Privilege and the Bubble of Flattery

a response to that unapologetic Princeton freshman

Eighteeen-year-old Tal Fortgang became a national sensation this month when his essay “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege” got published in Time. In the last week and a half it’s been linked and emailed and responded to all over the internet. (I first noticed it because of a bump in the hits on my essay “The Distress of the Privileged“. Privilege, I realized, must be hot for some reason.)

Let’s glide past the question of whether any 18-year-olds whose parents weren’t able to send them to Princeton might have written better, more thoughtful essays that haven’t gotten national attention, and instead dive into the content of Fortgang’s argument. He is tired of having his opinions and accomplishments diminished by people who tell him to “check his privilege”, so he does check his privilege and determines that it’s all quite justified: His Jewish great-grandfather was killed by the Nazis. His grandfather escaped Hitler and languished in displaced-persons camps before making it to America and starting a business. His father got a graduate degree and worked hard, and Tal himself has put considerable effort into making something of himself.

What he finds is not that he has been blessed by some “invisible patron saint of white maleness”, but that he benefits from a family legacy of values like self-sacrifice and entrepreneurialism and faith and resolve, and the habits that pass those values down from generation to generation. He is also privileged that his ancestors made it to America

a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.

So, he concludes, “I apologize for nothing.”

How to respond to that? First, I don’t know who at Princeton has been telling Fortgang that there is a patron saint of white maleness handing out success like a Sicilian godfather, or that “nothing you have accomplished is real”, but I hope that sooner or later someone gives Tal a more accurate metaphor: Privilege is like a tailwind. You have to handle the sails, but if you handle them moderately well, you get further. The places you get to are quite real, but … you had a tailwind and a lot of other people had a headwind. Sometimes that’s the difference between arriving at your destination, being lost at sea, or never getting out of port.

In short: Lots of people studied in high school and have strong values and characters. Lots of people’s parents and grandparents were smart, long-suffering, plucky, and hard-working. Not all of them are where Tal is or have the prospects he presumably does.

Recognizing privilege shouldn’t make a person apologize — which wouldn’t do anybody any good anyway. But it should raise humility, as well as compassion for those born to less favorable winds.

Second, I hope Tal takes some courses in cultural history, and learns that in every era privileged youth grow up in a bubble of flattery. In ancient times, the poets would trace your ancestry back to the gods, philosophers and theologians would explain how your slaves had been born with a servile nature or bore the mark of some ancient curse, and historians would glorify the battles of the valorous warriors who conquered the lands to which you now fall heir. And all of them would emphasize that blood is thicker than water: Worthiness flows down the family bloodline in precisely the same way that property does.

Today, well-funded think tanks and endowed chairs and glossy magazines and news networks and at least one-and-a-half of our two political parties are devoted to extolling the virtues of the rich: They are on top because they deserve to be. They are smarter, harder-working, wiser, more entrepreneurial, and just generally better than everyone else. The rest of us should be grateful to them, because they create our jobs, and their inventiveness is the engine that powers our economy. Without them, the rains would fail, the Earth would refuse to produce its bounty, and the rest of us would forget how to provide goods and services to each other.

Rather than asking scions like Tal to check his privilege, our gratitude should flow down the genetic line just as it always has, crediting the virtues of the fathers to the sons to the third and fourth generations (and, conversely, letting those born in the gutter wallow in filth like the animals they are).

As of old, this is flattery. People say and write these things because powerful people want to hear and read them. (Or, as in your case, Tal, people in privileged classes say and write such things for their own justification, and then are rewarded. You are well on your way to a fine career flattering people even more privileged than you.)

I haven’t been in the room when people have asked Tal to “check his privilege”, but I doubt they were asking for an apology. I would guess they were asking him to grow up, to poke his head out of the bubble of flattery, and to stop repeating what his flatterers told him as if the rest of us should believe it.

