Tal Fortgang, the new face of white male privilege, is a lot like me. We're both white, we're both not poor-poor, we're both not liberal, and we're both circumcised (l'chaim!). So when I read the Princeton freshman's much discussed column in his campus conservative magazine, titled "Why I'll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege", I empathized. And grimaced.
The thing is, I've been in his situation. Back in my day – about 10 years ago – university lefties didn't say things as meaninglessly bland as "check your privilege". (I blame Facebook for this rhetorical development.) The old charges might've been ignorant, but at least they were direct and specific: that's racism! That's sexism! That's something-ism!
And then we'd all get into a spirited argument, usually with whiskey.
So as Fortgang works to hone his skills as a young, suddenly very public conservative, I have some tips. Like his privilege, he didn't ask for my advice – but that's just the way life is sometimes
First off: don't apologize. Ever. More importantly, don't tell people you're not ever apologizing. It puts them on edge. Let's say we are taking shots of Fireball, and l insist that I won't apologize for being a projectile vomiter. Anyone in that situation would be as suspicious of me as the numerousleft-wingwriters responding to Fortgang's piece have been of him.
Speaking of the haters, they do have something right: Tal Fortgang is an idiot. But he's not necessarily an idiot because of what he said – he is an idiot because he's 20 years old, and all 20 year olds are idiots (by my definition, anyway). Some underage kids with college degrees might be smarter than me, but they're still all idiots. I'm eight years older than Fortgang, so even my wrongness is rooted in more information than he has. As such, he'd do well to listen to some of the criticism aimed at his piece, but only the criticism from peers and maybe a professor or two.
As for the professional critics knocking him and his piece and opining on What It All Means, this kid would do well to ignore all of it. He should feel sorry for them. I do.
For instance, Jezebel has a thorough takedown of his "long diatribe" (1,419 words) with an equally long diatribe (1,422 words) by someone named "Violet Baudelaire". What Fortgang wrote wasn't "bold" or "brave," by any measure, but using a pen name on a highly influential website is just chickshit. This shouldn't surprise anyone, though, since Jezebel, while championing and crusading worthy causes, occasionally and inexcusably veers into out-and-out bullying of children.
The biggest pile-on came from Salon, which had at least three pieces dedicated to Fortgang. My personal favorite was professional journalist and amateur socio-psychologist Peter Finocchiaro, whose piece used Fortgang to explain some supposed right-wing "syndrome" no one's ever heard of, let alone professionally diagnosed anywhere but on a left-wing blog.
The worst, however, came in the New York Times story on Fortgang when its opening paragraph declared that "check your privilege" is "a familiar phrase on college campuses, often meant to serve as conversational kryptonite". That the Gray Lady declared this is a pretty good indication the phrase is not actually said on college campuses anymore, even as a kind of kinky safe-word. And this not being a one of the Times' famous trend pieces, the paper doesn't even bother with one poor example.
That's kind of sad, but the saddest part is that these examples, and the numerous others, are written by professional thinkers and writers, all of whom acknowledge in their pieces that, actually, Fortgang is young enough not to know any better. Next year, he'll be a sophomore – literally a "wise fool". I'm curious about what the (slightly younger) kids are doing, but the last thing I'm going to do is wring my hands over the thoughts they have between getting high and getting laid – both of which everyone in college should do, whatever their political persuasion.
Fortgang definitely shouldn't let the criticism lead him to believe his own good press. Instead, he should ignore the people on the right championing his cause. Fox loves him, and The Blaze called his piece "bold". The truth is that, unless he fools around with the dean's daughter or works tirelessly in the science department's lab to advance medical research, nothing Fortgang – or anyone else – does in college will be bold.
A lot of this sounds less like advice and more like a warning about the terribleness of the "real world". It's true, the real world is a terrible place, but let me make one positive point: fail better, experience more. If Fortgang wants to keep developing as a writer and cultural critic, he should actually read Dave Weigel's response. As an alum of the conservative collegiate writers' cabal (which funds the publication in which Fortgang's essay first appeared), Weigel points out that the disadvantage of having an ideological friendly forum so early in school is that "you are imbued with a confidence that you should publish whatever ramblings you find insightful when you're still too young to drink or rent a car."
As a young conservative thinker on the rise, Tal Fortgang will no doubt soon be surrounded by left-leaning peers, especially if he ever finds himself in a newsroom, where liberal privilege goes unchecked. Some of them will be smarter than him, some of them will be idiots, and all of them will challenge his beliefs. If he's serious about continuing to write critically, he should want to expose himself to as many diverse experiences and as much pushback as possible. (Vaguely related: he should travel, ASAP.)
Anyway, one bit of advice for this guy: stick with whatever you're doing. Maybe one day you'll become a libertarian.
There are clear and present advantages to being born and continuing to be recognized as a (cisgender heterosexual) white man in America. (Shutterstock)
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A 20-year-old college freshman who wrote an essay for one of his college publications has been interviewed on Fox News, written about in The New York Times and had his essay republished by Time magazine. Yet he doesn’t understand why anyone thinks he benefits from white male privilege.Ad Policy
Tal Fortgang of Princeton University wrote the piece, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” as a response to the (according to him) many people on his campus who tell him to “check [his] privilege” when engaging in debates. But Fortgang doesn’t want to check his privilege. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that his privilege exists. He would like to keep going through life believing that everything he and other white men like him have achieved is the result of their own hard work.
Or, if not the result of their own hard work, then that of their ancestors. Fortgang’s rebuttal to the idea that he is privileged as a white man in America was to tell the story of his grandfather who escaped Poland after the Nazi invasion, as well as his grandmother who survived a concentration camp, then made it to the United States and started a “humble wicker basket business.” Fortgang’s father “worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living.” He challenges us, after telling these stories, “Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged?”
Fortgang’s essay is part of the reason you can count me among the camp that believes we should spend less time discussing privilege. It’s not that it’s not a useful concept. There are clear and present advantages to being born and continuing to be recognized as a (cisgender heterosexual) white man in America. But the discussion has its limitations.
This paragraph from Fortgang is a prime example:
I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them “stigmas” or “societal norms”), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget “you didn’t build that;” check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.
When people with privilege hear that they have privilege, what they hear is not, “Our society is structured so that your life is more valued than others.” They hear, “Everything, no matter what, will be handed to you. You have done nothing to achieve what you have.” That’s not strictly true, and hardly anyone who points out another’s privilege is making that accusation. There are privileged people who work very hard. The privilege they experience is the absence of barriers that exist for other people.
In Fortgang’s telling of his family’s history, he fails to recognize that it is his grandfather’s proximity to whiteness that afforded him his opportunities here in America. It made his story possible. It doesn’t mean there has never been any discrimination or hatred of Jewish people, but that Jewish identity doesn’t present the same obstacles to whiteness, and therefore power and privilege, as, say, if Fortgang’s grandparents had been fleeing German occupation in Namibia.
There are no American institutions of power that are, whether by law or by custom, founded on wholesale discrimination against white men. That’s not the case for the rest of us. For white men born in or welcomed into this system, it is an unearned privilege.
Fortgang can go through his years at Princeton—or better, the rest of his life—and never have to acknowledge that, let alone apologize for it. But no one is asking him to. An apology would be useless. If a discussion about privilege serves any purpose, it is so that the privileged recognize their own and are then compelled to work to dismantle the structures that have bestowed privilege upon them. In order to do so, one would have to recognize the call to “check your privilege” as less of a personal attack, because it is not. It’s a wake-up call to action.