Public Happiness

Apropos the events of last weekend, I thought I’d share these passages from Alexander Cockburn’s journal-cum-memoir, The Golden Age Is In Us:

Hannah Arendt has described eloquently how, when political action succeeds in generating real power, the participants experience a happiness different from the kind of happiness one finds in private life.

Public happiness is not isolating but shared. It is the happiness of being free among other free people, of having one’s public faith redeemed and returned, of seeing public hope becoming public power, becoming reality itself … The experience of public happiness is an exceptional one in the politics of our time, but not such a very rare exception. It has been known in many countries in this century, on every continent, in societies of every kind of political, economic and cultural configuration. It has been felt, if sometimes only momentarily, everywhere, and therefore it is possible everywhere.

Doug Lummis quoted in Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us. London: Verso, 1995, pp 299 – 300.


Listings for the Golden Age in dictionaries of mythology are rare. But turn to “Saturnalia” and you’ll find it. These days, Saturnalia spells “drunken sex spree,” which has its elements of truth, but the rest of the older meaning involved subversion of the social order.

In this pre-spring festival, senators and slave owners put aside their stately togas and kindred marks of rank and donned shapeless garments, known as syntheses. The prime metaphor of the Saturnalia was freedom from all bondage—the bondage of poverty, of wealth, of the laws and above all, of time. Slaves set up a mock king and were served delicious fare by their masters. Such delicacies, given to the powerless by the powerful, were called “second tables,” because the tables were temporarily turned. Each household became a mimic republic, in which the slaves held first rank. The law courts were closed. The image of Saturn, whose ankle was bound with a woolen fetter the rest of the year, was freed. Gifts were exchanged. The Lord of Misrule reigned.

There was always something dangerous about jovial Saturn, an element of the hooved and the horned, and later he became transformed into the witch-pleasing devil of the Middle Ages. The debauched aspects of the Saturnalia became emphasized, and the revolutionary aspects began to fade away.

So the Golden Age is subversive and it’s fun, which means that for us on the left, it should be our goal and our sales pitch. People love utopias that make sense. …

These days we’re shy imaginers of Utopias on hold. We know we live in the age of iron, lamented by Hesiod and Ovid. All the more reason not to lose heart. There is abundance, if we arrange things differently. The world can be turned upside down; that is, the right way up. The Golden Age is in us, if we know where to look, and what to think.

Cockburn, Golden Age, pp. 1 – 2.

As we came down Jackson toward 4th Avenue in Seattle, a little girl being carried by her father led the crowd around her in a shout for “equality!” and “justice!” Her face was completely lit by the almost unbearable delight of a four- or five-year-old getting a huge crowd of grownups to yell along with her. It was the living embodiment of the public happiness that Arendt, Lummis, and Cockburn describe. (I’d post a picture but I prefer to respect that young girl’s privacy.)

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The Nation distorts I-732

[This post started as a comment to be posted after an online article in the Nation, and kind of grew into something bigger. I’m sharing it here as a way to articulate some of my thoughts about the recent controversy over I-732, the carbon tax initiative in Washington State.]

I was disappointed in this article in the Nation by Heather McGhee and Robert Reich, critiquing Washington’s recently defeated Initiative 732 for various reasons. Although I was a supporter of I-732, I’m agnostic on a number of the key questions about the initiative that divided Washington’s environmental community. Nevertheless, I felt that McGhee and Reich gave a distorted picture of the situation. Here’s a list of the points I found misleading:

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Reich v Hedges v Clinton v Trump

Just listened to a debate on Democracy Now! between Robert Reich and Chris Hedges over whether to support Hillary in the general. A frustrating experience, as is so often the case with debates like these. I can imagine that when you’re trying to think on your feet, in front of a microphone, it’s easy to lose track of certain ideas, even when you have a lot of experience as both these men do. Nevertheless, I found it hard to take. Hedges, especially, continues to annoy me with his rhetoric, which increasingly strikes me as self-indulgent and toxic. He fulminates excellently, but that’s all he’s got. When Reich argued for building a feasible left challenge to Hillary, going forward, Hedges responded by discussing an ostensible historical parallel in Yugoslavia, the burden of which seemed to be simply the same point in a new form: mainstream liberals are bankrupt and have nothing to offer. Not that this is inaccurate, nor that we shouldn’t learn from history, but this just struck me as an particularly egregious example of what I don’t like about him. It’s much easier to wave your arms and talk about incipient fascism than to propose concrete strategies and tactics.

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Grexit: Truth in etymology

Well, everybody’s talking about the “Grexit,” i.e., Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, which looms egregiously as I write. But how many of them know that “grex” is Latin for flock, and forms the basis for the word egregious (lit. standing out above or from the flock), not to mention congregate, aggregate, and segregate? Or that in English, it actually refers to a clump of slime mold?

Just saying.

But perhaps the most relevant term with “grex” at its root is gregicide, “involving the slaughter of the common people,” to quote the egregious (in its original sense of outstanding or excellent) OED.

What more do you need to know?

No Trans Pacific Partnership

This morning I sent the following to my member of Congress:

I write again to urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the President’s request for fast track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As recent disclosures have made quite clear, the TPP is not so much a trade agreement as it is a drastic rewriting of international law, in which national, state, and local sovereignty is replaced with an unaccountable, anonymous tribunal dominated by special interests. Nothing so eloquently attests to its pernicious and anti-democratic effects as the concerted effort to keep the agreement secret, even to the President’s own advisers.

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Whose broken window is a cry of art

I always feel a little badly for Gwendolyn Brooks. Like many readers, for years all I knew of her work was “We Real Cool,” the short striking poem that gets anthologized all over the place, and that fits–for careless or superficial readers–a little too neatly into racist tropes of African American cultural dysfunction.

Don’t get me wrong–I like the poem, I think it’s got a lot going on, formally as well as in what it has to say. More so, in fact, than at first meets the eye. It’s just that it’s almost too accessible, and so invites quick dismissal. And, like any over-anthologized piece, it ends up being what this deep and multifaceted author is reduced to.

Then I started reading some of her other work, and discovered how much broader and deeper her range is than any one poem can illustrate. But one poem that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go was “Boy Breaking Glass.” It’s a gnarly poem–challenging, complex, rich in meaning and technique–and I found I had to write about it, to understand why I found it so compelling. I worked at it and let it sit and then worked at it some more, but was never satisfied. Finally I decided just to post what I had, even so. The recent events in Baltimore just make it all the more appropriate.

Here’s what I came up with.

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Kick the Kochs off the Board

A group of scientists have published an open letter to the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and others to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry, including removing David Koch from the boards of those two museums.

As James Powell, one of the signatories, put it on Democracy Now!,

And when you have on your board someone who has gotten the science wrong and who is a billionaire and is sitting at the table when trustee decisions are made, you at least give the appearance that your exhibit might be tainted and might not be giving the best science. And, in fact, with the Smithsonian exhibit that you talked about, I think that’s not just an appearance, but it’s actually the reality—the notion that we can evolve our way out of global warming. I like to say my grandchildren are already here; they’re present on the planet. They’re not going to evolve by the time they’re my age. What is going to happen is that the world is going to be a much more dangerous place.

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