Oprah and WikiLeaks


Oprah WinfreyOprah Winfrey has come to Australia, preceded by a planeload of audience for her Sydney Opera House programs. The style of her shows forms an interesting contrast with WikiLeaks, which holds up such a telling mirror to so many aspects of our culture. Winfrey's style is confessional in therapeutic mode. The style of WikiLeaks also confessional, but in a heroic mode.

The heart of Oprah's programs lies in her interviews with celebrities and ordinary Americans. Many have shaming stories to tell of their past. She has a gift for empathy, encouraging her interlocutors to speak openly of their experiences and of their feelings. Unlike most television hosts, she is also generous in revealing occasionally stories of her own past and her struggles.

Those interviewed go away cleansed of their sins, assured that they are good and loveable, and able to make a new start, forgetful of the consequences of what they have done.

Confession is ultimately about reconciliation. In Oprah's case the reconciliation is of the individual with the consumer society. The symbols of the beneficence of that society are everywhere to be seen. A book included in Oprah's Book Club can be expected to make a mint for author and publisher. One Oprah audience is taken to explore the resorts of Australia; another, to the last man and woman, receive Oldsmobiles.

Singers and actors who appear on the show find their careers take off. Disgraced politicians forgiven on the show return to political life. All touched by the program are offered the gift of a moment of celebrity, a transfiguration of the ordinary that can also be cashed in for more lasting and tangible gifts.

Where reconciliation is effective it affirms the value of both parties involved. Oprah reassures the viewer that the United States consumer society and its underpinnings are healthy and benign. It rewards candid sinners, showers its sectaries with gifts, including the most precious gift of celebrity.

It displays its compassion in forgiveness and also in promoting beneficence to the poor who live in less blessed societies, like Africa. The show declares those who live in the United States under its free enterprise system to be indeed blessed.

This is very different from the world of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is about convicting the faithless of their sins and imposing a penance that will lead to reconciliation.

It echoes the rite of reconciliation open to Christians who had denied Christ during times of persecution by sacrificing to the Emperor. They were required to acknowledge their sin and subject themselves to a long period of public penance. They were eventually reconciled with a forgiving Church. But the rite made it clear that this Church valued the affirmation of Christ over the preservation of one's life.

WikiLeaks is distinctive because the confession is involuntary. It is made on the sinners' behalf, and penance imposed, by the leaker. What is hidden is brought to light in the hope that the revelation may encourage the perpetrators to recognise their sin and ask forgiveness.

Here too confession leads to reconciliation. But the reconciliation that is offered is with an ideal society whose professed values are lived out in the behaviour of its public officers. In the absence of repentance it offers a bleak indictment of the society that Oprah celebrates, revealing the unstable foundations it is built on.

Most of the documents published by WikiLeaks have to do with politics, not commerce. But the process of leaking undermines commercial processes as well as political ones. It attacks the view that, like everything else, secrets have a commercial value. They are protected at high cost, discovered at high cost, and so should only be sold for gain to the highest bidder who then wins exclusive rights over them.

No one can profit from WikiLeaks. They are a gift for journalists but an offence to proprietors because they cannot be owned or copyrighted.

If Oprah ultimately blesses and reassures the world that its commercial underpinnings are adorable, and frees people to buy without more thought, WikiLeaks strips away reassurance. It discloses the mechanics of sin, the stubborn resistance to efficacious repentance, and the hollowness of reassurance.

That is why Oprah Winfrey and her enterprise will be feted in Australia, and Julian Assange's enterprise will, one way or another, be brought to an end. The grace he offers is not cheap enough. 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Oprah Winfrey, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks



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Existing comments

thanks for this posting. While I am not normally interested in Oprah and the Wikileaks saga holds before us less than flattering pictures of our nation - e.g. the drive by the highest government officials to call criminal something that does not appear to have transgressed the law - I am most stimulated about how you have further uncovered that Christian practice of reconciliation, and particularly catholic approaches, have contributed to the meaning and structure of our society.

Gerard Moore | 10 December 2010  

To assert, as Andrew does, that "No one can profit from WikiLeaks" is to starkly recall..and echo.. the pondering of one Pontius Pilate a couple of thousand years ago "what is truth?"

Truth is indispensable to all...and theology has no point if that isn't recognised, accepted and embraced......and it ought to hold pride of place long after both Oprah and Assange have been forgotten.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 10 December 2010  

Thanks Andrew - well thought through.

