New dimensions of “the personal is political”: Caring, despairing, and commodified narcissism

The personal is political.

This is true in so many ways. I am part of my culture and social systems, and they are part of me, embedded in me. They shape how I think and act, how I respond, what I think is right and possible — and I, in turn, play my role in them, no matter what I do or don’t do.

This isn’t something I can escape. It is simply what is. What I CAN do is try to be aware of it, of how this dynamic plays out in my life and in the lives around me. And try to make that dynamic into something that enlightens, empowers, and frees me and us.

Among the most important 21st century “personal is political” dynamics is the increasing personalization of commodities and the commodification of our personal lives. We are evolving from citizenship into a narcissistic hall of mirrors, increasingly alienated from what is other, what is different, what is real. This could be defended as wonderful, I guess, if it were sustainable. But it isn’t. As the saying goes, Reality Bats Last. Reality and the Other beings that occupy it inevitably come banging at our door and, if we fail to respond, they ultimately tear the house down. We are seeing that beginning to play out in Real Life, quite literally.

I’ve run across three clarifying references about this “personalization” phenomenon recently. The first is the history of PR to which I awakened in a 4-hour BBC documentary — — which lays out how personalized consumerism was created. The second was Eli Pariser’s TED talk “What Is The Internet Hiding?” — — which describes how Google, Facebook, and other sites are personalizing our interactions with them so that we see what (they think) we want to see, rather than the full reality. (Pariser has also just published a book on this topic, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You”.) The straw that broke the camel’s back (for me) was the third reference to this: Jonathan Franzen’s New York Times op ed — — “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (i.e., Love). Although I disagree with Franzen’s assertion that one cannot love humanity with the kind of complexity, nuance, and challenge that one can love an individual, his distinction between liking and loving speaks what is to me a deep truth. And I think he is right that a very existential pain goes with it.

As I write this I find myself suddenly reminded of the work of Joanna Macy — — who notes that our apathy and cynicism — about nuclear war, about the environment, about all the Big Threats that could obliterate humanity’s future and so much of our world — have their roots in our despair, and that those roots go down further, into the depths of our caring and our love for life, for our children, for nature, for the world, for all the things, great and small, that would be lost, that matter to us. It is not that those of us who are apathetic and cynical do not care. It is that we care so much, but feel powerless to make a difference. We use our apathy and cynicism to protect ourselves, to distance ourselves, from the overwhelming pain of that powerlessness in the face of immense threats to what we love so much.

Franzen suggests that if that love, that caring, were freed from its bondage, our world would change dramatically and fast.
And _that_ reminds me of an amazingly prophetic poem by Stephen Vincent Benet from 1938, “Nightmare for Future Reference”* — a precurser to the 2006 movie “Children of Men” — imagining the world becoming so sick of us that no more human children are born. Benet’s poem imagines our world after the Third World War… although his poem was written before the Second World War had begun. He imagines the maternity statistics crashing and suddenly the women find out…and “they smashed every government in the world like a heap of broken china, within two days…”

If the suppressed caring of humanity were released, it would change everything in the blink of an eye. Because that immense caring is, in fact, a force of nature, a force no less potent than tsunamis, tornados and Spring…

So where is that caring in us? How do we tap it to transform life? What can we each do to release that caring in the people and the world around us?

We are All.
In This.


*… – The full poem does not seem to be available online by itself anywhere, but you can go to the link for it above, which is a compilation of Benet’s poems, and search for the title or for “Third World War”, which phrase is in the first line.

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