Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Public Happiness"

I sometimes tell my students that one indispensable quality of Hannah Arendt's political thinking is that while philosophers have tended to talk about politics as though it was marriage, Arendt talks about politics as though it was sex.

In so much of Arendt's writing, freedom is not a matter of moralizing mortals making contracts, it is a matter of enriching experiences of self-expressivity and self-creation which only the education, agitation, organization, campaigning, legislating of politics afford. A conspicuous -- but not the only -- place in which Arendt engages in this sort of richly erotic phenomenology of lived political freedom is her description of the "public happiness" of the anti-colonial American Founders and of the French Resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II  (and which she lamentably failed to grasp in the anti-colonial struggles delineated by Fanon).

For students trained to be subcultural signalers through conspicuous consumption and occasionally alienated voting, the indispensability and even the rudimentary sense of the reality of human experiences like public happiness can be hard to illustrate. I talk about the electricity of marches and rallies, I talk about movies like Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich in which private heroines attest to the unexpected life-changing pleasure of becoming visible and being taken seriously by colleagues in public, I talk about the fraught dynamics of the classroom in which efforts and resistances to new ideas play out, and so on.

It is always a pleasant surprise to stumble upon new testaments to public happiness, and see how surprised such testaments always seem to be about stumbling onto this public happiness, even in otherwise very politically aware people. From a Salon interview published today with Zephyr Teachout:
So you’re out on the campaign trail talking to people about all of this …
And I love it.
Did you know you’d love it?
You know, politics is way undersold. It’s so much fun. Our crowds are growing. First we were going to other people’s events, now we’re holding our own. People come with these questions about how their lives can be better, their families could be better, their businesses, how the state could be better. The job of politics is to take them from that question to action. And it’s very moving.

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