My Facebook feed for the past few days has been riddled with links to the “Checking My Privilege” kid, Tal Fortgang. The Princeton freshman from suburban New York has rocked the Internet and made conservatives everywhere cheer with his response to campus liberals. Unfortunately, his response will get him nowhere. And conservatives should stop cheering. Fortgang writes:
The phrase [“Check Your Privilege”], 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. “Check your privilege,” they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.
Fortgang goes on to explain that his ancestors experienced plenty of hardship as Jews in Europe. In other words, he is not as privileged as you think:
Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended. … Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.
The problem is that his victimhood is not enough for those who judge people by their level of victimhood. As a member of the Black Student Union at Princeton told the New York Times, “I was in shock because it said ‘checking my privilege,’ and 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.”
So here’s a little advice to Mr. Fortgang and his cheerleaders. Don’t play this game. Of course we are all shaped in different ways by our upbringings, our families, and our current situations. But we should aim to make arguments that stand on their own, without reference to biography. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a new trend in college debate in which black teams were winning debates by claiming the structure of debate was itself racist. Fortgang’s critics seem to be going after him in a similar vein. There is nothing he can say that would convince them of his positions because his personal story is insufficiently compelling. There is no point in dragging the memories of his ancestors into what is basically a glorified pissing contest that he is destined to lose.