As difficult as it is for me to believe, I only became aware of this slogan early in the 1990s, when I was already in my late 40s! At that time graduate work led me to the exploration of oppressed group theories and specifically feminist theories under that broader umbrella. At that time, and for some time afterward, I associated the “Personal is Political”, correctly or not, with the feminist movement and most specifically with women’s reproductive rights. It was then and certainly is now true on a much broader basis.
“Political” seems to have such a negative connotation for so many people who immediately associate it with partisanship, which in itself implies having to “choose sides” or offending friends and should therefore be avoided at all costs. I so often have heard the disclaimer, “I’m not political” when discussing an issue; I’ve seen Facebook friends offer an apology for posting something that others might construe as political (and making excuses that it is worth reading in spite of seeming political) and for announcing they are blocking political posts. And yet, politics can simply refer to relationships within a group and/or activities to gain advantage and/or power within that group, e.g., office politics . Students in my leadership class were challenged to embrace political activism as necessary to the pursuit of social justice. When they protested that they were “not political” I reminded them that if they had ever negotiated for extensions or marks on assignments, they were being political!!!
But in its larger sense, i.e, activities related to governance of a specific political entity, such as a town, city, state, country, etc., the personal most certainly must be political; democracy requires it. The freedoms we so easily take for granted – to speak out, to meet, to worship as we choose, etc. have been enshrined in constitutions and charters but are threatened by complacency and/or ignorance. Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor argues that Americans have a year or less to defend American democracy. In a lengthy interview, but one well worth the read, he draws comparisons between Europe in the 1930s and the current time in the U.S. and urges that we learn from history. He makes the point that regardless of the differences between the personalities that may be involved, the conditions and even more importantly the warning signs were there then as they are now -that a change in regime was the intent of those seeking power. And by change of regime, he means a change from democracy to an authoritarian state.
For the last number of years, I have travelled to Europe at least once a year, usually on a tour. I love the educational nature of the tours and through them have learned much about European history . Speaking with people who have lived through the Nazi and/or Communist regimes or both, I’ve come to appreciate more fully the cost at which their current freedom has come. Their personal certainly was political. My own parents escaped the Soviet Union a year after Stalin came to power. Many of us have similar stories and for me, it would be a dishonor to the sacrifices they made to dissociate from the political because it has become distasteful!
Last year, the tour I took was to England. It was in September, a few months before the American presidential election and a few months after the Brexit vote. I was very aware of being the only Canadian on the tour and wondered if the upcoming election would become a topic of conversation, which, of course, it did! I tried to simply listen but at one point a fellow passenger asked me what I thought. I replied that my fear was that if a certain candidate were elected, it would be the last American election. I was quickly reassured that was not possible because the Constitution and institutions put in place by the Founding Fathers were in essence a guarantee of continued democracy. I hope she’s right; yet recent assaults on the press and judiciary suggest otherwise.
The interview with Dr. Snyder referred to above was in response to his Facebook post on “20 Lessons from the 20th Century”). Those lessons contain many political actions that are not visible to others, such as not obeying in advance, believing in truth, and investigating. Others, like “standing out” are more visible, may be more uncomfortable, but are equally important to protecting our freedoms and democracy. He warns that even worse than taking freedom for granted is learning to take unfreedom for granted without realizing that it is our choice and our actions which can make the difference.