We don’t believe it, and we never will … even though some of us will echo those ideas if we’re paid well enough.

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  • velvinette  On May 12, 2014 at 10:38 am

    Problems that beset the “privileged” beset people at all levels of society–alcoholism, abuse, mental illness, etc. if you have money, you can put it toward these problems, and actually delay solving them, and in some cases make them worse. Labels are simplistic, because privileged to one person is middle class to another, etc. but don’t mistake the fact that when you call someone privileged these days, it has a negative connotation. I think this is what that student was talking about. Is being smart and hard working a negative thing? I disagree with your statement that you don’t have to work that hard when you come from a privileged background. Parents of kids with privilege have usually been through a lot, and come out ahead, like his, and their expectations of their kids is that they should be able to do the same, put up with the same level of suffering if needed, although they might try to protect you from it. But if you don’t measure up, or triumph over your challenges, you often don’t get much empathy, because your parents hid from the Nazis in a hole in the ground, ran across Ukraine at the age of five and survived! Often people are driven to achieve after coming from such traumas. People should not label people, people should not think they can find fault with another person up or down the economic ladder. Often the least compassionate people are the ones who were brought up like dogs. (Although my dog has a pretty nice life, you know what I mean.) we are still animals, and survival of the fittest still applies to making it on planet earth, to one degree or another. Compassion and coldness cut across income, education, and other levels just as do the problems I mentioned.

    • Alan  On May 12, 2014 at 3:55 pm

      As best I can tell, Muder never said that being smart and working hard is a bad thing. Nor did he say that someone with privilege didn’t have to work that hard. He said it’s a tailwind. If you don’t work hard, you’ll have squandered that tailwind. Squandering opportunity is certainly a bad thing. And if you slack off, the guy working as hard as he can against the headwind will probably get ahead of you. But the guy with the headwind has to work harder than you just to keep up.

      Privilege isn’t binary. You don’t have it or not. We all have a bunch of privilege. Someone born into the middle class in the United States has a lot of privilege that someone born into poverty doesn’t. Someone born into poverty in the United States enjoys privilege than someone born into poverty in Ethiopia doesn’t. It’s not even possible to clearly say that person A has more privilege than person B; it’s not possible compare “A had great schools and abusive parents” against “B had terrible schools and loving parents.” Each has different advantages, for which they should be thankful, and different disadvantages, which others should remember.

      If it helps, when someone says, “check your privilege,” interpret it as “remember how lucky you are, and that not everyone was a lucky.”

  • velvinette  On May 12, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    Yes, but as you point out, many people are lucky in different ways. It may be a different way you are. It may be visible or not. As would be your challenges. I think too much is made of money–there is a lot more to people’s lives than how much money they have. You don’t have much of a tailwind if your parents have money but you have some other big challenge. And I’m saying money can make it easier for your parents to cover up their issues, and yours, instead of dealing with them and solving them. This is why you read or meet many seemingly eccentric, even unbalanced or whatever wealthy people.

  • MDavis  On May 13, 2014 at 8:37 am

    “In short: Lots of people studied in high school and have strong values and characters. Lots of people’s parents and grandparents were smart, long-suffering, plucky, and hard-working. Not all of them are where Tal is or have the prospects he presumably does.”

    Your statement presume the answer: That those who DID get to where Tal is, only did so by the virtue of their tailwind.

    The problem with your essay is that there is really no discernible thesis. Sure, you state some idea that Tal should grow up, but is what he said wrong? You claim that nobody is “asking him to apologize” but isn’t a rebuke just another form of an apology demand as it presumes you’ve done something wrong for which you must be rebuked?

    Tal’s essay is notable for the fact that he pushed back against this rising tide of “privilege mongers”; but, even as I was reading it, I could hear you in the back of my mind saying: he doesn’t get it, he’s white. And at that point, when you’ve cast him as a “white person”, it doesn’t matter how logical his arguments are, he’s not getting past your white guilt. And that’s the problem.

