The Magazine

Ownership Society

David Gelernter, hoping for propriety.

Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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SOMETIMES WORDS TELL THE TRUTH on purpose; sometimes they give it away by accident. Both things happened last week in mid-Palo Alto, down the road from Stanford University, ground zero of Silicon Valley--where pale pink plum-blossoms bloom in February and Ferraris are as common as Pontiacs in Peoria. I was having lunch with two colleagues: two talented, ambitious, successful young men who have put together an imposing new company to build software for defense and security purposes. "I think we can do some good for our country," one of them said.

Just a casual statement; a hope we all three shared. But I nearly jumped out of my pants. Among technology researchers and entrepreneurs, America is rarely called "our country." In the intellectual world at large, it happens even less.

Most culture leaders and Boss Intellectuals seem to have no sense of ownership in America. If America belongs to them and they to America, they rarely say so. And those who have no sense of propriety and of what's appropriate equally have no sense of property and of what is proper. If you don't own the place, you don't make the rules. And often you don't care about the rules.

Since many intellectuals don't feel that the United States belongs to them, it's no surprise that they don't give a damn for propriety where the United States is concerned. If it is "improper" for Americans to defame a president on a foreign stage, or spread rumors that are dangerous to Americans abroad, or strive to convince our enemies to hold out just long enough for U.S. public resolve to crumble and U.S. troops to be withdrawn . . . American intellectuals on the whole aren't likely to condemn any of these things, or to see anything wrong with them.

Why should an establishment intellectual (unlike the average citizen) have no property sense in America, no sense of proprietorship or belonging? The answer is complicated, but Vietnam must be a factor. Many of today's senior intellectuals were draft-age during Vietnam, and managed to get out of serving. Vietnam was a Working-Class War--Christian G. Appy published a book by that title in 1993. (I was too young to serve, but have no grounds for thinking I would have behaved any better than my elders.) Many of those who should have served and did not carry guilt around for the rest of their lives. It's the least they can do. It is a strange, choked sense of honor that makes so many intellectuals feel unworthy to be part owners and full citizens of their own nation.

There's another, more specific sense of absent propriety among America's Boss Intellectuals and academic leaders. Many have no sense of ownership in the American university either. Therefore they have no sense of propriety regarding the university, or of proper versus improper.

A few weeks ago Yale students held an event called "Sex Week"--"one of the most provocative campus events in the country," said the AP. (No doubt.) But "not everyone was happy," my son Dan reports in his blog Critical Mass (he's a Yale freshman). "Porn star Jesse Jane is apparently displeased that there is still 'a social stigma attached to working in the pornography industry.'" Eminent porn stars, sex therapists, and others got to participate in the festivities.

Yale is no different in this way from hundreds of other major schools--institutions at which almost no one in charge, faculty or administrator, seems to have any property sense in the university. Where almost no one has the sense that this school belongs to him and had better be treated with respect, dignity, propriety.

Why do the people in charge think and act this way? Again there are many reasons, but here is one. A revolution after the Second World War changed the nature of American universities. The Harvards and Yales used to be social powerhouses run by and for social big-shots. After the war, intellectuals gradually took over. They looked around their new domains--the plain colonial brick, fancy Victorian stone, collegiate Gothic--and the clubs, fraternities, secret societies--and they knew: We didn't build this place. Which was true. How could they have felt the same way as the WASP Old Guard used to? Especially when they had the impression (generally correct) that the WASP Old Guard had once hoped to keep them out.

American Intellectuals are still struggling with the sensation that the universities they run don't belong to them, and the country they boss doesn't either. Only when they acquire a sense of property will they have a sense of propriety. How do you give someone a sense of belonging, of property, of propriety? I don't know. But we've reached the right questions.

-David Gelernter