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Beto O’Rourke’s Humble-Brag for the Intersectional Age

He's deeply sorry for having an ancestor who owned slaves 170 years ago. Even though he's not sure that his ancestor actually owned slaves.
July 31, 2019
Beto O’Rourke’s Humble-Brag for the Intersectional Age
CARROLLTON, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 02: U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) shakes hands with supporters during a campaign rally at Harvest Run Park November 2, 2018 in Carrollton, Texas. As Election Day approaches, winning swing votes in the suburbs that surround Dallas and Fort Worth will be crucial in a statewide victory for O’Rourke and his opponent incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Beto O’Rourke has personally benefited from slavery—or at least that’s what he wanted voters in the Democratic primary to believe when he announced in the middle of July that certain ancestors of his were slave-owners. In a short, unsolicited post on Medium, O’Rourke wrote, “I was recently given documents showing that both [my wife] Amy and I are descended from people who owned slaves. Along with other possessions listed in their property log were two human beings, Rose and Eliza.”

O’Rourke seemed almost—how to put this delicately—proud? Not because he supports slavery, of course. But in the new world of progressive identity politics, having something terrible to apologize for is better than not having it. Especially if you’re a good-looking, well-to-do, straight white guy.

A guy like that is always—always—going to get tagged for being “privileged” by the new progressivism. It actually helps to have something concrete to apologize for. Especially if it’s something from the 1850s which no rational person would ever really blame you for.

Apologizing for ancestors who owned slaves 170 years ago is more or less a humble-brag for the intersectional age.

Intersectionality, for the blessedly uninitiated, is the dogmatic theory of modern progressivism that holds that the more “marginalized” identities held by a person, the greater her victimhood status. Thus a white woman is better off (only being the victim of sexism) than a black woman (who gets racism and sexism), both of whom fare better than a transgendered, black, disabled, Muslim homosexual.

Except that “better off” in the intersectional game is actually incorrect. Because explicit in these categorizations is a hierarchy that elevates the victim—flipping the supposed traditional hierarchy on its head while un-ironically remaining discriminatory. Intersectionality simply doles out the perks and penalties of an unfair world in a mirror-image to the traditional system that it purportedly disdains.

Accordingly, victimhood has become a status symbol of the left. For those, like O’Rourke, who are unable to convincingly claim such status, the only path to status is, thus, to become a sycophant to those at the apex of the intersectional hierarchy—the marginalized elite. Backing policy agendas, such as Black Lives Matter or reparations, is a start for such obsequious support, but has become increasingly insufficient or is sometimes (correctly) dismissed as nothing but cynical political posturing.

Say what you want about the intersectional elite: But at least they’re not suckers.

The means to prove one’s bona fides have thus intensified, requiring true supporters of the marginalized to bear a tangible cost. To give up a benefit or a privilege—or to suffer as a result of an action or policy that goes against one’s own interests—may successfully demonstrate one’s appreciation of the plight of the intersectional elite. This form of penance, which is essentially religious in nature, permits acceptance within the progressive hierarchy by absolving, or at least addressing, one’s transgressions.

And so, in order to be more credible in this system, O’Rourke had to dig through his ancestors’ histories looking for sins he could apologize for.

O’Rourke’s connection to slavery is merely a prop that allows him to successfully make penance, thereby raising his stature and potentially providing the progressive base with latitude to support his campaign. Consequently, O’Rourke has no difficulty in claiming that “I benefit from a system that my ancestors built to favor themselves at the expense of others,” even while acknowledging that he’s not sure if the slave-owner in question was his distant relative. (No, really. Here’s O’Rourke: “[W]e are not certain that the Frederick Williams who is my ancestor and the Frederick Williams who owned slaves are the same person, but there’s enough circumstantial data to lead me to conclude that it’s likely.”)

This is not the first instance in which O’Rourke has taken such a stance, nor is he the only Democratic candidate to try such a tactic. In March, he highlighted that his wife raises their kids, “sometimes with my help.” When apologizing for this misogyny and “ham-handedness” he emphasized, “I hope as I have been in some instances part of the problem . . . I can also be part of the solution.” Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson, who was raised Jewish, has apologized for and asked white attendees of her campaign rallies to apologize for the history of slavery, among other crimes committed against blacks. And, Cory Booker publicly highlighted his attempt to grope a high school classmate as a profound step toward his now enlightened views on sexism and sexual assault.

A cynic may argue that all of this prostrating before the gods of intersectionality is simply the state of affairs in progressive politics—a necessity given those who control the reins of power on the left. The power of the progressive ideology has yielded apologies from a number of candidates for positions or gaffes that have proven to reflect poorly with that base. Most of these instances, however, reflect the age-old phenomenon of a politician attempting to put distance between his campaign and something that has become a political liability.

The O’Rourke example, however, seems different. It shows that social stratification defined by intersectionality and victimhood is gaining roots in the culture. O’Rourke is not merely apologizing for Biden-esque associations with segregationists, but rather has wholeheartedly imbibed intersectionality. Indeed, it is his very identity for which he is apologizing—the identity that makes him anathema to the goals of the modern progressive movement.

And which, unfortunately for him, has become a political liability.

This notion of self-hatred—whether cynically for political purposes or out of genuine conviction—is grotesque. But more worrisome is that it is lending credence to a discriminatory and intolerant ideology. The elevation of victimhood to a position of prestige is creating perverse incentives, ones that are likely to have profound implications for American culture and politics. It absolves people of the responsibility to attempt to shape their own future and it creates a zero-sum game, pitting Americans against each other in a contest to inflate their suffering.

This is a shame for many reasons, not least of all because people should not be judged by superficial characteristics such as race or gender, but by their actions and the substance of their arguments.

Joshua Grundleger

Joshua Grundleger is an economist and political analyst. He was previously a regional fellow at the National Review Institute.