More Oprah, Please: Some Critical Thoughts on Cory Booker’s Stanford Graduation Speech

In 2008, Oprah was Stanford’s commencement speaker. People were very excited about that. I was less enthusiastic. I expected a disappointing, “Don’t you dare think about your own success. You must save starving orphans” kind of speech. But Oprah surprised us all. She basically reminded us that making money is good, as it is usually correlated with producing value for others. The message was simple: be productive and be happy. I loved it. But most of my friends were very disappointed. 

Fast-forward 4 years and it’s Cory Booker speaking to the crowd of 30,000 in Stanford stadium. Booker seemed like a fine choice to me. Though I disagree with him about many things, I admire him quite a bit. I liked Street Fight. I enjoyed his “Finding Your Roots” interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Like most everyone else, I’ve been impressed with what’s been going on in Newark. But I thought that Booker’s speech on Sunday was a letdown. This time, I was the one who came away disappointed.

Motivational speeches are strange. At some level, their task is usually to persuade the listener to suspend rational self-interest and ignore (or, more euphemistically, transcend) reality. After all, people are innately reasonably good at acting in their own self-interest. We need fairly little external motivation to do what makes us happy. Motivational speeches tend to be more necessary to convince us to do things that we ordinarily wouldn’t do, such as charging an enemy bunker in wartime or performing some comparable civic sacrifice during peacetime.

This isn’t always bad. Motivation can be a very good thing. Tightly knit groups working really hard together can be very productive. But this isn’t always the case—writ large, it’s also the recipe for nationalism, militarism, and all sorts of associated maladies. Certainly the tension between American individualism and a motivated collectivism has been and will continue to be a key theme in our society. I’m not sure there’s any reason to prefer either extreme. But as a general rule, it’s probably good to be more skeptical of the collectivist side of things.

To the extent Cory Booker’s remarks this past Sunday can serve as a barometer for this discourse, the trend is towards collectivism. I use that word not as some libertarian bogeyman, but rather to describe a real, important alternative to a more individualistic paradigm. Framing his speech around the notion of a “conspiracy of love,” Booker encouraged his audience at Stanford to think about the problems of the future in a very particular way. To the extent that this approach is right, it seems quite banal. And to the extent that it is wrong—or, more probably, seriously incomplete—it may be affirmatively harmful. Perhaps most problematic of all is that all this is too easily concealed by powerful rhetoric.

I. Ethos and Pathos 

The first problem is simply this: Booker speaks well. Really well. He hits every emotion. There’s self-effacement and humblebrags. Jokes and heartwrenching anecdotes. Ethos and pathos do the driving. Booker is even better at this than President Obama. Booker doesn’t usually do calm confidence. He does passion. Every sentence intones upward at its end; Booker actually pleas with us to see, accept, and promulgate his zeal. However true or persuasive Booker’s ideas about “love” may be in isolation—and more on that in a moment—it’s his incredible mix of charisma and emotional appeal that makes things truly compelling. One gets the sense that, with enough time, Booker could take an audience pretty far along any direction he liked. 

Of course, being good at speaking is hardly discrediting. Oratory is distinguishable from substance. But the point is worth flagging; charismatic politicians—even the “good ones”—are problematic. They can get people to do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Maybe that isn’t always bad. But it certainly can be. Power made efficacious through oratory and charisma is something worth keeping an eye on.

II. In Search of Logos

There are a couple of ways to interpret Booker’s message. (Transcript here. Video here. Or just scroll to the bottom of the post.) 

A. Dispersed Wisdom

One surface interpretation would view it as a collection of lessons and maxims, woven together through stories from Booker’s family, which we’d do well to keep in mind as we work and live. These lessons include:

  1. What you see is what you become. If you see only problems, that’s all there are. If you see potential, potential exists.
  2. Don’t get sedentary or comfortable. Embrace challenges.
  3. We all face a fundamental choice in everything we do: accept things as they are, or change them.
  4. Remembering and respecting all the people and effort that has come before us is important and worth doing.

