Check and Double-Check Your Conservatism

March 15, 2023
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 2014, the Princeton Tory, the campus conservative publication, ran a piece condemning the phrase “check your privilege” and the ideas behind it (here). The author, Tal Fortgang complained that “the phrase . . . assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it,”

Check-your-privilege diminishes “everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life” and “ascrib[es] all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.”

This is standard conservative thinking — the individual-reductionist belief that those who wind up in elite schools and eventually in high-paying jobs have gotten there solely on the basis of their own personal qualities like intelligence, perseverance, grittiness, etc. Privilege — the social class of their parents — had nothing to do with it. They are all self-made successes. (This conservative take makes an exception for Blacks, women, and other previously excluded groups. They have reached their position not through ability and virtue, but through favoritism in the form of institutional programs emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion.)

So you can imagine my surprise when I read George Will, a reliably conservative columnist, making basically the same “check your privilege” attacks on elite-school students (here . The students in question were the Stanford Law students who had wielded the hecklers’ veto against Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, who the schools conservative organization (the Federalist Society) had invited to speak.

(The only videos of this event that I could find online, here for example, pick up at the point where a Stanford administrator makes a long statement to the students in the room, telling them that she too disagrees with Judge Duncan, that they are free to leave in protest, but that those who stay should allow him to speak. The end of the video clip shows a lot of students walking out and the rest sitting there quietly.)

George Will of course is horrified by the thought of students not allowing someone to speak. He even has snide things to say about the administrator who got things quieted down. But what really ticks him off is the background of the students, their having grown up in privilege.

So, “helicopter parents” hover over their offspring to spare them abrasive encounters with the world. And “participation trophies” are given to everyone on the soccer team, lest the excellence of a few dent others’ self-esteem — the fuel that supposedly propels upward social mobility.

Larded with unstinting parental praise and garlanded with unearned laurels, these cosseted children arrive at college thinking highly of themselves and expecting others to ratify their complacent self-assessment. Surely it was as undergraduates that Stanford’s law school silencers became what they are: expensively credentialed but negligibly educated brats.

You might have expected Will to praise kids who managed to get into Stanford Law. I mean, you’ve gotta be really smart and have really good grades and crush the LSAT, and it probably helps to have gotten into a college where you get really good education. But Will seems to think that all this was handed to these students and that instead of working at their studies for years, they lolled around idling in undeserved self-satisfaction. In Will’s view, they are examples of what Molly Ivins said of George W. Bush — that he was born on third base thinking he had hit a triple. Somehow, I doubt that Stanford Law has has as many “legacy” admissions as Yale did in the early 1960s.

Compared with the “check your privilege” students (and sociology faculty) at Princeton, George Will’s version is simplistic, crude, and devoid of evidence.

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