CO058 Ryan Hagemann on AI

Ryan Hagemann is the the director of technology policy at the Niskanen Center. We talked about his article on AI.

There’s a great film that you should watch if you haven’t already, called When We Were Kings.

It’s about Muhammad Ali’s  Rumble in the Jungle boxing match against George Foreman. That’s right George Foreman used to be a boxer before he made it big as a grill salesperson. In fact Foreman was such a good boxer that everyone expected him to win the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match in Kinshasa in 1974. Ali was seen as being towards the end of his boxing career, and well past his peak, 32 years of age,  compared to Foreman who was 25.

From the start of the match, Ali hardly even tried to hit Foreman. He just concentrated on defence and dodging Foreman’s blows. And he concentrated on psychologically destroying Foreman. Every time Foreman did manage to land a blow, Ali whispered to him “Is that all you got George? Is that all you got?”

As he got more frustrated, Foreman got more exhausted, trying harder and harder to hit Ali. Finally, in the eighth round, Ali landed a series of blows on Foreman, culminating with one that sent him down. There’s a very famous photo of this, with Foreman falling, if you can picture Muhammad Ali in a boxing match photo, that’s probably the one you’re thinking of this.

Muhammad Ali stands over George Foreman
Muhammad Ali stands over George Foreman

I was thinking of this match, and Ali’s genius in winning a match he was supposed to lose all last week when I saw the reactions to the suggestion that Oprah Winfrey might run for president in 2020. The right couldn’t contain themselves from posting meme after meme saying that people who complained about one billionaire TV star with zero political experience could hardly support another when it suited them.

There are two things to say about this. Sure, it’s easy to categorise Winfrey and Trump together if you craft your language carefully enough. But Oprah Winfrey is no Donald Trump. Trump was born rich, and there is no evidence that he made any more money than he would have if he had just stuck the millions his father left him in the New York Stock Exchange. He had every advantage and privilege he could have had.

Winfrey was born dirt poor to a teenage single mother. She was sexually abused as a child, and pregnant at 14. She worked her way to having a multi-billion dollar media empire starting by reading the news on a small local black radio station. She has used her money to, among other things, fund a high school for poor South African girls. Trump’s interests in teenage girls consists of boasting how he could walk into their dressing rooms while they were naked.

Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes
Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes

But the riot of comment about whether Oprah Winfrey would beat Trump in 2020 is missing something. The enthusiasm from some Democrats for her is showing a key weakness. They are trying to re-fight the last battle. They think that they can repeat Trump’s trick of defeating politics with celebrity.

If you believe, and god knows there’s good reason to believe it, if you believe that Trump is dangerously incompetent and inexperienced, what business do you have in trying to pull the same trick, just hoping to pull it off a little bit better.

It seems clear to me that, for all its failings, and god knows there’s plenty, for all its failings the Trump administration is succeeding bigly at one thing – they are keeping their opposition tied in knots. People opposed to Trump can’t decide if they need more identity politics or less, more celebrity or less, more moral purity or less.

They’re burning up all their energy and the only thing they aren’t doing is actually producing a real vision for the future or a real alternative to Trump. If I was the Donald, I’d be saying “Is that all you got?”