This Episode: In Search of the Fifth Estate

Event date: Tuesday, November 15, from 7 to 9 pm

Admission is free. Tell your friends.

This roundtable conversation series happens at Vermillion, an art gallery, bar, and neighborhood gathering place at 1508 11th Ave, Seattle ( For more information on the series, call John Boylan at 206-601-9848.

If you want to link to this announcement, you can do so at

This month, I want to talk about us, about civil society. About We the People, about engagement in our future, and the burgeoning possibility of the rise of the Fifth Estate. Read on below.

The Guests

I’m still thinking about having official guests, but it’s getting late, and I may not. Do you have ideas? In any case, I’m really interested in hearing what you have to say.

The Story

Like many people lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about us as a citizenry. I’ve been thinking about “We the People,” about what’s called civil society. I’m wondering how civil society works and how much of it we can hope to muster in a world of billions of flickering, sedating glass teats. It’s an especially important question now, given the politics we have and the future we face.

With millions of voices on the Internet, with the surprising magic of Tahrir Square, and with the success of Occupy Wall Street in getting America’s deepening inequality into the national discourse, an old idea is coming back to the fore.

It’s the wonderful notion that civil society can be not just a brake on the machinations of those in power, but can actually be a foundation for building something new, a just, sustainable, and maybe most important, exciting future. It’s the idea that with today’s connectivity, decentralized media, imagination, and the force of numbers, we can create a fifth estate.

The idea of a fifth estate is an extension of the old fourth estate, a popular name for the press. (In the United States, the first three estates are the three branches of the federal government; historically in Europe, they were the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners, as in the House of Commons.) The fourth estate is often envisioned as a check on the power of the other three, but we know how that goes. Enter the fifth estate, seen as an engaged, aroused, interconnected, and organized and vocal citizenry.

So what does that effective civil society, that fifth estate, look like? Is it people camped along the fringes of the SCCC campus? Or is it something more? I’ve long had ambivalence about the value of taking to the streets. Maybe it’s latent American puritanism, but street actions just seem too easy: you just show up, and maybe you carry a cardboard sign. Where’s the work, the hours spent on telephone trees, the canvassing, the substance of social organizing? Politics, the affairs of the people, takes hard work. Doesn’t it?

And of course, there’s the perennial question in this series: what role does art play in this world of a dynamic, engaged civil society? I love street theater and giant puppets, but the question nags: are they about something more than entertaining and cheering on the already committed? What role do they have in building a vital fifth estate?

Come. I think this one will be a rousing discussion.


Café Nordo is back. “Aboard Pan Am Flight 892, bound for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Chef Nordo Lefeszcki, Mojo Spirits, and six of Seattle’s hottest performers team up to create an evening of retro-inspired cuisine, gorgeous cocktails, and international intrigue.” It’s a great show, with excellent food, madcap entertainment, excellent drinks, and a dollop of agitprop thrown in for good measure. Details and tickets at If you want to go, move fast. It is selling out. Review at


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