Monday, March 05, 2007

Oprah's "Secret"

Salon today features an excellent article by Peter Birkenhead about a book heavily promoted on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" called "The Secret".

I know a lot of people love Oprah, and I freely admit she's done a lot of good in the world while putting on an entertaining show. But "The Secret" is a truly shameful book and the fact that she promotes it so heavily is deeply disturbing to me. I happened to be in the room folding clothes a few days ago when Annie had this episode of Oprah on, and frankly I found my stomach turning. I couldn't figure out exactly what about this entire scheme made my flesh crawl so much (beyond the obvious -- it's awful). But then I learned from the article that one of the promoters of the entire philosophy is a former Amway executive. My dad was big into Amway for a while growing up, and this entire "Secret" has the same cultish, wealth-worshiping, self-centered pyramid scheme feel to it.

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 ... If James Frey deserved to be raked over the coals for lying about how drunk he was, doesn't Oprah deserve some scrutiny for pitching the meretricious nonsense in "The Secret"?

He goes on to document the various ways in which Oprah is obsessed with beauty and material opulence. She seems incapable of celebrating any event, no matter how trivial, without overwhelmingly ostentatious gifts. One of the pieces of wisdom that the modern American wealth-enhancement philosophy has discarded is that true enlightenment can come only from separating yourself from material objects. Christ and the Buddha both agree that only in freeing yourself from the desire for wealth can you become truly wealthy.

But where Christ and Buddha taught running away from wealth, Oprah and "The Secret" demand that you run towards it, as quickly as possible, and then give it a hug.

To make it worse, Oprah and the authors try to leverage Christ and his teachings to justify their obsession with material wealth. That's right, the very man who taught that we should give up the worldly in favor of what awaits us in the next life is co-opted as some sort of unofficial spokesman or celebrity endorser. This might sound strange coming from an atheist, but I found this absolutely blasphemous, and it pissed me off to no end:

You might expect a powerful person who thinks of herself as "deeply spiritual" to have a less worldly conception of it, and you might hope that she would encourage her followers to do the same, instead of urging them to buy books that call Jesus a "prosperity teacher."

This is no different than the "prosperity gospel" preachers like Jimmy Swaggart and Benny Hinn, who twist and distort the teachings of Christ to convince people He meant the exact opposite of what He taught. Whereas Jesus said "It's far harder for a wealthy man to get into heaven than to fit a camel through the eye of a needle", Oprah and friends teach us that Christ really wanted us to drive Bentleys and to install gold bathroom fixtures in our homes.

Birkenhead brings his article to a close with an excellent summary of what's dangerous about the Oprah-ization of American culture. "The Secret" is nothing more than empty intellectual calories, substituting true wisdom and deep searching for trite, pre-packaged, self-aggrandizing, and corrupting nonsense. Like candy or Coke, it goes down easy but ultimately it's going to rot you from the inside out.

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.

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