Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The unbearable slightness of being (Oprah)

I know that there are many many more important things going on in the world today than the thing I am about to talk about.

Nonetheless, I think we should all take a brief moment to consider the infinite intellectual vacuum that is Oprah Winfrey.

This may be blindingly obvious, but it hasn't stopped her from becoming jaw-droppingly wealthy and influential.

What is galling is that she's done this by showcasing precisely that version of vaguely 'spiritual' tear-stained sentimentality that is one of the worst cultural plagues besetting the land of my birth. Having now achieved enormous wealth and influence--when, in short, she is in the position of really making a difference--she's continuing to peddle the same old crap.

I suppose if you're not American, you may be wondering a bit about all this bile, particularly as her image is such a nice one.

And, yes, she has certainly been on the right side of some of the issues that she has taken up, such as gay rights and civil rights. (Very few of which causes, though, have really been controversial or involved her taking any risks.)

Moreover, I don't think that what she's promoting is necessarily very nice at all.

Having never met a bit of meaningless psychobabble that she didn't like, she has for the last couple of decades been one of the reasons that Americans have that distinct habit of blathering endlessly on about their 'issues' and 'codependencies' and inability to 'relate' to their 'significant others' and their never-ending search for 'closure'.

She is one of the reasons why American politics have become so unbearably focused on the minutiae of personality rather than the debating of policy.

And she is part of the reason why so many Americans are susceptible to the comfortably vacuous murmurs of people like Deepak Chopra. (PZ Myers has taken on the tiresome task of addressing Chopra's 'thinking' many times, on issues such as genes, evolution and religion.) Oprah's show was one of the vehicles that made Chopra such a success, so even on that simple ground, she has a lot to answer for.

Oprah-land is an odd alternate-Earth where there are no problems that cannot be solved by a nice chat involving a few tepid burblings about 'healing' and a big dose of positive--to the point of delusional--thinking. All questions have a simple, morally uplifting answer. No obstacle cannot be overcome with the right dosage of spiritualist drivel and 'belief in yourself'.

It is the sugary ease with which such trite views go down that has even made her a 'spiritual leader' of sorts, something that at least some more orthodox believers seem to be concerned about, since Oprah's version of God is rather more ecumenical than theirs. In perfectly post-modern fashion, she takes spoonfuls of yummy spiritual goodness wherever she can find it.

But what kind of message is she flogging, really?

Well, let's take a quick look.

'When you lose a loved one, you gain an angel whose name you know,' she said at a memorial service in the wake of September 11th, concluding, 'May we leave this place determined to now use every moment that we yet live to turn up the volume in our own lives, to create deeper meaning, to know what really matters.'

Oprah, you see, thinks that life always has a message for us. And that message is always, in some way, a positive one.

For Oprah, there is always a pony.

And in this, I know, she is not alone. In fact, there are apparently enough people hungry for this sort of tasteless broth to make her a billionaire.

Its popularity is what makes this kind of nutrition-free blather so bothersome.

Not only does it not, in the end, mean anything, but it is in fact a hindrance to finding meaning. The answers it provides put a stop to further thinking and shut down any possibility of recognising Very Important Things in life: the power of contingency, the essential smallness of our existence, the impossibility of reconciling the contradictions of being a human being.

Her message is the antithesis of one of the most important virtues in the world: humility.

If the main meaning she can find in the carnage of September 11th is a call for each of us to focus even more on ourselves, then I think that in some serious way she may have missed something more important.

But it is clear what Oprah thinks 'really matters'.

Consider the death of her own two-year-old golden retriever, Gracie, which Oprah writes about in the current issue of her magazine, O (and which is the thing that has caused me to go on about this at such length).

Now...in terms of one of those crucial binaries of life, I'm much more a cat person, I have to admit. But, still, I have had enough experience with dogs to know it is possible to develop an emotional attachment to them that, to all appearances, they are capable of reciprocating.

Moreover, one of the key perspectives of a naturalistic world view is the recognition of what we share as living creatures, among them the ability to suffer and feel fear.

So, I think it is difficult to read the story of Gracie's sudden death through choking on a plastic ball without feeling, in some way, moved and saddened.

And then...and then we get to the part where we all are taught The Lesson, from the big O herself.

Because, of course there must be a lesson.

Weirdly, though, it is, more-or-less the same lesson to be learned from mass death caused by terrorist atrocity.

So through my tears and stabbing pain and disbelief and wonder and questions about how and why this happened, I leaned over my sweet and wild and curious and mind-of-her-own Gracie, and asked, "Dear Gracie, what were you here to teach me that only your death could show me?" And this is the answer: This lovely little runt whom I'd brought home sick—on his first visit with her, the vet told me to return her and get my money back—did more living in two years than most dogs do in 12.

Now, I'm not sure how Oprah knows about how much 'living' Gracie did (or about whether, maybe, she'd have preferred to go on living that pampered, raucous lifestyle for a good long time). But, OK, it was her dog, not mine, so perhaps I should not judge.

But...is it just me, or is there something not entirely nice about a dog owner kneeling over their beloved pet just after it has gone through its death throes, and, in effect, posing the following question: 'What's in it for me?'

Because, it seems to me, that is what Oprah did. And that is, in the end, the basis of the lesson she draws.
Her life was a gift to me. Her death, a greater one.

Ten days before she died, I was getting a yearly physical, and to lower my blood pressure I'd think of Gracie's smiling face.

Just days before the "freak accident," the head of my company came into my office to have a serious talk about "taking some things off your schedule—you're doing too much." Maya Angelou called me to say the same thing. "You're doing too much. Don't make me come to Chicago," she chided. "I want you to slow down."

I'd broken a cardinal rule: The whole month of May I'd had no day off, dashing from one event to the next. But though I appreciated everyone's concern, I still had to finish the season. Wrap up the year's shows. Have foundation meetings. Meet with auditors. Review plans for a new building, and on and on. So many people on my list. I literally forgot to put myself on the list for a follow-up checkup.

When the doctor's office called, I confessed. I hadn't heeded what I know for sure. I said, "Doctor, I'm sorry. I had so many meetings with different people, I forgot to put myself on the list."

The next day, Gracie died.

Slow down, you're moving too fast. I got the message.

Thank you for being my saving Gracie. I now know for sure angels come in all forms.

Does this story not suggest a deeply self-centred personality, the sort summed up in the line, 'Her life was a gift to me. Her death, a greater one.'?

Even worse: this is solipsism of the most tenacious and unpleasant variety being sold under the cover of sweet sentimentality.

And this, I think, is one of the keys to Oprah's success.

It's OK, she says, go ahead, see yourself as the centre of the universe. Everything that happens to you happens for a reason. And, to quote a well-known book, it is good. And it is something she 'knows for sure'. No evidence, mind you. She just knows.

Of course.

But who gave this 'gift'? Is Oprah saying the dog sacrificed herself for her owner?

If not, it never seems to occur to her that she is therefore suggesting that whatever force she thinks is guiding the universe thought it was OK to choke a dog to death to give her the simple message that she needs to chill out a bit.

Because, it would seem to me, that is what she is saying happened.

And that strikes me a very nasty world view indeed.

Sadly, it is not one held only by a dimwitted talk show host.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's the Animaniacs _Wheel of Morality_ approach to existence, isn't it?


Chris W