Check It

"It's a hard-knock life for us..." 

I didn’t get angry when I read TIME’s reprint of the op-ed written by 19-year-old Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang, in which he bravely takes a stand for white men everywhere by decrying the notion that white privilege exists. Part of that was because, as a privileged white male myself, it was kind of interesting to hear somebody try to stick up for us, even if all of his arguments were ill informed and hypocritical. But mostly, I just felt sorry for him, because Tal Fortgang sounds a lot like I did when I was a 19 year old with an opinion column.

If you ever find yourself holding a college newspaper, do yourself a favor and steer clear of the opinion section. Flip the paper over and start doing the back page Sudoku instead. If you’re really interested in hearing what the opinion columnists have to say, find the paper’s masthead, write down all of their names, wait five years, Google those names, and read whatever they’re writing then. I promise you it’ll be much, much better than what they were writing when they were undergrads at a college paper – and the writers will probably be very thankful that you avoided their early stuff, too.

I applied for an open opinion columnist position at my college paper, the Oregon Daily Emerald, when I was 19. I had been writing this blog for a year or so and although at the time I had little interest in print media or research or current events or even journalism itself, I figured that having an opinion column would be a good way to expose a greater audience to the overwrought, wordy bullshit I was writing at the time and drive traffic to my blog. I got the job because nobody else applied.

I wrote a lot of crap. I packed my columns with big words because at the time I thought it made me sound smarter, I halfheartedly supported my opinions with weak, hastily thought out arguments, and my research and fact checking were so poor that once the paper had to issue a retraction on my behalf. I got a bunch of hate mail, a few scathing write-ups in the campus conservative paper, and a parody of one of my columns – written by someone else under my name – published in the campus’s humor magazine, in which I was skewered as a spoiled, arrogant kid who didn’t know what he was talking about.

The following year, I didn’t reapply for the job.

I wasn’t a bad writer – my writing at the time just happened to be bad, because I was still learning how to write and things have to be bad before they can get better. It was an embarrassing, humbling year, but I learned a lot and I think I’m a much better writer now because of it. I don’t like knowing that there’s bad work out there with my name on it, but I take comfort in the fact that, no matter how ill informed my opinions were or how confusing my prose was, it was only read by a few thousand people. And even they didn’t care too much because they knew college op-eds are mostly bullshit anyway.

Tal Fortgang’s column reminds me a lot of the ones I used to write – full of impressive vocabulary, poorly thought out reasoning, and a heaping spoonful of self righteousness. There are a few differences, of course: Tal goes to a much better school than I went to, he appears to be the sort of college Republibro who starts every argument with “I’m a libertarian, so…”, and for some reason his clumsy, racially charged column was republished in one of the most widely circulated magazines in the world.

In his column, Tal explains that he’s sick and tired of being told by his nonwhite classmates to “check his privilege” because his race and gender have had no bearing whatsoever on his success. He feels that his only privilege was that his hardworking grandparents “…[came] to 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."  

That claim is mind-blowingly ignorant. The only way you can possibly think that the United States is a colorblind meritocracy where anybody who works hard can succeed is if you ignore pretty much every available statistic about poverty, income inequality, education, violence, law enforcement, incarceration, and voting rights

Tal’s grandparents doubtless worked very hard to build his family’s fortune, but they had the distinct advantage (or even, I don’t know, privilege) of being white people in a society run by white people. Nobody handed them anything on a silver platter, but nobody lynched them or organized violent mobs to keep their children out of school, either.

Tal Fortgang is clearly intelligent. But he’s also clearly 19 years old. He wrote a crappy opinion column where the central argument is built on a gaping logical chasm – whenever I did that, my column would run in the paper barely anybody read, I’d get some flak in my inbox, and that would be that. But instead, TIME picked up the column, and now Tal has managed to piss off basically everybody who doesn’t write for Breitbart.

I hope that after all this dies down, everybody forgets the name Tal Fortgang – for Tal’s sake. Every good writer has churned out mountains of crap, and it would be sad for him to spend the rest of his life answering for one stupid thing he wrote a few months after moving out of his parents’ house - that could prove be a real disadvantage. 

Truman Capps tried very hard to work “Chiggidy check yo’ privilege before your wreck yo’ privilege” in here somewhere, but he failed.