Screenshot via YouTube
Inevitably, if you are the kind of person who reveals your thoughts and feelings to the internet—which is to say, you are anyone who has ever updated your Facebook status or reblogged something on Tumblr—you will make someone angry. Occasionally you will make a lot of people very, very angry, and they will write about you and call you names while others rise to defend you. If you are exceptionally star-crossed, your name will be bellowed from all corners of the internet as commenters both famous and obscure craft hot takes about you. Inevitably, you will be called an idiot and a racist and a symbol of America's decline. You may even end up on cable news—suddenly locking eyes with Greta Van Susteren as she asks you to explain yourself—before your moment in the spotlight is gone and you are returned to your previous life as another person who has said something on the internet takes your place among the blogs and tweets and tumbls.
This is called a “news cycle,” a phrase that always reminds me of the Hindu theory of the universe being destroyed and reborn again and again. There is something strangely calming about thinking of news as some great cosmic entity that is constantly eating and excreting and then eating the excrement—it is a self-replenishing outrage machine that hums along, screaming about each new offense against INSERT NAME OF IDEA OR GROUP HERE as if it were the most vile transgression of all, then abruptly but seamlessly moving on to the next uniquely obscene gaffe or theory. Once you realize that this cycle/machine/beast (which is also a collection of websites, TV channels, and individuals who fill the air with hyperbole about the topic du jour for a living) will hum along without your participation, you can more or less ignore the individual yelled-about items and relax in the knowledge that none of it matters—unless, of course, you happen to be one of those items.
Tal Fortgang, a gloriously named freshman at Princeton became news-cycle fodder last week when an opinion column he wrote—which was originally titled “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege” when it ran in the Princeton Tory, a student-run conservative publication, in early April—was republished by Time and Fox News on Friday.
The gist of the piece is that Fortgang, a 20-year-old white guy, is upset at some fellow student who apparently told him to “check your privilege,” an especially grating collegiate way to say, “I think that your opinion is invalid and/or shitty because you are a white guy who doesn’t care and/or consider the perspective of others.”
Fasten your seatbelts, you’re in for a self-righteous ride. Writes Fortgang:
The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung.
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.
Fortgang goes on to inform the check-your-privilege crowd that his grandparents survived the Holocaust and built a business from nothing, and that for 25 years his father worked “from the crack of dawn” to earn a living. And what privilege Fortgang has—cue the patriotic horns—is passed down to him by not just his family but by the Founding Fathers. “I recognize that it was my parents’ privilege and now my own that there is such a thing as an American dream,” he writes, “which is attainable even for a penniless Jewish immigrant… It’s not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates ‘privilege.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
As Upworthy might write, “This opinion-havin’ guy expressed unironic belief in the idea that America is a meritocracy… you’ll never believe what happened next.” Actually, you would: He got lionized on the right by everyone from the American Conservative to the Blaze, while people on the left straight-up called him a racist. It’s sometimes hard to figure out why some piece of writing or video goes viral the way Fortgang’s essay has, but I can think of a couple reasons it spread so far:
1. He expressed something that many conservatives feel on a deep level, which is that the discourse of “social justice” (the current catchall phrase used to describe pretty much everyone to the left of the Democratic Party) warps language and belittles their views. When a leftist talks, wealth means greed, masculinity means sexism, pride means racism, traditional values means homophobia, and rural America means a bunch of idiots. Phrases like trigger warning and microaggression circulate on college campuses thanks to an epidemic of overly sensitive liberals who say things like “check your privilege” when they really mean “fuck yourself, white boy.” I think there is some truth to this line of complaint, actually: It can seem like left-wing activists have built their own vocabulary and grammar, and if you don’t use their language and agree with them on everything you are scorned and insulted. When they call you “ignorant” they don’t mean that they want to educate you into enlightenment; they want to shame you into shutting the fuck up.
2. Fortgang is not a bad writer for a 20-year-old, but he makes a lousy argument that’s easy to dissect. Having a family history that includes horrible hardships and an inspiring immigrant story does not mean that you haven’t benefitted from your race, gender, and class, or that you shouldn’t contemplate the role those things had in shaping your “Weltanschauung.” (Princeton students, who are all privileged in one way or another, tend to drop $20 words like that when other people would just say “worldview.”) It’s nice to praise an America that allowed your Jewish immigrant grandfather to build a business, but it’s useful to recognize that that at the same time in America, black people were being denied loans and forced to live in racially segregated slums—you’re meant to check your privilege by considering other people’s stories, not your own. Just as conservatives could read Fortgang’s words as empowering and an antidote to the liberal thought police, lefties could quickly throw together takedowns and attract readers by pointing out all the ways that this college kid is a big dumb wrong jerk.
Combine those reasons with Fortgang’s authorial smugness/confidence (you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to), and you’ve got a viral essay that set the op-ed world on fire and landed the author on Fox News—which is a shame, because this conversation should have stayed on campus.
I like to believe that colleges are still places where you can actually learn something. Fortgang’s column stirred things up at Princeton—hopefully it started a dialogue about what “privilege” means and who has it, and maybe also about the right and wrong way to have debates about values. Hopefully Fortgang read this New York Times article about the confabulation in which Briana Payton, a member of his school’s Black Student Union, is quoted as saying, “I concluded after reading that he had been ultimately unsuccessful in examining his own privilege… He doesn’t know what it feels like to be judged by his race.” In an ideal world, Payton and Fortgang would have a chat about how they both get offended when people prejudge them, and how they view race and class and equality.
We’re not in an ideal world, of course; we’re in the news cycle. In the above video, when Greta Van Susteren asks Fortgang what “check your privilege” meant, he replies, “I don’t think the people who are saying ‘check your privilege’ really know what it means.”
That’s a bad way to start a dialouge, but it's how you talk when you’re inhabiting the world of cable news—you claim your ideological opponents don’t understand the words they use, you scoff and gloat your way through two-minute segments until everyone who agrees with you is convinced you’ve won the argument. These “debates” are all empty calories, and the people who publicize them move on to the next thing as soon as they possibly can, because there’s a cycle to feed with anger and elation. Current candidates for outrage include a black teacher suing a school after being mocked for her race, a Republican senate candidate who once worked as a drag queen, and a California school that asked students to write papers about whether the Holocaust actually happened. That’s a lot of privilege to be checked!
The cycle will soon return Fortgang to Princeton, where he and his Weltanschauung will no doubt continue to irritate his peers and where he'll continue to write things that will one day make him cringe as he looks back on them. Hopefully now that he’s no longer on television he’ll be able to learn something.
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