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Oprah’s Real Message

It wasn’t about her. It was about us.

I loved Oprah’s Golden Globes speech on Sunday. It was mesmerizing, pitch perfect, and gave voice to many lifetimes of frustration and vindication with eloquence and a full authority she has earned. But I found the strange Facebook response of “Oprah 2020” weirdly discordant and disorienting. Oprah’s speech—in my hearing—wasn’t about why she needs to run for office. It was about why the rest of us need to do so, immediately.

The dominant theme I heard was about giving voice to invisible people. It was the arc of the entire speech. It’s also what the very best journalism is about, and it’s worth remembering that’s how Oprah began her career. The speech began with her goosebump-y tale of first seeing Sidney Poitier win an Academy Award in 1964 and how much of a revelation it was at the time to see a black man celebrated in America. Then it ran through to her chilling invocation of Recy Taylor, a young black woman who was raped in Alabama in 1944 by six white men who were never brought to justice. She deftly linked Taylor to Rosa Parks, who investigated the rape for the NAACP and then 11 years later refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery with Taylor “somewhere in her heart.” This was a speech about how seeing someone else model the fight against racism, sexism, and injustice activates us to fight alongside.

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It was a testament to the greatest gifts she has as a journalist, actor, and media personality: the ability to shed light on the faceless and speak of justice and morality in ways that are urgent and original. That’s why the speech honored not just the women in sleek black dresses who were on their feet cheering her. The true message was about someone else:

Women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farmworkers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science.

They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.

What I heard in her speech wasn’t a bid to save us all, but rather a powerful charge to the young girls watching at home to tell their own stories, to fight for their own values, and to battle injustices with the certainty that they will be seen and heard.

In a sense, this speech sounded in the key of Obama’s famously elusive spur to—as Gandhi urged—“be the change you want to see in the world.”

In so many ways, this was a maddening proposition when it was being pushed by a moderate Democrat such as Obama. And it was more maddening still when the president told leaders on the left that he needed them to pressure him further into their corner; that he couldn’t make that move on his own. This language of citizen empowerment and responsibility is also so painfully foreign at the moment with a sitting president for whom the greatest obligation of the citizenry is to adore and thank him (and spend money on his brand). We are being trained to believe that President Trump alone creates safer skies and restores coal-mining jobs; that passively accepting his leadership is the holy grail of change.

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But what Winfrey and Obama talk about is the limits of top-down power. It is one of the great sins of this celebrity age that we continue to misread this message as a call to turn anyone who tries to deliver it into our savior. When someone tells you “I alone can fix it,” you should run screaming for the emergency exits. When someone tells you to get off your ass and fix it yourself, you should think first about running for office yourself.

Since the 2016 election, the cry one hears constantly from the left is “who will lead us?” But Democrats should have learned more than they have from November’s stunning electoral successes in Virginia. The lesson should have been that extraordinary and unknown candidates, including inspired and inspiring first-timers, could win elections without fame or fanfare.

I have no idea whether Winfrey plans to run for the Oval Office in 2020. According to reports, she is “actively” considering it. But I heard the force and dignity of her speech as a mirror held up to the country about our own responsibilities, accompanied by a very prominent shoutout to journalists for helping to tell those stories. This was a tribute to nameless women who have faced their own #MeToo moments without receiving attention or justice, and for today’s young black girls on linoleum floors who couldn’t previously imagine themselves winning a lifetime achievement award and woke up Monday thinking they just might.

It’s easy to devalue those words as cheese-puff throwaway lines. But for women who went to law school because they saw Sandra Day O’Connor on the high court (I was one) or Anita Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, this moment isn’t made of cheese. I will never in my life forget the lines of teenage Latina women snaked around the Senate to watch Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. That was about more than just young people looking for a savior. We become what we see modeled and that is where #MeToo will intersect with 2018. On Sunday night, I heard Winfrey urging invisible people to speak up, become engaged, transform policy, and find their own power. It was a speech about moving from passivity and acceptance to furious, mobilized participation and a call for allies in that fight.

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There is an interesting side debate about whether Winfrey should run for office raging on social media. But that should be ancillary to what she actually told us to do. It took a stable media genius to attempt to peel off the narcissism and solipsism of the celebrity culture in which we all seem to be permanently lodged. Maybe it’s destined that nobody will ever again be elected president who doesn’t have a billion-dollar media brand behind them. But the speech I heard last night was about using a billion-dollar media brand to remind young women of color that they, too, have the power to save us all.

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