    Numerous essays here have examined the idea of white guilt and white privilege, and you always seek to couch it in terms that try to explain away the fundamental core of that belief “that one should feel shamed for being white”. You’ve beaten around that bush simply by saying things like: people need to recognize their privilege, or examine how their privilege has gotten them to where they are. Yet what all of that implies is that where they are they got because they had a “tailwind”, which is just another way of saying you didn’t do this completely on your own. Well, that’s a truism. People have help from their parents. What you’re actually complaining about is that some cultures do it better than others, and you seem to feel guilty that blacks do it the worst. Instead of asking why they do that, you look at whites and say “that’s the reason, it’s THEIR fault”. But I ask you, if that’s true, then shouldn’t whites be at the top of the performance list?

    What you, and people like you fail to grasp is if there were a “tailwind” of “whiteness” then whites would excel in everything, yet, last I checked, Asians and South Asians (read Indians), and Eastern Africans (eg. Ethiopians) among others, exceed whites in success. How can that be? Do they have an even better “tailwind” than whites do? Which presupposes that your thesis (white tailwind) is incorrect.

    I’m reminded of a story that astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson related about how he walked out of a store at the same time a white person did and the alarm went off and he was stopped instead of the white person. People like you would say “AH HA! White privilege”. But is it really? Who would have been stopped if it had be Dr. Tyson and an Asian? Or Dr. Tyson and an Indian? Which means there has to be also “Asian privilege” and “Indian privilege”. The point here is that in order to determine “privilege” as you define it, it must always be compared to American blacks, you must always find some transgression to point to and say “white privilege”. Thus, “white privilege” isn’t defined so much by a tangible event or foundation, it’s in the eye of the beholder. The more liberal you are, the more likely you are to see “white privilege”. But here’s a question that will blow your mind out of the back of your skull: Who would have been stopped if it were Dr. Tyson and a white punk? If you hesitate for even a second with the answer to that question, then you need to examine the entire foundation of your position as that calls into question the very fabric of “white privilege” which would suggest that even the skeeziest white guy could walk out of the store with Obama and the alarm would go off and Obama would be stopped.

    But you’re right to a certain extent, there IS something going on, but what is it? Well examine the Dr. Tyson’s situation above again, what would have happened if an Asian and a white guy were to walk out? They’d both be stopped, or neither would have been stopped. What then accounts for Dr. Tyson being stopped? Here’s a theory that is more solid than your’s: privilege, but not white privilege, “not being American black privilege”.

    Well, isn’t that the same thing? You ask.

    Not really, and here is why. “White privilege” suggests that it’s an outside force acting upon the black community. That white people need to change, that whites are to blame. As mentioned above, if that were the case, then whites would be at the top of the totem-poll, exceeding Asians or other races, they don’t.

    However, “not being black privilege” suggests that the change must come from within the black community. It puts the onus on the black community to change the way they are perceived. It comes from inside the community thus it is up to the community to change their stereotype, not people outside the community.

    You’ll take issue with that, I’m sure. You’ll say things like “white privilege prevents blacks from having the chance” and things in the similar vein. But that’s just excuse making. If Ethiopians or Indians (I choose them because it eliminates the safety of your claim of “skin color”) can make it in this country and not be “oppressed” by white privilege, and they can and do, then American blacks have no excuse except the excuse provided for by people like you who have bought into some mentality of white guilt in order to satiate something in your life.

    I’ll close with a question taken from your religious blog: If privilege needs be checked and pushed back against, why do you not advocate for black NBA players or sports players in general to check their athletic privilege? Why not have affirmative action in sports for example?

    You don’t have to answer that, your prior musings already have.

    • Alan  On May 13, 2014 at 10:08 am

      Wow, mdavis, you really showed that strawman what for!

