wasn’t the interviewer who brought it up specifically, but they were talking about how various things that aren’t encoded in law, like common law, etc., influence our legal system. And RBG said how the DoD was this really old, colonialist idea that still had a huge impact on how laws are interpreted and how courts decide cases. Obviously, my memory is kind of foggy on all the details, but my impression was that she just kind of chuckled about it, perhaps ruefully, and was all, “well, that’s just the way it is.”

    Just now, trying to find the interview, I came across this post, which claims that RBG herself relied on the DoD in penning an opinion.

    Hearing that interview was for me one of those moments, where my opinion and thinking about both RBG and our “justice” system in general, shifted a bit more toward the cynical and despairing.

    Also, about the idea that she should have retired while Obama was still POTUS: I have to wonder, with only 53 seats and 2 Independents they probably could have counted on, would the Senate Democrats have been able to get a confirmation through? OK, that last is kind of snark/sarc. Kind of. I think.

    1. Lois

      No, she was super corporatist. People latched on to her women’s right stuff, but that was even mostly about PMC white women. She certainly didn’t stand up for economically exploited poor women. And I say this as a PMC white woman.

      I’ve had friends send me memes and be “aren’t you an RBG fan?” Like um no, FAN?? So many top 10% people look at politics just as a fan club. They certainly don’t care about policy. UGH.

  6. Susan the other

    What would a new, modern democratic constitution do to the Supreme Court? Besides give them new guidelines for modern justice. Is there such a thing as modern justice? There is definitely such a thing as an archaic and irrelevant old constitution. We have one. It doesn’t work. Nor do the institutions it set in motion in a time so long ago that they are in some cases almost useless, except for overall vague generalities of social justice which can be interpreted to maintain the constitution as an ineffective nostalgic zombie. So how can we expect the Supremes to function according to evolving concepts of equality and inequality? Seat of the pants, that’s how. Ironically it would take a decision by the Supremes to construe an updated constitution. 9 people. Actually only 5.

  7. Stan

    Glad you pointed out the irony of the “And that’s why education is important” remark. She unintentionally pointed out what is so wrong — its real purpose, to indoctrinate — with American education.

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