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Oprah Lied at Harvard

Some of us are just plain average. And that's OK.

Paul Marotta/Stringer / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

There is something special about the optimism of the very privileged. At Harvard not long ago, Oprah Winfrey spoke to the graduating class and, “address[ing] my remarks to anybody who has ever felt inferior or felt disadvantaged, felt screwed by life,” uttered this memorable sentence: “There is no such thing as failure.” She immediately explained her strange assertion: “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” The experience of defeat, in other words, is an error of interpretation. Nothing is bad that is followed by something else. Nothing is bad unless you call it bad. Only death, on this account, is a defeat, since it is followed by nothing, though I suppose that in her quackery Winfrey believes in an afterlife in which she dwells for eternity between Tom Cruise and Maya Angelou at God’s Oscar party. As an example of the unreality of failure, Winfrey told a tale of personal adversity. When she launched her television network, it did not do well. “I was stressed and I was frustrated and quite frankly I was embarrassed.” But somehow she rose from the ashes. “I’m here today to tell I have turned that network around!” The audience in Harvard Yard must have fought back tears.

With this anecdote, Winfrey provided a fine illustration of the cognitive disadvantage of elites. Her triumph of inner resources was of course a triumph of outer resources—a common confusion at the top. Success seems to have carried her beyond the imagination of extreme vulnerability. It is true that all our perspectives are partial, because we are limited in what we see by the particularity of our circumstances; and decency, and also philanthropy, demands that we correct for these perceptual limitations by means of the mind and the imagination. The unfortunate do not know more than the fortunate; but what they know deserves to be common knowledge. In America, however, the circumstances of the rich and the famous are much more fascinating than the circumstances of the struggling and the obscure. Even the victims of bad fortune adopt the parochialism of good fortune: call it the false consciousness of TMZ. So it is worth insisting that there is such a thing as failure. Our country is awash in it. If the loss of a house or a job in a recession or a hurricane is “just life trying to move us in another direction,” then it is in the direction of pain, difficulty, anxiety, and despair. Except for those with the material insulation to survive it, failure is not a lucky break. Yet we slander the victims of hardship as “losers,” as if they are entirely responsible, or at all responsible, for their fate. In a remarkable book called Born Losers: History of Failure in America, Scott A. Sandage provides a list of what “losers” used to be called: “bankrupts, deadbeats, broken men, down-and-outers, bad risks, good-for-nothings, no-accounts, third-raters, flunkies, little men, loafers, small fries, small potatoes, old fogies, goners, flops, has-beens, ne’er-do-wells, nobodies, forgotten men.” Add “women” to “men,” and the list is also our own. Winfrey’s merry homily at Harvard was empirically false. More, her edifying maxim was disabling, even cruel: you cannot help people face their troubles by telling them that they have no troubles.

This lack of interest in unglamorous existence, which is to say, this collapse of sympathetic imagination, may be found also in another contemporary maxim: “average is over.” This notion, according to which we will either rise to the top or fall to the bottom, appears to have been coined by Thomas Friedman, and it originated in a worry about economic competitiveness. Now Tyler Cowen is publishing a book called Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, in which he declares that “average is over is the catchphrase of our age. ... This maxim will apply to the quality of your job, to your earnings, to where you live, to your education and to the education of your children, and maybe even to your most intimate relationships. . . . They will either rise to the top in terms of quality or make do with unimpressive results.” Cowen is concerned that we are not prepared for the new economy, which will require a high level of digital competence, and I am not here to gainsay his concern. I am here only to say that average will never be over. We will never be a nation of innovators and consultants. (Neither will China.) There will always be schoolteachers and nurses and shopkeepers and cooks and mechanics and custodians and the old-economy rest; there will always be people who do not write code (how else will the hapless codewriters get through life?); there will always be people who work for other people. The sum total of all these people, and their skills and their labors, is called a society. A society is not an economy, and an economy is not an activity of futurist geniuses.

The ferocity about economic competitiveness, its promotion into a standard by which to measure things it cannot measure (“intimate relationships ... to the top in terms of quality”), is resulting in a loss of respect for ordinary work and a soft contempt for ordinary people. What sort of imprecation, exactly, is “average”? Sometimes it sounds like the talk of a snob. Average, with respect to what? The cult of “achievement” has blinded many people to the diversity of the realms in which we may achieve. Economic mediocrity is not human mediocrity. There are men and women whose “intimate relationships” are “to the top in terms of quality” who spend their days driving cabs and cleaning houses. The streets are crowded with lovers; there are thinkers on the subways. The other day I found this in the galleys of a gorgeous “prayer journal” by Flannery O’Connor, from 1947: “Can we ever settle on calling ourselves mediocre—me on myself? If I am not this or that that someone else is, may I not be something else that I am that I cannot yet see fully or describe? ... Maybe I’m mediocre. I’d rather be less. I’d rather be nothing. An imbecile. Yet this is wrong. Mediocrity, if that is my scourge, is something I’ll have to submit to.” What humility, what lack of utility.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.