      • Mavis  On May 14, 2014 at 5:30 pm

        Typical response from the left

    • weeklysift  On May 13, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      I think you make a lot of assumptions about my point of view, and then respond to your own assumptions. Starting with: “those who DID get to where Tal is, only did so by the virtue of their tailwind.” Never said it, don’t believe it.

      • Mavis  On May 14, 2014 at 5:30 pm

        Yes, you did. Specifically when you said “it acts as a tailwind” and “you get further”. How about you actually respond to the critique instead of saying you don’t believe in something you clearly do and said.

      • weeklysift  On May 15, 2014 at 7:58 am

        The tailwind metaphor speaks for itself. People who sail with a tailwind might have gotten to their destination with a headwind, but we’ll never know for sure.

    • Amy Zucker Morgenstern  On October 18, 2014 at 3:32 am

      “You claim that nobody is ‘asking him to apologize’ but isn’t a rebuke just another form of an apology demand as it presumes you’ve done something wrong for which you must be rebuked?”

      I don’t think he should apologize for his privilege, and I think claiming that people want him to is a big distraction from the real issue, which Muder conveys in the tailwind metaphor you find so unconvincing.

  • velvinette  On May 13, 2014 at 10:11 am

    I do think men and also white people, who have that status their entire lives, through no act of their own at all, could do well to examine their attitudes, and the givens that come with those positions. I just don’t think money is in that category.

    • velvinette  On March 15, 2016 at 1:30 pm

      Also, in rereading this, I agree with MDavis that no matter what the cause of your misfortune, changing your life is your responsibility. You are the only one who can do it. We all have to face our issues, own them and change them. All colors, all levels of society. Black people suffered from racism, and being enslaved for generations. That is a very very heavy burden to overcome. White people need to be congnizant of that, and that their race was the one enslaving, at least here in the US, and give help when they can and as appropriate. But, my people, the Irish, were essentially enslaved by the British. Land controlled by Britain, crops raised by my people taken away for the English even though my people were starving and were left with enough to keep them alive until it was potatoes only and not enough. They had to fish and give most or all of it to Britain. Give it, not sell it. Lived in hovels with their animals. Not allowed to have schools for kids to learn to read and write upon pain of death! Many people don’t know about this because the Irish don’t talk about it much. And how about what was done to Jews over centuries. At some point you move on, you do the best you can, you don’t blame people because it’s not getting you anywhere, and many intermarry and the whole ethnic purity thing becomes moot anyway and we all have mixed backgrounds in our families.

      • weeklysift  On March 16, 2016 at 7:54 am

        The Irish were indeed treated badly, but comparing their oppression to African slavery is a stretch. See: “Irish slaves: the convenient myth”.

      • velvinette  On March 16, 2016 at 8:46 am

        No, I am not making that comparison at all. I’m talking about the systemic bleeding of the Irish people over a century or more, culminating in the potato famine, which was all they had left to eat. A million died and another million left on the “coffin ships,” many to die at sea. Those killed off 20 to 25 percent of the population that remained, but there was the near-starvation, and overall damage to people due to deprivation over, as I said, 1,000 years or more. There was nothing for the Irish to do but farm and fish and have their food hauled away by the British. And, I do not believe you can “compare” traumas. Whatever happens to you that is a trauma is a trauma. So I am not taking anything away from the African Americans who were enslaved. All I’m saying is about the point of taking responsibility for your trauma, you have to do it to get over it. Apologies help but they are not always forthcoming. Meanwhile you have to live your life. So I was just backing up that point by MDavis. I also believe in compassion and think we should do whatever we can for Black people, or anyone who has suffered misfortunes. But once you help someone, or give them an opportunity, they have to take it and use it to live their lives, you can’t live their lives for them. It’s a simple point but we are the only ones who can help ourselves, ultimately. People can support you, but at some point you have to do it.

      • velvinette  On March 16, 2016 at 8:48 am

        But what you said about people using indentured servitude to compare to Black slavery I didn’t even know existed.


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