The Oprah Culture: Self-Love Before Self-Knowledge

Peter Birkenhead, in Salon, takes a whack at Oprah: he starts with her latest self-help project “The Secret” (which does sound pretty sketchy) and then zooms out and tries to tear down all of Oprah Culture:

For these believers, self-knowledge is much less important than self-“love.” But the question they never seem to ask themselves is: If you wouldn’t tell another person you loved her before you got to know her, why would you do that to yourself? Skipping the getting-to-know-you part has given us what we deserve: the Oprah culture. It’s a culture where superstition is “spirituality,” illiteracy is “authenticity,” and schoolmarm moralism is “character.” It’s a culture where people apologize by saying, “I’m sorry you took offense at what I said,” and forgive by saying, “I’m not angry at you anymore, I’m grateful to you for teaching me not to trust shitheads like you.” And that’s the part that should bother us most: the diminishing, even implicit mocking, of genuine goodness, and of authentic spiritual concerns and practices. Engagement, curiosity and active awe are in short supply these days, and it’s sickening to see them devalued and misrepresented.

He concludes by essentially calling for more scrutiny of Oprah’s humongous cultural influence:

If you reach more people than Bill O’Reilly, if you have better name recognition than Nelson Mandela, if the books you endorse sell more than Stephen King’s, you should take some responsibility for your effect on the culture. The most powerful woman in the world is taking advantage of people who are desperate for meaning, by passionately championing a product that mocks the very idea of a meaningful life.

Related Post: Lee Siegel TNR article on Oprah

(Hat tip for Salon article: Chris Yeh)

11 Responses to The Oprah Culture: Self-Love Before Self-Knowledge

  1. Scott Young says:

    I’m not an Oprah fan, but doesn’t it always seem like the more popular are, the more people blame you for the cause of world problems?

    Ideologies may seem good to their founders but get twisted when delivered to the masses. Look at the atrocities the Catholic church has committed over two millenia — Should we blame Jesus for this or the fallibility of the crowds?

  2. I agree with the overall criticism, especially the part about sprituality = superstition, but I disagree that, from Oprah’s perspective, she’s not “taking some responsibility for your effect on the culture.” I suspect she sincerly believes her motives and results are a net positive for millions of people. (So does James Dobson, for that matter.)

  3. Peter Birkenhead’s piece masterfully articulated what I’ve been thinking.

    I especially liked his line, “…the faux-spiritual, anti-intellectual, hyper-materialistic worldview epressed in ‘The Secret’…”

    I affirm his diagnosis of the anti-intellectual disease afflicting our society and being spread by a cravenly venal entertainment media in all its outlets.

    And now Oprah has become the High Priestess of this movement to a new Dark Age of ignorance.

    I believe Oprah has a deeply neurotic need for adoration and the accumulation of the trappings of wealth–a wealth that was inconceivable to the emotionally damaged little girl she once was who grew up in such deprived circumstances.

    For years I’ve been trying to inform people I meet about how unhealthy trans fats (including partially hydrogenated vegetable oil) are.

    I encountered mostly indifference, and even amusement, until Oprah (this is hearsay, I didn’t see it) mentioned it on her show.

    Suddenly people knew what I was talking about, and they all said they heard it from Oprah.

    Her power is more frightening than trans fats.

  4. Dani says:

    I made it through about 15 minutes of “The Secret” before I couldn’t stand it anymore. It is “feel-good” lite.

    However, I think it would be unfair to use this movie as a metaphor for Oprah and all she does in the world.

  5. I have never been a fan of talk shows in general for various reasons that I will not get into here.

    However, whether you are talking about Oprah endorsing ‘The Secret’ or her agreeing about unhealthy nutritional habits, the responsibility stills falls – and always has fallen – to the individual person as to whether or not they are going to take her advice.

    I am a believer in the Law of Attraction, but I almost never watch Oprah. I am not going to jump to her defense now that she is endorsing something that I believe in. That would be hypocrisy at it’s finest.

    Although I will agree that someone with great influence should be mindful of the message that they are sending, it is also very true that no matter what an influential person says or does, there will never be a time when the “masses” all agree on any given course of action.

    Each person is responsible for their own life – regardless of what Oprah or anyone else says.

  6. Jude says:

    Oprah. Where can I start? People love her, but I’ve never quite understood why. She is *so* strange. For awhile, I purchased the books she mentioned in her book club, until I realized that our tastes were diametrically opposed–in other words, I hated *every* book she recommended. She mentioned the environment once–when Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to talk about it–but usually she is the largest proponent of conspicuous consumption. She encouraged us a couple of months ago to throw away our pillows and sheets after a few uses. The actors I love–Colin Firth, Ioan Gruffud, Derek Jacobi–are irrelevant to her. She promotes the careers of Tom Cruise and John Travolta (yuck). The world I live in–one of single motherhood and poverty–is unimaginable to her. She has dogs instead of children. Whatever. When she builds a school in South Africa or builds 50 houses near Houston, she sends cameras to show the happy, grateful poor people who worship her for her largesse. In other words, she’s a braggart. I guess that’s the worst part–not the pseudo-religious crap she spouts forth; not the people she promotes to stardom, such as Dr. Phil; but the way her entire life revolves around self-promotion. Look at me, she says, I am *so* good. I am *so* amazing. I have reached nirvana. Love me, love me, love me.

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