Politics & Policy

Oprah’s Commencement Confusion

The celebrity offered up a dose of New Age hokum to Harvard graduates.

What do you get if you cross a collection of witless Hallmark platitudes, a fairly strange and inordinately rich woman who has lived in a bubble for 30 or so years, and a congregation of people virtually begging to be told that they are wonderful?

The answer? Oprah Winfrey’s recent commencement address at Harvard University.

As one might expect, Winfrey’s rambling lecture featured the same series of fatuous prosaicisms that almost all university commencement addresses contain. And yet, somehow, it was worse. “In our political system and the media,” Winfrey proclaimed self-seriously at the outset,

we often see the reflection of a country that is polarized, that is paralyzed, that is self-interested. And yet I know you know the truth. We all know that we are better than the cynicism and the pessimism that is regurgitating throughout Washington and the 24-hour cable-news cycle.

This is what the English delicately call “total bloody tosh.” It appears not to have dawned on Winfrey that “the media” and “our political system” are “reflecting” those things because they are there. That is what the word “reflection” means. The country is “polarized”; it is “paralyzed” because it is polarized; and human society is — and always will be — “self-interested.” Our constitutional republic is designed to diffuse that self-interest and polarization peacefully, but that it does so extremely effectively should not be taken as a sign that our politics will be serene. They will not.

Nevertheless, judging by her words, Oprah evidently thinks she’s above all that. And, as is customary, she elected to flatter the group assembled in front of the dais by pretending that they are above all that, too. For some inexplicable reason, all groups of graduating students are ostensibly invested with magical powers the moment that they pull on a gown; moreover, for at least the duration of the address, they are informed that they belong to a generation that is better than any other generation has ever existed before in the history of the world. “Your generation is uniquely poised for success unlike any before it,” President Obama rather brazenly told Morehouse College graduates last month. Nobody bothered to ask, “Why?” Nobody dared to stand up, like George Harrison in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and to say, “I’m not!”

Mercifully, my graduation ceremony did not feature a commencement speaker, the birthday clown of the academic world. Instead, I stood for an hour in a cold hall and was subjected to an ancient ceremony conducted almost entirely in Latin. This had the welcome effect of making all of the attendees feel extremely small and insignificant, and of reminding us that, while great people had gone through these Oxford halls, we had not yet done anything even close to being of note. It was wonderful.

Perhaps the worst thing about Winfrey’s spiel — and almost all others like it — is that it was premised on the rotten and mendacious conceit that there are never any real instances in which conflicting political prerogatives make compromise impossible. The problem with America, in this view, is never legitimate difference of opinion, and always the abstract notion of “politics.” “If only we could agree!” is the unspoken cry.

Well, sure. But we don’t agree. So what do we do about it?

Winfrey’s first suggestion was that we break the political deadlock by doing what she would like us to do. In its review of her speech, the Huffington Post reported that “she evoked the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, encouraging people to pull themselves out of darkness and devote themselves to something positive.” In the pursuit of this, she continued:

There’s a common denominator in our human experience. Most of us, I tell you, we don’t want to be divided . . . What we want is to be validated. We want to be understood.

Presumably, the mathematicians in the audience groaned at the brazen irrationality of this sentence. Hopefully, everyone else did too, for insofar as it meant anything concrete at all, this was little more than a vacuous, New Age–y way of saying that Americans should stop arguing and agree with the speaker. As my colleague Jonah Goldberg observed acidly in his recent book, The Tyranny of Clichés, rarely does anybody suggest that, in order to get past the partisanship and rancor, the country should adopt the proposals of their opponents. That’s not how politics works.

Nevertheless, one might have imagined that at Harvard there would be enough people in the audience with sufficient critical and analytical skills to have seen through this for the charade that it was. It is frightening to think that one might have been wrong.

Oprah’s second suggestion was that we should pretend that conflict is a mirage and difficult choices a myth contrived by troublemakers. Advocating for immigration reform, she suggested that “it’s possible to both enforce our laws and, at the same time, embrace the words on the Statue of Liberty that have welcomed generations of huddled masses to our shores . . . We can do both.”

Oh, well that’s good then. One wonders why we debate these things at all. For instance, if we can just “do both” at every political juncture, then we don’t need a Congress. That should save some money and angst. Suffice it to say that telling a group of young people that we can have everything if we just want it enough is, as the president might put it, “not optimal.”

Although it was honest. It turns out that Oprah does, in fact, pretty much believe her own bulls**t, which raises the question as to why a prestigious outfit such as Harvard invited her to give their commencement speech in the first place. Presumably, the university wouldn’t invite a creationist, and one wonders whether the faculty would allow a global-warming skeptic. So why, then, did it welcome someone who accepts and promotes the dangerous proto-Scientologist insanity that is The SecretSalon’s Peter Birkenhead explained Oprah’s interest in this philosophy back in 2007:

Steve Martin used to do a routine that went like this: “You too can be a millionaire! It’s easy: First, get a million dollars. Now . . . ” If you put that routine between hard covers, you’d have “The Secret,” the self-help manifesto and bottle of minty-fresh snake oil currently topping the bestseller lists . . . The main idea of “The Secret” is that people need only visualize what they want in order to get it . . . But what really makes “The Secret” more than a variation on an old theme is the involvement of Oprah Winfrey, who lends the whole enterprise more prestige, and, because of that prestige, more venality, than any previous self-help scam.

That “prestige” has helped the book to sell 19 million copies. In it — central to it, in fact –- there are some astonishing claims about medicine. For example: “You cannot ‘catch’ anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought.” About economics, it contributes this: “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts.”

Oprah’s championing of this nonsense prompted the Daily Beast to mock the philosophy thus:

Wish Away Cancer! Get A Lunchtime Face-Lift! Eradicate Autism! Turn Back The Clock! Thin Your Thighs! Cure Menopause! Harness Positive Energy! Erase Wrinkles! Banish Obesity! Live Your Best Life Ever!

You might be thinking — blunt the edges a touch, and this all sounds very familiar – that you’ve perhaps heard it somewhere before. Maybe at a college? Maybe at a college commencement address?

Sounds about right.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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