Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018
Tags: Apple, Audio, Metaphors, Oprah, Oprahfication, Parenting, Politics, President, Sexual Revolution, Social Media, Technology
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, January 10, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll look at the Oprahfication of politics updated, will Oprah run for president? We’ll look at the celebrity culture in our current moment, and we’ll see shareholder concerns about the addictive power of social media and new technology, finally the power of metaphors to explain our moral moment.
The Oprahfication of politics updated: Will Oprah run for president?
Beginning on Sunday night and continuing into the week, major media in the United States seem to be transfixed and absolutely preoccupied with what they see as one major, unavoidable political question. That question is this: Will Oprah Winfrey run for the office of President of the United States? The spark to all of this was Winfrey's acceptance speech for a major award at the Golden Globe ceremony on Sunday night. That speech seems to divide into several different dimensions. It was in one sense a testimonial, another a thank you in the form of the kind of acceptance speech that those kind of ceremonies expect, but lastly it also appeared to be a massive speech intended to make a political point. As at least some observers indicated, it was the kind of speech that at least many Democratic voters wish a presidential candidate would make. One observer suggested that all the speech needed was a massive balloon drop after Winfrey ended.
Here’s how major newspapers are reporting the story. Robert Costa reporting for the Washington Post tells us,
“From Hollywood to Iowa, a sudden wave of enthusiasm for Oprah Winfrey as a potential presidential candidate swept through the Democratic Party, beginning as a social-media sensation after her rousing remarks at [the] Golden Globes ceremony and escalating nationally as party officials and activists earnestly considered the possibility.”
Alexander Burns and Amy Chozick in a front page story in the New York Times declared,
“With a booming speech at the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey, the billionaire media entrepreneur and former television talk-show host, launched a thousand fantasies for Democrats: Of a historic campaign to put a black woman in the White House. Of a celebrity candidate, known for her big-hearted optimism, taking on a reality-show president defined by his thirst for combat. Of a presidency, some joked, where everybody would get a car.”
The headline wasn't subtle,
“Oprah 2020? The Idea,”
the headline declared,
“Makes Democrats Giddy and Skeptical.”
In the front page article in USA Today Nicole Guadiano began by saying,
“If Oprah Winfrey has her eye on the Democratic presidential nomination, she [could] be hard to beat.”
That was followed up with the explanation that
“The media mogul with worldwide first-name recognition fueled speculation about her prospects on Sunday after [that very speech already referenced] at the Golden Globes.”
The USA Today piece cited Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean's campaign in 2008, who said,
“If she decides to run, she certainly would be the top contender, no doubt about it. … All of the politicians who would think about running, she’d be one of the people they’d have to get past.”
Predictably, the more low-key Wall Street Journal didn't even feature the story on its front page, but in an inside page it acknowledged the fact that there is rampant Democratic Party speculation about the possibility of an Oprah candidacy. But in a more interesting twist, the Wall Street Journal actually ran an editorial statement about the possibility. The headline of the editorial,
“Could Oprah Out-Trump Donald?”
The important dimension of the editorial statement in the Wall Street Journal is that the editors got to the obvious. This tells us a great deal about America and our current political moment, when at this point the two most often discussed candidates for the next presidential election are both celebrities known by and large for television and, furthermore, celebrities who are known to the public with just one word: either Oprah or Trump. Both of these celebrities, we should note, seem to put their name on everything; that's about as true of one as it is of the other. The Wall Street Journal editors wrote,
“It is a commentary on the evolution of our politics that the next presidential election could be a contest between two first-name celebrities: Donald and Oprah. Ms. Winfrey,”
“says she isn’t running, and it may be that the Oprah boomlet isn’t much more than wishful thinking by Hollywood’s effervescent dream factory. But,”
the editors said,
“we can see how the possibility might cause the hardest professional Democratic hearts to flutter.”
This would be a very interesting turn, just in terms of worldview analysis. By any measure, Oprah is a very big factor on the American scene, but it's really interesting to note that over the last 20 plus years Americans have come to know the major messaging Oprah is trying to send. It is a message perfectly fitted for our postmodern and post-Christian times, a message that is mostly about self-actualization and, for that matter, the development of the self as the primary lifelong project. Oprah is all about affirmation, and, in particular, about the kind of affirmation that is particularly acceptable and celebrated in not only elite culture but in what we can see is the cultural trend line, the trend line towards self-affirmation. And that means that in terms of a moral worldview the center of it actually is the self and the major verb that could be used in a moral sense is indeed affirmation or its close cognates such as acceptance and celebration.
