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Friday, August 28, 2015

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The personal really is political

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How do we understand major or even minor events that take place in the world? We read about them and listen to learned (or not-so-learned) explanations that place them in context and enable some comprehension, and even appreciation. But full understanding requires a moment of identification with the subject that comes from a personal connection.

Decades ago, one of the critical claims of the feminist movement was that the personal is political. This phrase was an indicator of a strongly held belief that the very personal was to be seen as reflected in the public or political arena. Thus, a man beating his wife was to be viewed as not simply a private domestic scene, but a societal problem that required legislative and criminal attention.

In the 21st century, we’re learning to look for the other side of the phrase. Those large-scale pictures of public events can only become meaningful to us when we understand the individual experiences involved or personal tolls they exact. This has become increasingly necessary as we’re inundated with facts and figures in our global “village.” As the world seems so close or closed in, we can know about events all over the world, but we don’t really recognize the people and places. How will we understand these events and experiences?

Recently, we all heard of the terrible suffering of some New Yorkers during super storm Sandy. Many tried to help in various ways, but the vagaries of the storm only had an impact on us as we heard stories of individuals and saw for ourselves the demolished and burned out houses. General statistics of towns in trouble don’t move us, but pictures of evacuated families reminded many of us of the ice storm of 1998 in Montreal or played on our own fears of floods, fires and homelessness.

Once touched personally, we could identify and help more. Personal stories such as my son’s own flooded house, children living in a cold wet house with no hot food, with mould and two cars ruined so there is no escape – that gets you! Then they moved out and were without a home for three weeks – we called them the wandering Jews. What a great story. And when you get home, you have to fight with an insurance company and you don’t have a car. Lovely!

All our charity organizations know how well we respond to this type of appeal. The kids lost their toys, books and TV! Descriptions of Jewish poverty being at a 30 per cent level don’t get the philanthropic juices running. But tell a story with pictures of a mother and five abandoned children and the money pours in. I could decry this type of reaction, because it further victimizes the individual and represents the giver as a voyeuristic character in need of graphic inducement.

But my point is that we give better in these visual circumstances, because of our human need to personalize the situation. General pictures with statistics may be good for background and context, but they don’t tell me enough. I need to know about real people, honest human situations that require help. The personal is political, and it gets me involved rather than artificially implicated.

Our view of Chanukah has also changed. Today, we see the miracle differently. Jews called Maccabees stood up to religious persecution. They fought back and survived. It’s a miracle of survival, and we tell the story with more individuals and more facts, not just oil and candles. Stories about individual families and their exploits are now more popular.

How will we tell the story of Israel? For me, the recent confrontation in Gaza is personal. How many times did my family run to the shelter? Were they always first? It was very important to my nephews to get there first. They had to buy decent pyjamas for public viewing. These little facts taught me about living under the effects of constant missile fire. What happens to a family when you have 15 seconds to get to a shelter? What happens to a village when you leave your elderly and sick alone, knowing they’re totally exposed? Will the ceasefire last?

My nephew went back to sleeping in his underwear, so I guess the ceasefire is on.

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