There were probably several more, but these illustrate the point. With the possible exception of (1), I think that these lessons are true and valuable. But it seemed to me that Booker was trying to do more than just offer up these aphorisms. If not, fair enough—we’re left with relatively standard commencement fare rendered “extraordinary” by pathos and charisma.

B. Love as an End

Another interpretation reads more into Booker’s notion of “conspiracies of love.”

I suspect that Booker’s remarks are best interpreted as trying to express a coherent creed. In the abstract, this is good; a coherently argumentative speech has much greater potential than a jumbled stack of adages. But any creed that fell out of Booker’s speech on Sunday struck me as problematic.

The general idea behind the “conspiracy of love” bit is that love is really important. We should all love each other, work hard for a better future because we love each other, and always remember that we love each other. Conspirators getting together and working with love is good.

Perhaps Booker was just telling us to be nicer to each other. Maybe he was simply reminding people that there is value in loving each other as an end in itself. This is the “love as an end” interpretation. The goal isn’t to be nice so that you maximize value or achieve some financial or political end. The idea is that loving each other is its own reward, whose value outweighs any inherent financial, physical, and political risks. It is explicitly not a recipe for maximizing value or efficiency.

That isn’t necessarily wrong. But it isn’t necessarily right, either. Mainly it’s just unhelpful. Virtually everybody understands the idea that there is more to life than money and productivity. Granted, some people seem to ignore this wisdom. But that’s probably not because they’ve never heard it before; rather, it’s because ambitious people tend to get sucked into their work and, despite knowing better, neglect important relationships. Soberly reminding Stanford graduates of that dangerous likelihood—as Professor Rob Daines did in his excellent speech at the Law School’s graduation ceremony on Saturday—is valuable. But simply insisting that people get high on love doesn’t communicate that clearly. If this was all that was meant, it is uncontroversial at best, trite at worst.

Because no one is anti-love, coming out for love doesn’t do much. That we’re all made of stardust and descend from a single Mitochondrial Eve is pretty cool. But divorced from any utilitarian claim, a jejune “love is important” is as hard to draw value from as it is to criticize or refute. 

C. Love as Means to a Better Future

A third alternative is that Booker sought to push the idea that love is an effective means of achieving and producing things. There seemed to be equal amounts of love-as-means and love-as-end theorizing going on. It wasn’t always easy to separate them out. But the love-as-means piece, I think, is the most problematic.

Focusing on love as the engine of future growth is the wrong thing to do. The harm goes beyond mere opportunity cost of a missed chance to talk about more substantive things. This misplaced focus is costly for 2 reasons. First, it ignores love’s ineffectuality in solving pressing national problems. Second, it obfuscates the question of what is valuable, which makes it much harder for even the best intentioned of people to contribute toward a better future. 

A. Love Doesn’t Cut It

It is hardly cynical to point out that love cannot, in fact, solve all our problems. Humans are actually pretty good at love. We love ourselves, our families, and our communities, warts and all. Most of us probably have some abstract love of existence and humankind in general. But all this love hasn’t saved us from the myriad troubles that we’ve created for ourselves. However powerful love may be, it can be stamped out by even the noblest of intentions behind every bomb, tax, or piece of legislation. In some sense, these things exist—and should exist—in very different domains.

The counterexample, I suppose, is Newark. By almost all accounts, things have been going considerably better since Booker became Mayor in 2006. I do not discount the fact that Booker seems to have inspired people in that city to lead better lives. That is great. All I mean to suggest—and I’d bet Booker would agree with me here—is that a lot more than love goes into turning a city around. It’s not clear to me that getting more people engaged in political processes, or infusing those processes with love (whatever that means) is necessarily good. Maybe changing or ending some of those processes and doing the right things would be better.

