It is a familiar phrase on college campuses, often meant to serve as conversational kryptonite, the final word in an argument to which there is no response.
“Check your privilege.”
But Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman from Westchester County, had a response.
– At Princeton, Privilege Is: (a) Commonplace, (b) Misunderstood or (c) Frowned Upon, Marc Santora and Gabriel Fishermay, New York Times, May 2
Indeed he did.
I’m betting that most AB readers haven’t heard of the “Check your privilege” controversy currently raging at Princeton and other prestigious American institutions of higher learning. Or, for that matter, the phrase “Check your privilege” itself, although I could be wrong about that. I myself learned of the controversy on Thursday, when I read Alexandra Petri’s satire piece on it in the Washington Post. (I had not read the article in the New York Times, which was in the NY/Region section.) The Times article explains:
After class recently, he was explaining to a classmate his views on welfare and his concern about the national debt, when he was told — not for the first time, he said — to check his privilege.
He thought about the phrase, what it meant and last month penned a pointed essay in a conservative campus publication, The Tory.
“The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laserlike at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung,” he wrote.
His essay touched a nerve.
Indeed it did. As you can imagine. The Times article expounds:
He was hailed on the right, his piece used as evidence that America’s universities are hopelessly liberal. Conservative bloggers and national publications picked up his cause.
He appeared on Fox News this week, in a segment labeled “Student Takes Down Liberals Over ‘White Privilege’ Debate.”
The reaction on the left was equally strident, with other students challenging his position and saying his own words were evidence that he had failed to understand the phrase.
Josh Moskovits, also a freshman at Princeton, said the phrase was not commonly used and argued that Mr. Fortgang did not even understand what privilege meant.
“In my opinion, it’s sort of a manufactured right-wing idea that people are running around left wing colleges saying ‘Check your privilege,’ ” he said. “He would have to say, in my opinion, something incredibly outrageous to get someone to say ‘Check your privilege.’ ”
The essay in The Tory–The Tory? Seriously? And that name is not meant as satire?–you’ll be interested to know, is called “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege.” The title probably was the work of an editor, not of Fortgang, but it captures, exactly, Fortgang’s claim, as well as exactly what’s wrong with Fortgang’s position. And exactly why the essay itself effectively illustrates that Princeton is accepting the children of the wealthy upon the basis of something other than intellect. This guy just isn’t very smart.
The character he claims for himself is, in fact, the character of his ancestors and relatives, some who were murdered by the Nazis during WWII, some (including his grandparents) who survived unspeakable horrors and then made their way to America and started a wicker-basket-making business that supported this father’s nuclear family of six. He co-opts as his own not only the horrors, perseverance and character of his relatives who were Holocaust victims or survivors; he does the same with his grandparents’ nurturing of their kids, his father’s studiousness at City College, CUNY, doing well enough “to earn a spot at a top graduate school.”
Was that graduate school Princeton, maybe? I don’t know. I do know that his father, Stanley–who is quoted in the Times article, and who in his brief comments comes off as gracious; not the least bit entitled, obnoxious, silly or confused–is:
the founder and managing partner of Etzion Consulting Group, L.L.C., where [in 20011 he specialized] in consulting on fixed income markets, including the market for distressed loan trading. Mr. Fortgang previously worked at Jefferies & Co., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, among other investment banking institutions ….
Apparently, he’s now back at Jeffries & Co., as its managing director.
What could have been a beautiful essay, published somewhere else, about his gratitude to his forebears for their hard work and perseverance, their nurturing and their focus on their kids’ education, is instead a weird conflation of what he and The Tory’s headline writer view as the “character” of parent and child–his family members, and others (i.e., blacks, rural whites, Hispanics). It also pretends that his ancestors, who came to America with no money and no English, were left completely to their own devices in post-War America, a pretense that surely is false. Perhaps his parents and grandparents forgot to mention to him the structure in place among Jews, dating back to the early part of the last century and escalating tremendously after the War, to assist Jewish immigrants, many of whom already had family in America and Canada.
