Friday, May 9, 2014

Check Your Privilege... At the Door

Alexander Hall, Princeton University

I must start any discussion of “white privilege” in current politics by mocking the word “privilege.” Though the concept has flowed through socio-economic discussions for decades, its recent faddish circulation, often used incorrectly, has cheapened its real meaning. Like “Political Correctness” in the 1990s, or “Freedom Fries” in the 2000s, its ceaseless repetition deflects from the problem it supposedly corrects. And that’s where Princeton undergraduate Tal Fortgang enters the picture.

Like most twenty-year-olds, Tal Fortgang understands reality better than you. Writing in The Princeton Tory, an opinion magazine so marginal that many Princeton students didn’t know it existed before this week, Fortgang expertly demolished the idea that white male heterosexuals get any breaks in American society, because his personal grandfather escaped the Nazis. This obviously exempts him from any advantages accruing to certain population groups. Obviously this describes honkies everywhere.

The mystery isn’t that Fortgang wrote this opinion. HL Mencken wrote that “Nobody thinks of himself as a son of a bitch,” and that includes thinking your skin melanin opened doors closed to darker-hued people. When I was twenty, I’d have agreed with Fortgang altogether. No, the mystery is: why did reprint this gormless adolescent screed? It has no business in any legitimate news-gathering organization, and cheapens Time’s brand.

Tal Fortgang
The Princeton Tory originates off campus. Its funding comes from The Collegiate Network, supported by the Scaife, Olin, and Bradley foundations. These far-right groups consider subsidizing conservative campus organizations an investment, and it’s paid off: Collegiate Network alumni include Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza, bombthrowers so radical that Fox News keeps its distance. Reprinting this essay is like reprinting an unedited Koch Brothers press release. It’s beneath Time’s journalistic reputation.

Fortgang commits serial logical offenses. Start with fallacies of relevance: his grandparents’ surviving the Nazis doesn’t accrue to him. My grandparents were homesteaders; so what? He also commits the Fundamental Attribution Error, imbuing others’ statements with personal, rather than circumstantial, meaning. He assumes people contest his privilege because they stereotype him; “You don’t know what [my family’s] struggles have been,” he writes. He apparently doesn’t realize that goes both ways.

Every human exists individually, and within a social context, at the same time. Citing Fortgang’s industrious father and grandfather feels noble, and their contributions deserve acknowledgement. But they, and he, also occupy a social stratus where simply being white, male, and heterosexual opens doors. As a New Yorker, Fortgang could add “Jewish” and “suburban” to that list. One suspects Fortgang doesn’t consider himself privileged, because he’s never seen the opposite.

One also wonders if Fortgang even understands what privileges he’s received, just by his ethnic and geographical heritage. Being born in New York bestows prestige. Malcolm Gladwell dedicates an entire chapter to demonstrating how Jewish immigrants created a New York culture that shepherded their grandchildren to prestigious universities and careers. In trying to deny his privileged origins, Fortgang inadvertently admits them. And he makes himself look unlettered and ahistorical, besides.

We daily navigate the fine line between our individuality and our heritage. Everybody came from somewhere we couldn’t control; we make willful decisions about where we’re headed. People who don’t walk this line upset fundamental American values. That’s why we generally despise both the idle rich and people who build nests in the social safety net. Both expect life to pay their way because of birth circumstances they never chose.

But people who think themselves above social responsibility equally offend us. Ayn Rand idealism notwithstanding, the “rugged individualism” myth ballyhooed by would-be Rockefellers and Vanderbilts rings hollow for most Americans. Businessmen desperately need customers. Truckers need roads. Parents need roofs and three squares daily for their children. We all exist within our context, and if that context uplifts us, if it crushes us, whatever it does, it’s always still there.

By Fortgang’s own admission, he came from money. He couldn’t have gotten into Princeton if he’d napped through high school, so clearly his own effort won him admission. But in my university teaching days, I had students who couldn’t do weekend homework. Many had local jobs, while others returned to their parents’ farms or workshops. Even if they had mad academic skillz, Princeton-level workloads were always outside their horizons.

Like most undergraduates, Tal Fortgang has savvied part of life’s ever-changing circumstances, and thinks he knows what he needs to know. Various right-wing foundations have subsidized this academic half-assery, and Time has gambled its journalistic prestige by giving Fortgang a national soapbox. But most twenty-year-olds still haven’t discovered the larger world. As he continues recognizing life’s unseemly facts, Fortgang will live to understand why a little learning is a dangerous thing.

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