The Oprah Problem (Nothing New)

As is common in the U.S., there has been much ado about Oprah and all the black-clothed solidarity at the Golden Globes.

Many are all atwitter at celebrity finger wagging at long-entrenched sexism and racism among, well, celebrities. You see, that’s all we have anymore in the U.S. since we have formally elected a reality-hack as president (trace this back to an entire country acting as if Ronald Reagan, hack actor, was a credible political leader, some sort of conservative messiah).

This sort of nonsense is not anything new, and I would note the fawning over Princess Diana as at least a typical example of how we canonize the glamorous in hollow and misguided ways.

Oprah Winfrey’s award and speech have fueled the smoldering notion that she should run for president.

In the context of who has dominated political leadership in the U.S. throughout history (almost entirely constituted by average but privileged white men who have avoided being held accountable for their moral and ethical flaws as well as outright horrible behavior as human beings), let’s note upfront that Oprah as a highly successful black woman exceeds the ridiculously low standards for who can be a political leader—even president—in the U.S.

On a very basic level, the U.S. has elected to high and even the highest political offices Reagan, Al Franken, Jesse Ventura, Donald Trump, and Arnold Schwarzenegger; therefore, anyone who wants to make a sweeping claim that Oprah somehow falls below that line cannot stand on anything other than the thinnest (and possibly racist and/or sexist) ice.

Period.

Oprah could be the Democrats’ Reagan, and to be honest, in terms of being president, would likely do a better job than Reagan.

But a related issue is the claim that Oprah is somehow a progressive savior, and that is also different but incredibly thin ice.

In the tradition of Barack Obama (but not Clarence Thomas, for example), Oprah has benefitted from and then perpetuated some really corrosive ideologies in the U.S. that ultimately hurt our pursuit (let’s call it a progressive pursuit for lack of a better word) of equity for women and racial (so-called) minorities.

Oprah has also used her celebrity to create and bolster some truly awful spin-off celebrities—Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil. I mean truly awful hucksters.

In short, while as I note above, Oprah is qualified for all political offices in the U.S. in terms of who we have routinely elected, the Oprah problem is then not about her qualifications but how progressives embrace, or not, her.

Again, although some very credible progressive gains were made under Obama, he is not “leftist,” and is only marginally progressive (using the deeply skewed parameters of the significantly right-leaning U.S. scale for ideology), and Oprah also fits that description.

I have no doubt she would be a powerful symbolic candidate for women and people of color, and she would, like Obama, very possibly drive some progressive policies and offer an occasional bully pulpit for progressive and equitable public discourse.

But Oprah as progressive? Oprah as radical? Those are not her selling points.

Let me offer a few counter-arguments along those lines:

The Oprah problem is a subset of the exact issues the rich and famous were wagging their fingers at during the Golden Globes—in other words, what are progressives and the authentic left to do in a country that has historically and continually elevated the average white man to excessive wealth, celebrity, and power even as those average white men have behaved as abusive and rapacious cowards and monsters?

My thoughts for now are that we on the left must temper our rush to discredit Oprah while making our case for genuine progressive policies (and progressive leaders who practice) and promote equity and justice for all.

If the arc of the moral universe does in fact bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. implored, at the very least, Oprah as president would provide a recalibration needed after the Trump-led assault on the tepid Obama progressive agenda, and gains.

I see no hope that mainstream politics in the U.S. has the capacity for anything truly revolutionary (I mean we actually touted Bernie Sanders as a socialist) so we must be careful about how we respond to Oprah as presidential candidate—careful that we all on the left do not become as shallow and hypocritical as the celebrities peacocking at the Golden Globes, in fact.

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