In her television program that ran for so many years, Oprah Winfrey intentionally, rather self-consciously, used the program in order to drive the moral revolution, not so much in the form of hard arguments as in the form of a soft power of entertainment and persuasion. For example, over 10 years ago Oprah would have programs in which she would feature very young children struggling with their gender identity and openly shamed parents who wouldn't go along with the experiments in transgenderism. But in terms of how celebrity culture works, it is interesting to note that Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey have both developed very public personas that on the one hand don't necessarily tell us who the person really is, rather who the constructed personality is, but they also tend to be very different. That mention of Donald Trump as combative and Oprah Winfrey as affirming, well that's how they have both built their brands, right down to their respective television projects. Donald Trump's answer seemed to be, ‘you’re fired,’ whereas Oprah Winfrey's answers seem to be always, ‘you’re great.’
The New York Times front page article said that the excitement among Democrats, giddiness was their word, about the potential of an Oprah candidacy
“underscored the unfulfilled hunger among Democrats for a larger-than-life leader to challenge President Trump.”
But the Times also cited serious political analysts and politicians who are having second thoughts about the whole idea. For one thing, Oprah Winfrey isn't particularly well identified in terms of her politics, but what is known is that those politics trend significantly to the left on political and moral issues. That would please the Democratic Party, but it wouldn’t necessarily rest well with voters who would find Oprah Winfrey a very different person as a presidential candidate than as an entertainer. One Democratic analyst said that celebrities are often flattered when someone suggests they should run for high office, but when they find out what will actually happen in a campaign and what will be expected of them, well, that's a very different scenario. And furthermore, politics is a bloodsport; it is combat. Someone who has made a persona out of affirmation could find it rather vexing that affirmation is, if anything, a minor key in a political campaign. One observer writing from the left in the pages of the New York Times Thomas Chatterton Williams suggested to Oprah don't do it. In his words,
“If liberals no longer pride themselves on being the adults in the room, the bulwark against the whims of the mob, our national descent into chaos will be complete. The Oprah bandwagon,”
“betrays the extent to which social causes and identities — and the tribal feelings they inspire — have come to eclipse anything resembling philosophical worldviews. American politics,”
“has become just another team sport, and if suiting up a heavy hitter like Ms. Winfrey is what it takes to get the championship ring, so be it,”
referring to the logic of many Democrats excited by the possibility. But when it comes to the bottom line, Williams says, Oprah don't do it; it won't be good for you, it won't be good for the country.
From a Christian worldview perspective, the possibility of an Oprah candidacy opens up all kinds of moral and political and policy issues to be sure, but the concern about the celebrification of the culture, that's probably the more important issue. Neither Donald Trump nor Oprah Winfrey would've held any elective office before running for president of the United States. That's an unusual fact in itself, but what this tells us about our current moment and the excitement about Oprah's potential candidacy among Democrats is that it looks like the Democratic Party has decided that the only way to answer one celebrity is with another celebrity.
Finally, on this issue we should remember the back during the 1990s, virtually almost a generation ago, there was already public concern about what was called the Oprahfication of politics. That was during the Clinton years with the suggestion that Bill Clinton had mastered the art of making hard issues appear soft; giving vague answers of ambiguous affirmation rather than clear policies, especially during his campaigns. The Oprahfication of politics met the victory of feelings over the kind of hard arguments that had been the stuff of politics. But now look from the 1990s to not only 2018 but potentially to 2020, and what we have seen is that the Oprahfication of politics in the 1990s could actually result in the Oprahfication of Oprah running for president of the United States. I would suggest it is still unlikely, in terms of the risk that Oprah would take, but it tells us a very great deal about the kind of moment we are living in the United States of America.
Shareholders express concerns about the addictive power of social media and new technology. Should we be alarmed?
And speaking of the current moment, we turn to yet another story over the last two to three days just about every major American newspaper has given attention to a shareholder action undertaken within the tech industry. The concern: teenagers and children, smart phones, and social media. As the New York Times reports,
“A creator of the iPhone called the device ‘addictive.’ A Twitter founder said [that] the ‘internet is broken.’ An early Facebook investor raised questions about the social [media’s] impact on children’s brains. Now,”
reports David Gelles,
“two of the biggest investors on Wall Street have asked Apple to study the health effects of its products and to make it easier for parents to limit their children’s use of iPhones and iPads.”
Similarly, the Wall Street Journal began its article by stating,
“The iPhone has made Apple Inc. and Wall Street hundreds of billions of dollars. Now some big shareholders are asking at what cost, in an unusual campaign to make the company more socially responsible.
A leading activist investor and a pension fund are saying the smartphone maker needs to respond to what some see as a growing public-health crisis of youth phone addiction.”
USA Today put it this way,
“Apple should do more to curb growing smartphone addiction among children. … In an open letter to the technology giant, New York-based Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System highlighted increasing concern about the effects of gadgets and social media on youngsters.”
