The Ascension to Power

Two weeks ago, I watched with apprehension as Oprah Winfrey accepted the Cecil B. DeMille award at the 75th Golden Globe Awards. Her acceptance speech was a home run. The audience looked at her with an intense adoration. You could see it in their teary eyes and incessant approving head nods. You could almost imagine them falling on their knees in worship. The power of Oprah’s charisma extended beyond the confines of the screen. I had an ominous feeling about it. The speech was good, she had the right tone and pacing and touched on all the right topics. Of all milieu respondents that watched Oprah’s acceptance speech, 4 out of every 5 respondents loved it.

Therein lies the problem. We cannot handle a speech this good when we live in a climate where the standards of coherence and proficiency have been so brutalised by the current US President’s administration. Sure enough, calls for Oprah Winfrey 2020 gathered pace almost immediately.

Reality Cheque

There’s no denying Oprah Winfrey’s power to communicate and persuade. She has, for almost half a century now, played a significant role in shaping global consumer behavior. The Oprah Effect, a term recognised by Investopedia and the focus of many academic papers, refers to the extraordinary power of her endorsement, which has turned many obscure struggling products into global brands. But as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben says, “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Unfortunately, Oprah Winfrey has not wielded her power responsibly. She has repeatedly used her platform to promote advocates of pseudoscientific beliefs and dubious medical theories. Julia Belluz of Vox labelled her “one of the most powerful enablers of cranks on the planet”.

Doctor Oz and Doctor Phil are two of the most famous products of Oprah’s grooming. Doctor Oz has been repeatedly found guilty of the reckless promotion of dangerous supplements without any medical basis. Doctor Phil has faced multiple complaints for the use of unethical and dangerous methods in treating his patients. These are two of the worst charlatans of the modern era and they continue to thrive perhaps in no small part due to Oprah’s persistent association with them. It is quite revolting to think that even our own local Channel 5 has fallen victim of Doctor Oz’s charms and continue to air his program. He has permeated our consciousness so much that our medical clinics now run his programs in the waiting areas instead of Mr Bean reruns. I blame Oprah Winfrey for that.

It was also with Oprah’s help that actress Jenny McCarthy became the most prominent champion of the Anti-Vaccine Movement. She has helped perpetuate the fraudulent claims linking vaccines to autism and this has galvanized many parents’ conviction to opt their children out of vaccinations. America is now facing the threat of a severe outbreak of measles, one of the most contagious and deadly diseases which was thought to have been eliminated in 2000. This is a direct result of the Anti-Vaccine Movement. Other diseases like Mumps are also making a comeback. This is a bleak example of how the abuse of the Oprah Effect can have disastrous real world consequences.

To many people, Oprah Winfrey is the voice of reason. She is the voice for the weak and oppressed. Is it then not ironic that she openly embraces The Secret, a book based on the pseudoscientific “law of attraction”? The notion that we can be what we want to be as long as we think hard enough about it should have been laughable in its face. It stopped being funny when it prompted audience members to skip medical treatments in order to put faith in thought energy. It also inconveniently suggests that the downtrodden and weak are perhaps simply not wishing hard enough. I wonder if Oprah would like to tell that to the faces of children born in war-torn countries. To many more people, Oprah Winfrey is the voice of unity and inclusivity. Is it then not ironic that she believes the only way to win the fight against racism is for enculturated racists to die?

Why So Serious?

Donald Trump’s presidency was unexpected. In the days leading up to the United States presidential election of 2016, arguments in his favor were few and centered around a common theme i.e. the country needed a political outsider to disrupt a broken political system. This experiment has not worked out too well. Under Trump’s leadership, America has ceased any meaningful participation in the fight against climate change, it has chosen protectionism over free trade, and we are closer to global annihilation than at any other time since the height of the Cold War. In polls conducted by milieu with 1556 respondents, a majority of 66% feel that he has underperformed as the US President. 44% believe that Donald Trump’s performance has been “Disastrous” and 22% believe that he was performed “Worse than expected”.

Juxtapose the career trajectory required to become the Prime Minister of Singapore with the career path of Donald Trump. It is absurd to think that the President of the United States of America, the guardian of the most powerful nuclear button in the world with a role that carries much more weight in global affairs, can be performed by somebody with no relevant job experience. In a poll conducted by milieu with 1409 respondents, 46% feel that a celebrity with no political experience cannot be a good US President. Only 7% believe it is possible for such a person to perform well.

To give Oprah Winfrey the benefit of the doubt, let us assume that her decades spent at the very top of the Hollywood hierarchy did not afford her any insights into the exploitative and abusive sexual behaviours she now condemns. But does that not indicate a certain degree of social obliviousness that could be dangerous when dealing with dictators of a different ilk? We do not know whether her dalliance with quackery is a result of corporate greed or genuine ignorance. Both possibilities do not bode well for somebody applying for the most important job in the world. #oprah2020 may seem like a joke now, but history has shown there’s no accounting for mass delusion. When Nate Silver says Oprah Winfrey has a chance, we have to sit up and listen. It is not too early to have this conversation. The fictional Oprah that can lead the world into a brighter future does not exist, she never did, she has always been a phantom of our imagination.

* In a poll conducted by milieu with 950 respondents, 26% will support Oprah Winfrey if she ran for US President in 2020. 15% will not support her, and 58% answered that it is too early to decide.