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Liel, Liel, Liel

What my fellow Tablet writer gets wrong about privilege—and liberalism

Marjorie Ingall
May 08, 2014
Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. (Pete Spiro /
Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. (Pete Spiro /

Dear Friend, Colleague, Utterly Misguided Pedant,

I’m never sure how much of what you write is performance art and how much is what you truly believe. But since your “go, Princeton dude” rant may very well fall in the latter category, I feel compelled to respond—and will do so in a rational point-by-point manner.

You say:

“To begin with, because liberal politics, like all other seriously practiced beliefs, are not just about convictions but also about instincts and moods, its adherents should reject, right off the bat, any conversational strategy, no matter how well-meaning, whose inescapable outcome is the quelling of conversation.”

Nu, who’s quelling? Invoking censorship when someone takes issue with the content of your speech is disingenuous. No one is saying Princeton Dude should not be allowed to talk; we’re leaping to weigh in and disagree and argue. Have you MET the Internet? The Internet inherently understands that the answer to words we don’t like is not censorship; it’s more words.

Disagreeing with Princeton Dude “assumes that human beings ought to approach each other as blank slates, without fear or prejudice, forming an opinion only after they’ve had the time to construct an independent assessment of each other based on nothing but observable facts.”

Exqueeze me? A big thing we liberals believe is that humans do not approach others as blank slates. We understand that everyone has history, that human beings are products of that history, that everyone has inherent biases. That’s why we’re for affirmative action—we understand that the playing field is not level. Yes, still. As other supposedly censorious responses to Princeton Dude have pointed out, a brand spanking new study has found that professors at the top 250 colleges were far more willing to mentor white male students than women or minority students. The professors were all sent identical letters, but the names of the students signing them were all different: Brad Anderson, Meredith Roberts, Lamar Washington, LaToya Brown, Juanita Martinez, Deepak Patel, Sonali Desai, Chang Wong, Mei Chen… Guess who professors were eager to meet with? (Oh Brad! I’m mad for you too!)

“And while race, gender, and socioeconomic class fit neatly everywhere from the tired tropes of identity politics to the narrow syllabi of academic departments, other forms of privilege, far less political but just as potent, go unchecked by the same cats who pounced on Fortgang.”

You do realize that “identity politics” is right-wing code for “homosexuals, shrill vagina people, and anyone whose skin is darker than my Dockers,” right? WE ALL KNOW YOUR CODE. You go on to say that pretty people and thin people are more likely to get jobs and promotions. Yes, we know. Pointing out that there are lots of kinds of bias doesn’t mean white dudes aren’t privileged. It’s not as if prejudice is a finite quantity, and if a woman is paid 77 cents for every dollar a man earns (and she is) then there’s no discrimination left to throw at the gays.

“Athletic ability and intelligence are both likely to hoist one up the socioeconomic ladder; shouldn’t they, too, be acknowledged at every step”?

Dude, athletic ability already is. Two years ago, after a mass cheating scandal at Harvard, varsity ballplayers were given special treatment. In sexual assault cases, athletes are far more likely than non-athletes to walk. In our culture, athletes are gods. And why are you bringing intelligence into this? Don’t folks with your politics believe that America is a meritocracy where sheer smarts and talent get you to the top, because racism and sexism have been eliminated and that’s why we don’t need Title IX, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, anti-discrimination laws or affirmative action? If you’re suddenly saying that intelligence shouldn’t be “acknowledged at every step,” how should people advance in American society? According to who their fathers were? That worked so wellfor Jews applying to Harvard in the 1920s.

“[T]o assume that [Fortgang], the grandson of a poor Jewish immigrant, stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the same privilege bracket as the grandson of, say, a well-heeled patrician just because both are white men whose parents can afford a good college is to assume that…both, despite having grown up in such radically different traditions, arrive at a conversation with precisely the same point of view, shaped exclusively by their skin, their cocks, and their cash.”

Well, Liel, it’s an interesting question. (And “Skin, Cocks and Cash” is the title of my new hip-hop album.) What you’re really asking, skeptically, is when Jews became white folks. But by and large, in America, we are. Our median net worth is three times that of the average American’s. Our circumcised dudes disproportionately win Oscars and Nobel Prizes. We’re CEOs and elected officials. When Fortgang’s grandfather fled Poland in the 1930s, the picture was pretty different. I emphatically don’t deny that anti-Semitism still exists, in the USA and especially in the wider world, but “check your privilege” is a relevant exhortation for white, American Jewish men today.

Your last paragraph actually expresses what liberalism is: A desire to give less advantaged people a leg up because everyone is entitled to human rights, liberties and fairness. I’m not sure whether you’re blaming poor people for being poor or black people for still reeling from centuries of oppression. I don’t much care. Getting an Ivy education is indeed a privilege – we can agree on that—and when we reflect on our own history of being discriminated against, making top-tier education accessible to all is something all Jews, not just liberals, should embrace.


Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.