The Personalist Project

Earlier this week, late night show host Jimmy Kimmel opened his show with a tearful monologue about his newborn son's life-threatening heart condition. The video is raw and heart-wrenching enough to go viral just as the testimony of a new father's too-close brush with human frailty and mortality.

But Kimmel went further. After a long list of thank-yous to hospital staff, family, and friends, he noted that children like his son are affected by the decisions made by lawmakers, and pled with his audience to place children's lives above partisanship.

He criticized U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health and praised Congress for instead calling for increased funding.

"If your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make. ... Whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?" he said.

Washington politicians meeting on health care need to "understand that very clearly," he said. Partisan squabbles shouldn't divide American on something "every decent person wants. We need to take care of each other."

 Not everybody was sympathetic to this plea. Kimmel has been criticized for "politicizing" his family's personal situation and using emotional arguments to sway voters and lawmakers. 

Setting aside the particular policies and political battles involved here, I want to ask--is this a legitimate criticism? Is there something crass or utilitarian about letting personal struggles and crisis motivate political speech? Can the personal be political without being depersonalizing? 

Last autumn, I objected to the exploitation of a dead child for political ends. I stand behind that. There is an awful utilitarianism in treating a person as an object for an end. There is also something awful about ignoring or denying the context of a person's life and death and hiding behind a desire that things not "get political." 

The personal is, very often, political, because the polis is made up of persons, affected by personal decisions, governed by persons who are elected by persons, who enact policies and laws that directly affect persons. 

Jimmy Kimmel was accused of politicizing what is personal--but I think what he actually did was personalize the political. In showing us his son, he provoked us to think of the other families with children in need of expensive care for congenital conditions. He invited us to think about the future of children like Billy if they aren't able to afford health coverage because of pre-existing conditions. Billy Kimmel has a name, a history, a future. Through him, we can imagine other children with other histories and other futures.

 What we do with that act of empathetic imagination is up to each of us. But just as the personal can be political, the political is always personal. Sometimes it takes a person with a face and a name--like Billy--to remind us of that. 

[The photo used at the top of this post is of my son, Pascal, during his NICU stay for prematurity]

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