Oprah-iate of the People

On finding a new (and unexpected) appreciation for Oprah.

BY Bhaskar Sunkara

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The more I wanted to attack Oprah, the more I sympathized with her.

In preparation for this piece, I spent a few days marinating in all things Oprah. It was shameless. I read back issues of O: The Oprah Magazine on the subway, played her YouTube interviews without headphones, and left “Oprah’s Life Work Tools” browser tabs open for the world to see.

I was looking for quick hits, anecdotes to frame a polemic around, and enough secondary analysis and quotes to fill out the word count. The hits were easy.

Oprah is often attacked for bandying glib self-help: Look inward to diagnose yourself and then medicate by buying a bunch of stuff. After all, she founded a television network with the acronym “OWN.” On her website, the “Oprah Lifeclass” section headlines with “Lesson 1: The False Power of Ego,” which educates the reader with eight photos of Oprah and 46 mentions of her name.

But in pursuit of snark, I took a few sips of the Kool-Aid. Not exactly in Oprah’s target demographic, I was still vulnerable to her call. In the chaotic transition from college to pretending to work for a living, during a few months rocked with personal turmoil, the message, intended for middle-aged women, resonated: “You’re special, you have some flaws, but it’s nothing some luxury lifestyle products can’t fix.”

Sure, like any cult, Oprah’s plays on our most tender insecurities and encourages us to look to a figure of wisdom and authority. But she’s nothing more than a product of her age, hardly worthy of vilification.

Oprah’s critics have plenty to use against her. She trumpets The Secret, a tract from Rhonda Byrne that posits the “law of attraction”—perhaps the most controversial aspect of the idea being that positive thinking can attract desirable material events. Got in a car accident? Maybe it was because you were thinking about car accidents too much, as opposed to a presumably safer approach: not thinking about driving at all. The logic is stunning.

But what makes The Secret, with its extreme and nonsensical idealism, more offensive than the dominant mythology of meritocracy—a faith that ignores environmental and material causes of poverty? Both notions shift responsibility away from society and back to the individual, and both rely on moralizing tropes and mantras of self-empowerment over concrete assistance to struggling people.

And what makes Oprah’s brand of philanthropy worse than any other? True, charity of that type hides underlying structural issues and individualizes social problems, but is there really something insidious in one wealthy woman ineffectively throwing some of her personal fortune at our battered social safety net?

We live in a society based on consumption and individual competition, and Oprah’s solutions to life’s problems reflect both this society and her own background as an African-American woman succeeding against cultural expectations.

The more I wanted to attack Oprah, the more I sympathized with her.

I was reminded of Karl Marx’s frequently misinterpreted critique of religion: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Many have stripped those lines of their context. The sentence that follows explains: “To call on [workers] to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” Marx’s problem wasn’t with religion itself, but with an exploitative environment that drew many to rely on religion.

So with the Oprah Winfrey Network in turmoil—$142.9 million in predicted revenue losses and falling ratings—I can’t celebrate. If Oprah goes, maybe we’ll be forced to dispense with consolation and face the bleakness of a society in decay, alone.

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Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.

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