Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang has been making headlines with an essay demanding that his peers stop dismissing his opinions with a glib “check your privilege” retort. Relating his grandparents’ Holocaust history, he objects to his classmates’ writing him off as a white male who doesn’t understand the struggles of the less fortunate. Originally written for a campus journal, Fortgang’s essay was quickly picked up by a host of Internet sites and Fox News, and even garnered the attention of The New York Times. The essay’s popularity in conservative outlets reflects some very real problems with a common discourse on college campuses. But the essay is so unreflective that Fortgang ends up embodying the very anti-intellectualism he condemns. More importantly, the essay serves an excellent case study in the poverty of modern political discourse and the vanity of the American Jewish community.
Of course, Fortgang’s essay seems to have struck a chord. And for good reason. In some radical student circles it’s intellectually fashionable to call “privilege” rather than engage in debate, and conservatives are rightly incensed that a handful of nuttier academics have been spending the last few decades trying to lend these students a veneer of intellectual respectability. Responsible scholars situate thinkers within a context in order to enrich the intellectual conversation. Ideologues use biography to stifle dissent. And to their great shame, there is no small number of ideologues on today’s college campuses. The essay’s popularity thus reflects too many conservative students’ very real feelings of marginalization.
And that’s why it’s such a pity that the essay is so flawed. There really is a good case to be made for why statements like “check your privilege” are pathetically unintellectual. Fortgang could have argued that rigorous analysis, not ad hominem dismissal, leads to sound conclusions. He could have explained that situational biases are universal, and that the perspectives of the poor and marginalized come with their own set of prejudices. And he could have demonstrated that the key to rational argument is genuine awareness and engagement with whatever those prejudices are.
Alas, Fortgang wrote none of those things. Instead, he penned an extended ode to his parents and grandparents for the heroic efforts that took them from Hitler’s death camps to a grandson in the Ivy League in three generations. An impressive and inspiring feat, no doubt. The relevance of this story, however, is not at all clear. One would think Fortgang would want his ideas to be judged on their own merits rather than the character of his grandparents. But as it stands, Fortgang chose to fight biography with biography. Rather than demanding that his opponents engage with his ideas and his logic, he gave us his family’s story and asked to be taken seriously on the basis of its authority. In doing so, he became precisely what he purports to condemn. Even more importantly, he revealed just how endemic the confusion between argument and anecdote has become. Now, even the supposed defenders of intellectual debate can’t tell the difference.
But the problems with the essay also tell a deeper, Jewish story. Fortgang didn’t simply rely on biography; he relied on a skewed biography of a particularly Jewish sort. Unlike his grandparents, Fortgang was himself raised by well-off parents in a wealthy neighborhood in Westchester. Fortgang received an absolutely stellar education. He attended SAR High School, a Modern Orthodox day school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Classes tend to be under 20 students, and his teachers were passionate, committed and well paid. (Disclosure: I also attended SAR and think the world of the institution.) A thoughtful essay would express gratitude for all he had been given and nevertheless explain why none of it detracts from his well-reasoned position on national affairs. A thoughtful essay would acknowledge that these experiences might also help shape a (to borrow Fortgang’s phrase) “personal Weltanschauung.” But like so much else in contemporary political and Jewish discourse, this essay is about polemic and mythmaking rather than nuance. Instead of a posture of gratitude, the essay demands recognition for “everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life.”
The essay thus exemplifies a certain kind of bias to which the American Jewish community has found itself particularly susceptible. We rightly look at our history of successful immigration and integration into American society with awe. It truly is remarkable how our grandparents lifted themselves out of poverty through hard work, perseverance and commitment to education. And they deserve both praise and gratitude. But when aimed at our own parents, awe and gratitude has a dangerous tendency to morph into pride. We pat ourselves on the back for their accomplishments, and then we tend to gloss over those cultural and structural advantages that Jewish immigrants did receive: the communal institutions already set up to care for them, a cultural legacy of educational achievement, a successful public school system and a myriad of other factors that may or may not apply to communities that struggle today. Gratitude to our parents does not require simplifying history, and in the interests of empathy and honesty we must do better than tell ourselves feel-good stories.
Fortgang, of course, should not be overly blamed. He was trying to address a real problem. And he is a college freshman. As he told the Times, “I am learning how to learn.” But the essay tells us a great deal more than the frustrations of one white, male Princeton student. Indeed it reflects two problems — one universal and one unique to the American Jewish community — that are worth noting and combating. They are: a discourse that takes biography as a substitute for argument, and a Jewish community that too often replaces gratitude with vanity.
Yishai Schwartz recently graduated from Yale, where he studied philosophy and religion. He has been spending the year on fellowship in New York and Washington, DC.