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Bernie Sanders between the Personal and the Political

Bernie Sanders between the Personal and the Political

Monday, 30 March, 2020 - 07:30

Bernie Sanders, whose bid to become the democratic nominee for president is likely to fail, seems “un-American” to many. This does not stem exclusively from his politics and his identification as a “socialist”. It is also because the personal in him is neglected to a large extent. In the midst of a political culture that is extreme in its celebration of itself, in which the family, wife, home and personal history are openly and festively displayed, Sanders seems extremely reserved and reticent about sharing anything concerning his own personal life.

The Irish writer and critic Fintan O’toole "sneaked" into his personal life, through what Sanders had written and what had been written about him, and published one of the few articles linking Bernie the person and Bernie the politician for the bimonthly magazine 'New York Review of Books'.

The article, invoking the title of Sanders' book, focuses on him as an 'outsider'. For in 1991, when Bernie was elected to the House of Representatives, he became the first member who is not affiliated with either of the two main parties in forty years.

Nevertheless, paradoxically, Sanders represents the 'self-made' that American conservatism flaunts far more than does Trump, the wealthy son of a wealthy father.

For in 1976, after three failed attempts at becoming the governor of Vermont, Sanders decided to retire from political life and set up a small business selling homemade films about socialist American politicians and leaders to universities. This made him a small fortune, and he came to personify the dignified and organized small businessman who hates squander, despite being, politically, amongst the most emphatic supporters of expanding federal spending. When he was elected a mayor of Burlington, he was known for his frugality and efficiency, as well as his boring reiteration of his positions.

Then, in 1997, he published his book 'Outsider in the House' and later reissued it with the (optimistic) new title 'Outsider in the White House'.

In his writings, and this also is 'un-American', he downplayed two of his identities: the first is his being a Jew from Brooklyn: he does not deny it, but he does not stress it either. For he rarely refers to his family, childhood, youth and religion, restricting himself to only discussing what is political and ideological.

His modest family was attached to Roosevelt’s New Deal. His father emigrated from Poland in 1921, and his mother was born to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia who were killed by the Nazis. His wife is Irish.

Although he mentioned that he had lived in Israel for months in his youth, and that he was "very proud" of his Jewish heritage, at a 'J Street' conference, in 2018, he does not say in his book anything about his childhood, during which he spoke Yiddish, and studied in Hebrew or why he went to Israel. He refers to his experience in the Kibbutz, which he presents as an example of socialism, not ethnic or religious solidarity. He only began discussing his family’s relationship with the Holocaust a few years ago. He first visited Slopnice, his father’s village in southern Poland, in 2013, after which he said that the Holocaust had more influence on him than any other event.

Generally speaking, Sanders did not identify with his ethnic and religious background and prioritized social class as the marker of identify of groups and individuals, considering anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as two sides of the same coin.

The second identity that he hid was that of a hippy. After spending four years in Chicago, during which he obtained a degree in political science in 1964 from its university, he joined a hippy group. However, he did not live in a commune, grow a beard or do any drugs, except for Marijuana. Still, Sanders was the son of the sixties and the intellectual counter culture, even believing that psychosexual repression is the root of all evil.

In 1969 he published an article on the sexual oppression of women, loaded with William Reich quotes, linking women's illness with their emotional and sexual health. In another article, in 1972, he criticized gender inequality in sexual imagination. Dr. Spock, a pioneer in the teachings of non-repressive education, participated in the campaign he had launched at the time to become governor of Vermont.

However, Sanders abandoned these ideas, or he at least wanted to seem to reject them in building his political image, and he rejected everything personal along with them, affirming how disciplined and "balanced" he is. In his memoirs of the contest in Vermont, in which he garnered one percent of the vote, he stressed the degree of his self-control watchfulness over behavior, scolding himself for being unable to express his feelings to those he was addressing. Speaking about a subsequent episode, when he wanted to introduce himself on television, he says "I was so nervous that my knees shook, literally bouncing uncontrollably against the table"; the sound engineer even heard the noise made by his knees and warned him about it.

The fact is that the political extremism he seemed to have obscured his timid and self-repressed side. As he gradually went from mayor to house member to senator to presidential candidate, he was keen to gradually move to the center as well and to clarify that Cuba is not a model for America's future, social-democratic Denmark is. Nevertheless, he shifted political themes a little to the left, presenting himself as the heir of the radical politician and trade unionist Eugene Dibs, not Roosevelt. He also pushed most Democrats to embrace some of his ideas on education and healthcare. As for his current campaign to become the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States, this remains another story.

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