Jan 15 2018

Oprah Would Be a Disaster

I know that Oprah has not stated she is considering running for president in 2020 and the initial buzz about her is just a fantasy. But some of her people have stated that she would consider running, and it is possible that they are testing the waters. Let’s put the idea out there and see how the public responds.

Those who are enthusiastic about Oprah after her rousing speech at the Golden Globes┬áhave failed to fully appreciate what the real problem with Trump is (at least from this skeptic’s perspective). This is not about politics, and all the ways that Oprah is different than Trump don’t affect the ways in which she is the same – and those similarities are what I am primarily concerned about.

Marc Fisher, writing for The Citizen, describes what Trump apparently means when he calls himself a genius. Trump thinks that being smart is succeeding without trying. He congratulated himself on getting through school without ever really studying (like those other chumps). He admires instinct, his ability to feel in his gut what the answer is. He criticizes academics, and brags that the most important thing he learned at school was that academics don’t really know anything.

By all accounts that it his approach to the presidency. The very fact that he thought he could be president without any prior relevant experience betrays this attitude. It did not appear to bother him, or even occur to him, that being the executive of a large and complex government might requires skills and experience that he had never honed, or even tested. He thought he could sit in the Oval Office and just shoot from the hip, rely on his gut to divine the right answer to the country’s and the world’s complex problems. He would have a staff of eggheads to worry about the details.

Don’t confuse this approach with appropriate delegation to proper experts. Trump does not recognize experts, or the value of expertise, or apparently that there is even such a thing. The Trump presidency is an anti-intellectual assault on the very notion of objective knowledge, the benefits of hard intellectual work, and the very notion of expertise. That, to me, is the real threat to our society. It does not matter that Trump is enabling one side or the other of the political spectrum.

As if to demonstrate this point, the notion of Oprah as president presents the same problems. Sure, she has a different temperament and personality than Trump. But Oprah’s media career represents just as much of an anti-intellectual assault on expertise as does Trump, with perhaps a far greater negative impact on our society.

First, Oprah has no relevant experience. If she thinks she can walk into the presidency as an entry-level position, than clearly she does not respect experience itself. She must think that whatever qualities she has are more important than knowledge and experience (to be clear, I think both generic virtues and specific experience are important). I would consider part of the qualification for president a respect for the complexity of the job, and a willingness to put in the hard work that this respect deserves. The very fact that she thinks (if she does) that she could be president without prior experience, to me, is disqualifying. Run for governor or the senate, put in your time, then decide if the presidency is for you.

Another way in which Trump and Oprah are similar is their embrace of quackery (this, in my opinion, is a symptom of a deeper problem, the lack of respect for appropriate expertise). Trump is anti-vaccine and embraces conspiracy theories. Oprah has perhaps done more to fuel the anti-intellectual movement in our society than anyone else in the last few decades.

As others have already pointed out, she is responsible for making the likes of Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, and Jenny McCarthy famous. She promoted all sorts of pseudoscience and nonsense, like The Secret, Deepak Chopra, New Age spiritual delusions, and every flavor of dangerous alternative medicine. Her show has largely been a platform for mainstreaming and promoting pseudoscience and fantasy at the expense of science and reason.

Collectively the beliefs that she promoted are premised on the notion that we do not have to carefully study the universe with scientific rigor, humility, and critical thinking. We can just feel the answer, listen to our guts, and wish our desires into reality.

If the left embraces this approach as the right has, then our descent into post-enlightenment magical thinking will accelerate. It would also indicate a general failure to fully appreciate the real lessons of Trump. Expertise, knowledge, and experience really do matter – no matter your personality or other qualities.

I have previously pointed out a more subtle version of this lack of proper respect for expertise, and that is the fact that I think our culture overvalues talent and undervalues skill. We tend to admire those with “natural talent” that succeed without having to try too hard. There are also subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways we denigrate those who work hard to succeed, as “grinds”, eggheads, or “book smart.”

Pychologists, however, have demonstrated that this approach is counterproductive. It is always better to focus on what you can do and what you can change, and not on those things beyond your control. You cannot control the talents you are born with. In a way, focusing on talent relieves us of the burden of having to try. When we think our success or position in life is beyond our control, we are less likely to do something about it.

Focusing on skill and knowledge, however, and recognizing their ability to help us succeed motivates us to work harder, and to take the step necessary to succeed. In fact, we should not focus so much on the goal as the process the get there. What is the next step? That is what matters.

To me Trump’s presidency is the perfect example of what happens when you overemphasize natural ability. Trump thinks his natural “genius” means he can succeed at anything without really trying. If the polls are any indication then at least a majority of Americans recognize that this is perhaps not such a good idea, especially for a job as complex and important as the presidency.

This is a good historic opportunity to reinforce this lesson. I don’t think most people would want a surgeon with the same qualities, and lack of respect for knowledge and technical skill.

Now we need to push back against this trial balloon of Oprah in 2020 to reinforce this core lesson. Even if this is not serious, it doesn’t matter. The idea is now out there. It is a thought-experiment if nothing else. It is therefore also a great opportunity to remind everyone the real lessons from Trump, and why Oprah, the Queen of pseudoscience, magical thinking, and anti-intellectualism, would be a disaster.

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