There is a line between our fully public selves and whatever we might not wish to divulge to just anyone. Just where that line is, or what might constitute “personal” for any given person or time, is not fixed. Money, religion, politics, sex: there is always something. To “get personal” means risking something: the exposure of our unfinished selves. The personal is like a hanging thread, to pull on it risks an unravelling that cannot be effectively gauged in advance.
We often hear how “the left” has ignored this or that issue, but that does not appear to be the case for CD. As issues rose in public consciousness, they also increasingly appeared in the magazine. In some cases, CD appeared behind the curve, only coming to feminism in the 1970s, but in others it was well ahead, as with sex and sexuality. For instance, Brian Mossop’s “Confessions of a Commie Fag,” published in 1980, was a gutsy political coming-out story given how marginalized gay and lesbian political activists were at the time.
From the beginning, biography work has remained consistently excellent. The personal is about stories, and they are fascinating: of sexual abuse, of uncomfortable sexual fantasies, of particular struggles, of living our politics, or just of lives lived.
At different times, CD tried to push the boundaries of left commentary on the personal, as with Gad Horowitz’s experimental and controversial advice column in the late 1980s. But mostly CD seemed satisfied to remain topical on the personal dimension, changing with the times, reflecting both the reticence and occasional boldness of the general public itself in dealing with personal issues. Whether it was Larry Zolf joking about the oppressive socialists in his hometown of Winnipeg, or Gad Horowitz relating his experiments with psychedelic drugs, or Brenda Austin-Smith sharing the frustrations of her experience of a miscarriage, the stories gave readers a real person to relate to and identify with.
Over 50 years, CD explored the personal dimension in a number of ways. Different articles attempted to analyze how people experience oppression/ inequality on a personal level (Tanya Lester, “Growing up Female,” 1980), or critiqued bad social theories that purported to explain personal behaviour (Louis Feldhammer, “Sex, the Liberal Ethic and the Zoological Perspective in the Social Sciences,” 1969–70), or explored the personal angle in popular culture like movies, music, and books (Varda Bursyn, “Hollywood’s Seductive Illusion,” 1980). Different contributors attempted to relate the personal experiences of different identities: gender, race, sexuality, indigeneity (Taiaiake Alfred, “Pathways to an Ethic of Struggle,” 2007); or, as in the ongoing series “The Personal Dimension,” the magazine featured people recounting their own personal experiences (among many others, Gregory Baum, Mel Watkins, Varda Burstyn and Francois David). As a fetish of “personal empowerment” arose in the 1970s and 1980s, CD writers critically assessed the counterculture, psychology and alternative lifestyle fads (Cliff Andrew, “Forty Dollars’ Worth of ‘Come Alive,’” 1981).
The personal dimension has also had its share of heated debate, particularly where some might transgress accepted left opinion or the goals of different movements collided (e.g. the women’s and sexual liberation movements). And, all along, CD featured biographies of international leftists, obituaries of key Canadian activists, and testimonial accounts from people about their efforts to make the world a better place, including how their lives as activists have affected their personal lives.
This article appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Canadian Dimension (50th anniversary issue).