But suppose I’m entirely wrong on this point as it relates to Newark. That seems plausible. Booker is a successful mayor who probably deserves the lion’s share of credit for Newark’s impressive pivot. Even granting that, it still does not follow that love is the solution to the really big problems. Motivating a relatively small community with notions of reciprocal love may be very different than motivating an entire nation. The former is probably much easier, and, more importantly, much less dangerous. Slashing a city’s crime rate by showing inhabitants the promise of peaceful non-criminal life may be entirely different than fixing healthcare from the goodness of our hearts. Ending local corruption by fostering collaborative processes may be entirely different than solving runaway national spending. Democrats and Republicans rolling up their sleeves of compromise and “working together as Americans” may not be good after all. Collaborative, loving governance may actually produce worse outcomes. America is not “great because it is united,” as Booker insisted. To the extent it’s great, it’s great because of deep-rooted commitment to freedom and the rule of law. Stressing the importance of “love” and “unity” has the effect (if not the design) of consolidating support and stifling debate. Who wants to be anti-love or anti-unity?

The claim that love drives good political outcomes is an interesting one. I think that it’s probably wrong. If the problem with the world is that there isn’t enough love in it—something I very much doubt—it is probably an insurmountable problem; we’ve failed to solve it in several millennia, and there’s no reason to think it will become any easier as the world becomes more populous and complex. In any event, Booker didn’t make the case on Sunday. And I suspect that massive confirmation bias ensured that this went largely unnoticed. 

B. Value vs. Love 

Just because something is done with love doesn’t make it valuable. 

That’s worth repeating: just because something is done with love doesn’t make it valuable. Very often, it’s not the thought that counts.

The sterilized free-market narrative is that love is completely unimportant. Markets work because people can trade to mutual advantage without giving a damn about each other. As Adam Smith noted, it’s not the benevolence of the butcher that is responsible for your ability to buy a decent roast. Traders at a swap meet shuffle goods around to their highest social value. Profit matters more than love—if anything, the bargaining process is on the antagonistic side of things. Competition makes for a rising tide that lifts all boats. 

That, of course, isn’t quite right. Love and passion do matter in markets. But it’s less the “purpose of life is to join your spirit with others” kind of love that Booker described, and more a relentless, entrepreneurial love of progress. What is important is that people love what they do, not that they love and sacrifice themselves for the people they do it for.

Silicon Valley understands this. The least exciting thing in the world is a suit with an idea about how to make money. The best companies—and this is probably generalizable to the best projects—are fueled by a very distinct kind of love and passion. Maybe making money is some key component. But Steve Jobs was in it for the love of technology and design. Elon Musk clearly relishes the opportunity to create a new era of space flight. Isaac Newton simply loved knowing how things worked.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.

-Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005

This works on the “public interest” side too. Many of my friends at Stanford Law School were involved with things like the Stanford Three Strikes Project, which represents individuals serving life sentences after being charged for minor felonies under California’s Three Strikes law. The passion and energy that these people devote to this and similar projects are astounding. Undoubtedly it makes for more successful work. But key to remember is that work is not valuable because people are passionate about it. It isn’t just some notion of love that makes the Three Strikes Project valuable (if you think it is). It wasn’t just love that drove Apple’s comeback or that makes SpaceX’s rockets fly. If love plays a role here, I think it’s quite different from Booker’s notion of conspiracy. Eclipsed by very lofty rhetoric last Sunday was a conception of love that is just too narrow. Probably the worst thing that Isaac Newton could have done was spend his time thinking about how he could help other people and embrace the frustration of service.

That love fixes everything is an attractive concept. Booker presents it even more attractively. But, as H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Stanford graduates do not need to be reminded to love each other. They need to be reminded to be productive—a value that higher education seems to be increasingly bad at instilling. Actual productivity is a better terminal metric than love. Love—broadly defined as something very different from Booker’s conspiracy angle—should matter to the extent that it makes people productive. But when loving each other is the first-order priority, things are backwards. Caring matters more than results. Interdependence matters more than individual fortitude. And my suspicion is that we end up with much less value as a result.

Love, at least Booker presents it, is not the building block of the future. The future will be built on AutoCAD and Scala, not on reciprocal notions of love. The engine of the future will be the proven combination of passion plus the profit motive, not the grinding gears of participatory democracy. Democracy and collective notions of love and service may continue to be important. But they should not take center stage. Being productive and seeking one’s own happiness should not be relegated to footnotes in life. And that’s why the Jobs of 2005 and the Oprah of 2008 trumped Booker in 2012.

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