Like “commonwealth,” but without the “th”
The winter 2010 issue of Dissent features a forum titled “Intellectuals and Their America.” Among the contributors are Michael Tomasky, Martha Nussbaum, Jackson Lears, and the ever-linkable and often-likable Leon Wieseltier, who writes:
[T]o the inventory of alienating human productions one must add a good deal of American mass culture—for its transformation of a citizenry into an audience; for its hardening of an entire population toward the most obscene representations of violence, which we call entertainment; for its grotesque sexualization of an entire society, which has the effect not least of degrading sex, even dirty sex; for the mental passivity inculcated in millions of people who are helpless before its big and little screens, and who mistake screen-experience for experience; for the vicarious and self-estranged character of existences that are fascinated by the celebrity culture; for the surrender of people’s confidence in their own judgment as a result of its barrage of pseudo-expertise and pseudo-authority—I could go on.
And of course he does, to good effect — “On the question of the academy, may I take an incomplete? (My rant – excuse me, my meditation — might wound some people I admire and even adore.)”
But it’s Lears who wins the prize for (twice!) using the word “commonweal” correctly, and usefully, in sentences not invented to illustrate the meaning of the word “commonweal”:
[F]or many left academics, [Foucault] became less a theorist of the surveillance state than an advocate of Nietzschean individualism, whose vision of “heterotopia” celebrated myriad sites of resistance to repressive authority rather than any larger notion of commonweal. All of this comported well with the emerging cultural politics of the academy, which in many ways constituted a mirror image of free-market individualism. From the mid-1980s on, it was possible to discern a kind of left-wing Reaganism among academics in the humanities and social sciences, most visible in the postmodern tendency to celebrate consumer culture as an arena of choice, liberation, and self-creation.[...]
Still, this is a moment of possibility. The Right has disgraced itself by its inability to govern and, even more, by its disregard of international law and fundamental constitutional traditions. Not since the Great Depression has there been such an opportunity for the Left: a chance to make politics more than a matter of managerial technique—to take the moral high ground, to reassert the claims of commonweal. That is where the intellectuals come in, to articulate that larger vision. Or so we can hope.