But I doubt that the oversight was theirs. I suspect that, instead, the obliviousness is not a facet of his parents’ and grandparents’ character but of his own. Precisely, he write:
Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.
Ah, yes. So not only did he not have to compete for financial aid for college; his father didn’t have to take out a student loan. Perhaps because back then CUNY’s tuition was negligible because progressive local, state and federal taxes actually funded most of the costs at public colleges and universities? Fortgang (the son) doesn’t mention how his father paid his tuition and living expenses at that top graduate school. Might it be that he took out a federal-government-backed student loan at a low rate, to pay tuition that was steep for its day but pocket change now relative to what it is there now? More from the essay:
Perhaps it was my privilege that my own 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. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential.Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?
Our success has not been giftwrapped? Our success? Did anyone tell his father or his grandparents to check their privilege? As opposed to telling him to check his?
Only folks who made it into the high echelons of wealth get up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time they want to spend with those he valued most—their spouse, or kids, or both—to earn that living? So their kids’ failure to get into Princeton, perhaps through a legacy admission, perhaps through large financial donations to the university, but in any event surely through tutoring, SAT prep, aggressive outreach by a high school counselor who has contacts at the Ivy League admissions offices, and oodles of expensive extra-curriculars that actual have no legitimate business factoring into college admissions practices at all–is because of the kids’ lack of character, as well as a lack of the parents’ poor character?
Anyone who grew up with every imaginable advantage and thinks his own success has not been gift-wrapped because his father’s success and his grandparents’ successes weren’t isn’t just socioeconomically blind; he’s also just not very smart.
And, most revealing on that last point, is his claim and apparent belief that what was meant by “his privilege” was his race and gender rather than that he did indeed have the huge benefit of having grown up with access to excellent schools and so much more that money buys such a large percentage of students at this country’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Including, and in his case probably most relevantly, that he would not need financial assistance from the university’s endowment, to which his father may wll have already contributed before his admission and could be counted on to contribute to during the son’s time there.
This is, in one (but only one) important respect, reminiscent of a mini-controversy last year about David Brooks’s decision to us one of his NYT columns to publish, with permission, an essay written for a class assignment by a student of his in a Yale course he was teaching as a guest lecturer. The essay, which Brooks thought was brilliant and had awarded an “A” grade, was pro forma–pretty banal, and (most glaring to me) included a statement that was nonsensical. Its subject was generic millennial perspectives on the political process, but it was written, obviously, from the perspective of someone who was not, suffice it to say, attending Yale on a financial-needs scholarship.
Unlike the Fortgang essay, this one was not written with any malice or purpose of denigration toward certain racial minorities or poor whites. Much less any borrowed superiority of character. It was written instead as a phone-in by an already mentally-checked-out college senior in her final semester, to complete an assignment in a filler course taken to get that final three credits needed to graduate. The student, who probably wishes she had never heard of David Brooks, surely already had accepted a position on Wall Street or in some prestigious grad-school program. But she had indeed “come from money”. Unless, that is, she had attended National Cathedral School on a scholarship. And, probably, so did the other students in that class. And this was the best of the essays.
But unlike that Yale senior’s essay, Fortgang’s presents something fairly ugly, in my opinion, that has been skirted but should not be. I kept wondering as read through his piece what his Holocaust-victim relatives–those who survived but are now gone, and those who perished–would think of his invocation of their lives and (for some) deaths as justification for his claim to have himself earned his spot at Princeton. Yes, he documents, they earned it for him. But he says it’s due him by virtue of their virtue.
I wonder, as a Jew myself, how proud his late relatives would be (and how proud his father really is) of their legatee. I suspect that his late ancestors would explain to him the difference between being the beneficiary of your parents’ and grandparents’ intense efforts, resilience, and the welcome assistance to them by others–being the beneficiary of their hard-earned successes–and being the beneficiary of your own. And that his great aunts and great uncles who died at the hands of the Nazis during WWII would be grateful to have their stories told, but not as justification for a great nephew’s admission to Princeton. I suspect that they would consider this, as I do, unseemly.*
*Paragraph edited, and the last two sentences added, 5/11 at 1:12 p.m.