The letter from the investor stated,
“There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility.”
What makes this particular action important is that it’s coming from major stockholders in Apple, which means that, well, Apple can't ignore it. It's also interesting that the USA Today piece cited some of the research these shareholders are sending on to Apple with their call for action. It refers to the fact that one,
“A study by the Center on Media and Child Health and the University of Alberta that found that 67% of the over 2,300 teachers surveyed observed that the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing and 75% say students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased.”
“Research showing 8th graders who are heavy users of social media have a 27% higher risk of depression,”
meanwhile the depression exceeds those who spend time playing sports, hanging out with friends, or doing homework.
“A study by UCLA researchers that showed that after five days at a device-free outdoor camp, children performed far better on tests for empathy than a control group.”
Now you put all that together, what's interesting but not specified or identified in the USA Today report is that those concerns can be identified the first as intellectual, the second as psychological, and the third as moral. That is to say there is now verifiable data that teenagers and children are becoming addicted, speaking of the kinds of behaviors that come with addiction, in ways that affect their intelligence and their psychological well-being and their moral judgment. And, of course, it’s not just about Apple and the iPhone, the New York Times cites the fact that Sean Parker, an early investor in Facebook, had come to the conclusion that,
“It literally changes your relationship with society [and] with each other. … It probably,”
“interferes with productivity in weird ways.”
“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
The New York Times article goes on to cite many other insiders, but one of the most interesting was a statement that came again from Parker who said that when Facebook was getting started, the thought process and the company was about,
“how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”
At this point there can be absolutely no question that the smartphone and social media have been a very powerful, indeed a powerfully addictive technology that is changing the lives of Americans but particularly redefining the lives of children and teenagers and young adults, and redefining them in ways that even those who started the very technologies and the products that are so ubiquitous in the culture now understand to have been dangerous. The Christian biblical worldview reminds us always that technologies are never merely value or moral neutral, they come with an impact and with an impact on the society that is inescapably not only technological and social, furthermore economic and political, but psychological and moral as well. By the way, it's one thing to be told by even corporate insiders that those who were developing these technologies intended for them to be, in effect, addictive, but at the same time, it's very hard to know how that process can be reversed or even successfully addressed by those who invented the technologies and made them so popular. In that sense, it's not just teenagers, young adults, and children who are dangerously addicted to these technologies, it's the entire society.
Landslides, tsunamis, and hurricanes have all taken place: The power of metaphors to explain our moral moment
Next, one of the ways we conduct a moral conversation in society and make observations about what is going on as moral reality is the use of metaphors. Our language requires them; we have to have a way of saying this is like that, if you want to understand the reality, well think of it as like this. The metaphors have been piling up in recent weeks, I want to point to one article one singular article, this one an article by Jessica Bennett in the New York Times. The headline is,
“The Weinstein Scandal Unleashed a Tsunami.”
Well, there's one of the metaphors: tsunami. What does that referred to here? It points to moral change, a big moral change, even as a tsunami is a big natural event. Jessica Bennett begins by explaining that in retrospect it now looks like the Weinstein scandal was bigger than some thought it to be at the time. It started something. It unleashed something. Something broke, well one of the things that broke was, well to use a metaphor, an avalanche of metaphors. Consider all of these in just one single article about the moral reality and what's documented here is moral change. The metaphors include, in one article, tsunami, the tip of the iceberg, crashing into an iceberg, disaster metaphors that include tsunami but went on to hurricane, avalanche, landslide. Metaphors like tipping point, butterfly moment, frame changing, and, also, speaking of astonishing speed. Bennett herself took note of the fact that the metaphors are multiplying, dominoes are following, the center is falling apart, a dam is breaking, the snowball effect is happening, and then, of course, the butterfly politics, speaking of the fact that according to at least one theory of physics the fluttering of a butterfly on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Regardless of the physics, the metaphor itself tells us something.
What we see, of course, is that the center can't hold, the dam is breaking, a landslide, tsunami, hurricane, and avalanche have all taken place, it's changed the frame, we’ve reached the tipping point, and with astonishing speed, we now see the snowball effect and a butterfly effect. What does all of that tell us? Well, it tells us that these metaphors, the entire flood, there's another metaphor, of metaphors is a recognition of the fact that no matter where you stand in this culture it's really clear that the morality is changing fast, and not just on this one issue related to Hollywood and beyond but across the entire waterfront of moral issues. But, of course, even as I'm talking about metaphors and what they mean in a moral revolution, I can't avoid using metaphors. That’s one of the functions of language, it’s inescapable. But even if it's inescapable, the absolute avalanche of metaphors that hit us in this one article tells us something about the magnitude, the astonishing magnitude, of the moral change that is taking place in our times.