Tal Fortgang, a freshman at Princeton, has created a genuine intellectual controversy with his now-famous essay in The Princeton Tory, since republished by Time, on the subject of “privilege” and being told to “check” it by liberal enforcers of public mores. For those who may be blessedly unaware, “check your privilege” is a common command issued to those who check such demographic boxes as white, male, middle-class, in possession of physical genitals matching one’s metaphysical self-conception, etc. In the 1980s, nonconformists were advised by the liberal thought police that their ideas were “politically incorrect,” a phrase that became infamous. Today they are told “check your privilege,” but the two phrases translate into standard English identically: “Shut up.”
Mr. Fortgang, far from denying the many genuine advantages he has enjoyed in life, places those values in the context of the American experience and describes his inheritance as being defined not by maleness and whiteness but by property and values. He points out that his grandparents were Jewish refugees from the Nazis — his grandfather escaped Poland only to end up in a Siberian labor camp, his grandmother was freed from Bergen-Belsen by Allied troops — and that his grandfather, who started a modest business making wicker baskets upon arrival in the United States, was prone to observing that whatever business troubles he might encounter were kept in proper perspective by his having escaped the clutches of Adolf Hitler.
Mr. Fortgang’s father, in an almost textbook example of the Jewish-immigrant experience in the United States, enrolled in City College, excelled sufficiently to attend a good graduate school, and subsequently built a comfortable living for his family and sent his own son to Princeton. As Mr. Fortgang observes, his father had the advantages of a good family and the values they instilled in him, not hereditary social connections: “The wicker business just isn’t that influential,” he writes.
The responses were swift and they were angry. Mr. Fortgang was denounced as ignorant, as somebody who just wasn’t bright enough to understand what “privilege” really means, and more.
Mr. Fortgang’s appreciation of the peculiarly American institutions and habits that allowed his family to be transformed from penniless refugees to comfortable Ivy Leaguers in a remarkably short period of time is the sort of thing that within living memory would have gone by the name of “patriotism” rather than appreciation for one’s privileges. Beyond that, though, there is a more important and more interesting discussion to be had here. The United States is a society in which personal merit matters a great deal, but no sensible person among us is so blind as to believe that it is anything like a pure meritocracy. It is absolutely true that not all of us start off at the same place in life, that some of us must overcome serious obstacles and deficiencies simply to obtain a decent life, while others of us enjoy sundry financial and social inheritances that place us far ahead of where most others start.
The point of Mr. Fortgang’s essay — the part that drives the Left to rage — is that such advantages as this particular young man from suburban Westchester County enjoys are much more the product of the sort of family he comes from, and the opportunities that they enjoyed in the United States, than they are of ethnic and sexual features. Mr. Fortgang’s grandfather is a standing rebuke to the entire concept of white-male privilege: Imagine the sort of moral illiteracy it takes to behold a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who has arrived with no money or connections on foreign shores to live among people who did not, let us remember, universally welcome the Jewish influx, and before the Siberian frost has even been brushed off his shoulders, to point at him and cry: “Lucky you!”
The Left’s conception of “privilege” is categorical — one enjoys “privilege” if one is a member of a privileged class, regardless of one’s personal circumstances — but the facts of life are personal and particular. Educational and economic outcomes are strongly correlated with such factors as whether one’s parents were married and stayed married, their attachment to full-time employment, etc. It is indeed important to choose one’s grandparents wisely, but not in the crass way that the “privilege” analysis would have you believe. Yet the Left is religiously committed to the herd mentality, both for aesthetic reasons and for practical ones: If we start to talk and think seriously about the variables that invest some of us with significant advantages and some with significant disadvantages, then following the evidence will take us in a direction that the Left is not very much inclined to explore.
Mr. Fortgang, far from denying that he enjoys the fruit of his parents’ and his grandparents’ labor, is determined to enjoy them rather than be ashamed of them. A consciousness of the connection between our ancestors’ exertions and our current circumstances is fundamental not just to the conservative understanding of the world but to any conception of organic community. It is not only Mr. Fortgang’s inheritance that the Left wishes to make us ashamed of.