The Story of O: An Empty Spot in the Middle of American Culture

You can't make an "O" without a big empty spot in the middle. And as Peter Birkenhead reminds us in his excellent article onalt Salon.com, the Big O of American culture, Oprah Winfrey, is using her tremendous reach and influence to accelerate the evisceration of meaning in American life – and beyond – through her championing of the genuinely moronic "self-help" system called, moronically, "The Secret." This cargo cult – which guarantees untold riches and endless happiness simply by wishing really hard and "ordering" whatever you want "from the Universe" – might seem too witless and trivial to think about, especially in an age of aggressive war, state terror and its "asymmetrical" offshoots, growing tyranny, economic ravages and social decay. But as Birkenhead ably demonstrates, Oprah's championing of "The Secret" both exemplifies and exacerbates a number of pernicious developments in American society, developments that have found an even greater and literally murderous expression in the policies of the Bush Regime. There's something rotten out there in the state of Jefferson and Franklin, and Oprah is spreading compost on the weeds, to make them ranker.

[This "philosophy" is spreading in the UK as well, propagated by – what else? – a TV personality, a witless variety show host named Noel Edmonds whose long-tanked career has been resurrected by his transformation into a witless game show host. Edmonds, though, is still more of a national joke than a "national treasure" like Oprah.]


Oprah's Ugly Secret (Salon.com)

 Why "venality"? Because, with survivors of Auschwitz still alive, Oprah writes this about "The Secret" on her Web site, "the energy you put into the world -- both good and bad -- is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day." "Venality," because Oprah, in the age of AIDS, is advertising a book that says, "You cannot 'catch' anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought." "Venality," because Oprah, from a studio within walking distance of Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green Projects, pitches a book that says, "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts."


Worse than "The Secret's" blame-the-victim idiocy is its baldfaced bullshitting. The titular "secret" of the book is something the authors call the Law of Attraction. They maintain that the universe is governed by the principle that "like attracts like" and that our thoughts are like magnets: Positive thoughts attract positive events and negative thoughts attract negative events. Of course, magnets do exactly the opposite -- positively charged magnets attract negatively charged particles -- and the rest of "The Secret" has a similar relationship to the truth. Here it is on biblical history: "Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of." And worse than the idiocy and the bullshitting is its anti-intellectualism, because that's at the root of the other two. Here's "The Secret" on reading and, um, electricity: "When I discovered 'The Secret' I made a decision that I would not watch the news or read newspapers anymore, because it did not make me feel good," and, "How does it work? Nobody knows. Just like nobody knows how electricity works. I don't, do you?" And worst of all is the craven consumerist worldview at the heart of "The Secret," because it's why the book exists: "[The Secret] is like having the Universe as your catalogue. You flip through it and say, 'I'd like to have this experience and I'd like to have that product and I'd like to have a person like that.' It is you placing your order with the Universe. It's really that easy." That's from Dr. Joe Vitale, former Amway executive and contributor to "The Secret," on Oprah.com….

Oprah recently opened, with much fanfare, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa, and as I watched the network news stories about it, I couldn't get "The Secret" out of my mind. I kept wondering what would happen if professor Sam Mhlongo, South Africa's chief family practitioner who famously said that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, read about Oprah's connection to "The Secret" and found support there for his claim. I wondered if the students of the academy would read "The Secret" and start to believe that their parents deserved to be poor, or that the people of Darfur summoned the Janjaweed with "bad thoughts." Will the heavier girls be told, as readers of "The Secret" are, that food doesn't cause weight gain -- thinking about weight gain does? Will they be told to not even look at fat people, as "The Secret" advises? Oprah is already promoting these ideas to her television audience. Why wouldn't she espouse them to her students?

… And at what point do we stop feeling like we have to take the good with the craven when it comes to Oprah, and the culture she's helped to create? I get nauseated when I think of people in South Africa being taught they don't have enough money because they're "blocking it with their thoughts." I'm already sickened by an American culture that teaches people, as "The Secret" does, that they "create the circumstances of their lives with the choices they make every day," a culture that elected a president who cried tears of self-congratulation at his inauguration, rejects intellectualism, and believes he can intuit the trustworthiness of world leaders by looking into their eyes. I'm sickened by a culture in which the tenets of the Oprah philosophy have become conventional wisdom, in which genuine self-actualization has been confused with self-aggrandizement, reality is whatever you want it to be, and mammon is queen…

Books like "The Secret" have created, and are feeding, an enormously diverse market of disciples, and they're thriving in every corner of the culture, in megachurches and movies, politics and pop music, in sports arenas and state boards of education. Oprah has far more in common with George Bush than either would like to admit, and so do the psychics of Marin County, Calif., and the creationists of Kansas. The believers come from all walks of life, but they work the same way -- mostly by bastardizing and warping source materials, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita, to make them fit their worldview. On Page 23 of "The Secret" you'll find this revealing doozy: "Meditation quiets the mind, helps you control your thoughts." Of course, the goal of meditation is precisely the opposite -- it is to be conscious, to observe your thoughts honestly and clearly. But that's the last thing the believers want to encourage. The authors of "The Secret" sell "control" in the form of "empowerment" and "quiet" in the form of belief, not consciousness.

The promises of Oprah culture can seem irresistible, and its hallmarks are becoming ubiquitous. Believers may be separated into tribes according to what they believe, but they do it in pretty much the same way, relying on a "Secret"-style conception of "intuition" --- which seems to amount to the sneaking suspicion that they're always right -- to arrive at their tenets. Instead of the world as it is, constantly changing and full of contradiction, they see a fixed and fantastical place, where good things come to those who believe, whether it's belief in a diet, a God, or a Habit of Successful People. These believers may believe in the healing power of homeopathy, or Scripture or organizational skills -- in intelligent design, astrology or privatization. They all trust that their devotion will be rewarded with money and boyfriends and job promotions, with hockey championships and apartments. And most of all they believe -- they really, really believe -- in themselves.

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.

Not that any of this is new. Aimee Semple McPherson, "The Power of Positive Thinking," Father Coughlin, est, James Van Praagh -- pick your influential snake-oil salesman or snake oil. They were all cut from the same cloth as Oprah and "The Secret." The big, big difference is, well, the bigness. The infinitely bigger reach of the Oprah empire and its emissaries. They make their predecessors look like kids with lemonade stands. It would be stupidly dangerous to dismiss Oprah and "The Secret" as silly, or ultimately meaningless. They're reaching more people than Harry Potter, for God-force's sake. That's why what Oprah does matters, and stinks. 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.

That means something.