Barry B | 10 December 2010  

Thank you Andrew. This is one of the most penetrating, thoughtful pieces I've read in many a year. It is an illustration of the very best in public theology, the very thing you were writing about in Eureka Street a week or so ago. The confessional analogy is spot on and the comparison between Oprah's therapeutic confession and the kind of fraternal correction implied in WikiLeaks makes eminent sense. Thank you.

Paul Collins | 10 December 2010  

Inspired analysis from Andrew Hamilton re Oprah verses Julian values. Thanks. Excellent writing.

Pauline Kennedy | 10 December 2010  

Andy, you are a wise man! Thank you for this.

Avril Hannah-Jones | 10 December 2010  

It appears Oprah does many positive deeds with her wealth, audiences and recipients adore her benevolence. To adore is to receive. One wonders who will receive the gifts her benevolence today? Oh to be in her audience! In an act of cyclical adoration (Oprah and the audience) Oprah's wealth and and subjective benevolence is assured. But here we have another type of gift. WikiLeaks offers us a special gift, a wake up call - a call to open our minds - to wake up to the deception that controls our lives, and to value truth and justice. The WikiLeaks gift is not glitzy, but it is pretty special. It can be ours for our lifetimes if we treasure it enough. But after the 'tumult and the shouting dies" whose gift (truth or glitz) will be deemed the greatest?

Bronte Bushe' | 10 December 2010  

It is interesting to note that the angry self-protective responses to Wikileaks by the US leadership and, to our shame, Julia Gillard are vociferously supported by some sectors in the media. Two commentators from Murdoch's Fox News channel, Bill O'Reilly and Huckabee have been calling for the death penalty for 'those responsible.' This should not surprise us as the 'philosophy' of the common good behind this kind of hysteria is deeply rooted in the ideas of Durkheim and Weber who defined the common good not as the disinterested public good but as the self interested good of the State or the corporate world. They've been sprung, so "....better that one should perish than....!"

David Timbs | 10 December 2010  

Thank you, Andrew Hamilton. What a wonderful comparison, and to link this to confession and absolution is absolutely valid. Perhaps we are stil a much more Christian society than we imagine, despite many of our secular ways. There so many blessings available from following Oprah, and so many doubts and uncomfortable questions in choosing Assange instead, that it is a foregone conclusion what will happen. But the truth is that Assange will be remembered for his heroic deeds, regardless of how punished he will be by the embarrassed establishment.

Eveline Goy | 10 December 2010  

'The truth will set you free.' Undoubtedly so. But why I puzzle, do I feel a little uneasy about the whole business? Is it because on the one hand a queen of capitalist materialism is regarded by many as a saviour while on the other leaks of confidential material smack of what used to be labelled a sin of detraction. Or are we in the 21st century no longer subscribing to the moral dictum that ' the end does not justify the means.'Legality and morality are not synonymous.

Ern Azzopardi | 10 December 2010  

Andrew, thank you for the creative juxtapositioning of these two current phenomena within the context of forgiveness and reconciliation. I have been asking myself what it is about Oprah that has so many people in a spin. It seems Oprah has many admirable qualities such as an empathetic and alluring interviewing style. She also has legal entitlement to much cash and power which ensures her loyalty, and the loyalty of others, to the consumer system. But then again, on the surface, many can fit into this description - if only on a much smaller scale - within the realms of decency.

What has not surprised me about the WikiLeaks phenomenon is the way in which the system has slammed to squash one who dares to challenge it. Where are most vulnerable? Sex. So often it is the darkest - yet paradoxically most beautiful - domain in which groups snarls to shine the spotlight of shame on one it deems a threat. Make it inferior and all will feel compelled to cast their shadow.

Interesting how self scrutiny is a poor cousin in all this examination.

Then again, it may be that our lives are far more akin to the virtual worlds currently being created in cyber space. There is always a hope that the light spot light shone on the ‘other’ will one day be revealed as the spark within. Maybe then we will release pent up stress and realise and accept our own roles in the very normal cycle of harm and repair in relationships.

Vic O'Callaghan | 10 December 2010  

There is no denial that the words have been "spoken" merely that they have been given voice - it is clear that Wikileaks is revealing "inconvenient truths"!!

Jan Strom | 11 December 2010  

Thankfully most of the normal people in the world, the media and others ignore the rantings of the pollies about WikiLeaks and get on with the job of defending them.

Marilyn Shepherd | 14 December 2010  

The price that I am sure is to be paid by Julian is that which we, as followers of the Christ, can be expected to pay. It is the price for outing evil (injustice,abuse,greed). In this world where evil is spoken loud we are not entitled to expect the "discount" rate. Like Julian,we will be asked to pay the full price of discipleship.

graham patison | 08 March 2011  

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