From God and Man at Yale to The Closing of the American Mind to Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, there is a thriving market for memoirs of oppressed white men in the academy. The young man arrives in the Ivy League, ready to learn about Western civilization and read the Great Books, and instead finds a nest of vipers: feminists, queer activists, decadent drawling libertines, and egghead communist weenies. He notes, with regret, the erosion of the American university by the tide of progressivism and Theory.
A Princeton freshman, Tal Fortgang, made a junior-varsity contribution to the genre about a month ago, in the pages of The Princeton Tory. It was republished by Time, ignited a firestorm, and, I would bet, has the university’s public-relations staff members pulling their hair in frustration.
Apparently, the phrase “check your privilege” has started to circulate at Princeton. Fortgang is upset and hurt; he feels that checking his privilege means that none of his achievements are valued. I’ve taught Princeton undergraduates. They are smart, respectful, and generally eager, but they are not, for the most part, red-hot radicals. If Fortgang wanted to go to an elite college where a young white conservative would have a constituency, he made a good choice. As Morgan Jerkins, a graduating senior, wrote in a responding essay in Ebony, “It’s not easy being Black [at Princeton].”
In all of the press about Fortgang, hardly anyone has commented on his writing itself. The essay has so many markers of a particular kind of undergraduate style that it is weirdly heartwarming. The mixed metaphors, overfed syntax, and deliberately elevated diction (Weltanschauung? Mein Gott!) are familiar to anyone who has written or read undergraduate essays of a certain tone. Fortgang takes the opportunity to write a family history, before concluding, “I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.”
This is freshman writing, remember. It may have rough edges, but it is energetic and it has a point of view. As a teacher of writing, reading the essay for form and not for content, I can see plenty to praise, and plenty of room to grow. But as a historian, the essay is cause for despair.
Fortgang shares the story of his life, but cannot recognize that having a platform to share your autobiography is itself a privilege that most people—and many people at Princeton—don’t enjoy.
Fortgang enjoys less privilege than, say, a WASP with an estate in the Hamptons, or the Sultan of Brunei. But privilege is not simply a question of origin—it is about the present. When he looks for a job, if he runs for public office, if he wants a loan, if he tries to hail a taxi—in nearly every interaction Fortgang will enjoy the benefits of his whiteness and maleness. And yet he refuses to consider why this might be the case.
Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, writes, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please. … The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” The word “nightmare” in the original German is Alp (a pun, invoking both a kind of folkloric evil spirit and the mountain range). Historical structures are as forbidding as mountains. We’re born at the top, or at the bottom; the thing can’t be moved, but it can avoided, or climbed, or blown open.
The idea of the Great Man who changes history at a stroke seems to survive only in presidential biographies and in admiring books about Winston Churchill. If Tal Fortgang decides to major in history, he will learn (I hope) that historians are always arguing about the relationship between structure and agency in shaping human lives. “Check your privilege” isn’t a demand to apologize for your structural advantages, it is a plea to stop and think about them; to see them, and acknowledge them, and consider whether it might be worth taking them apart. Far from being a progressive perversion of the liberal arts, thinking about structure is foundational.
The undergraduates at Princeton talk about the bubble around campus; they generally mean it geographically. But the bubble extends to the way many elite undergraduates see the world and their place in it. Students at places like Princeton believe that their admission is an achievement in itself—one that conveys both the admitted student’s merit and the proper functioning of the meritocracy.
Fortgang condemns people who tell him to check his privilege “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.” Of course, the equal-protection clause—the 14th Amendment—came into force in 1868 to compel the Southern states to comply with Reconstruction after the end of the Civil War. It was, for its time, a revolutionary attempt to destroy, or at least drastically reduce, white privilege.
Needless to say, the end of slavery did not end white supremacy in the United States. From Jim Crow to discriminatory housing policies that pushed African-Americans into bleak, substandard housing, to repulsive and unfair laws that punished crack users 10 times as severely as cocaine users, to mass incarceration, to the steady erosion of social services for the poor, racism and entrenched poverty persist and are persistently intertwined.
Checking your privilege means thinking critically about that history; it means recognizing that racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or transphobia) isn’t just name-calling—it’s structural. If you are white you can be antiracist, but you still benefit from racism. If you are a white man at Princeton, you benefit from racism, and are constrained by the mythic fairness of meritocracy into not only denying that you benefited, but insisting that anyone who accuses you of benefiting just hasn’t worked hard enough. It takes deadness to the past to believe that myth. Like a mountain, structural inequality isn’t the kind of thing that can be healed. It is there, and if you can’t see it, it is because you aren’t looking.
This is a crossroads for Tal Fortgang. On Fox News he looked nervous and overwhelmed as the interviewer pushed him to double down. To his credit, he seemed to be hedging. Watching him qualify his ideas was deeply heartening: He seemed to have learned something from the experience of being attacked from one side and deified from the other. Tal Fortgang has a few more years to learn how to look for his own privilege and learn solidarity with people who don’t enjoy it. I hope Princeton can teach it to him.
Author Bio: Padraic X. Scanlan is a Prize Fellow in Economics, History, and Politics at the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University.