A Critique of Oprah Winfrey
Golden Globes host Seth Meyers stood before Oprah Winfrey, who was set to receive the Cecil B. DeMille award Sunday night, January 7, 2018 and was sitting in the very front of the room. As Meyers opened the awards show, he mentioned his 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner gig, the one where he joked about Donald Trump not being qualified for president.
“Some have said that night convinced him to run. So, if that’s true, I just want to say: Oprah, you will never be president! You do not have what it takes. And Hanks! Where’s Hanks? You will never be vice president. You are too mean and unrelatable. Now we just wait and see.”
Winfrey burst into laughter. But an hour later, she took the stage to deliver an incredibly rousing speech that was both personal and a universal call to action. “I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon,” she said to thunderous applause.
She brought the crowd at the Beverly Hilton to its feet. On social media, chatter built about her presidential prospects.
“It’s up to the people,” her longtime partner, Stedman Graham, told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. “She would absolutely do it.”
Her best friend, Gayle King, told the outlet: “I thought that speech was incredible. I got goose bumps.”
That night, the Los Angeles Times told Winfrey that “the Internet is saying Oprah for president in 2020. What does Oprah say?”
“I say, I’m just glad I got through the speech!” she answered. “I thought a lot about it. I wanted this to be a meaningful moment.”
But would she consider a 2020 presidential run? “Okaay!” she reportedly responded.
CNN, citing two anonymous individuals, said Winfrey’s confidants have been urging her for months to run for office. Brad Anderson, the Iowa state director for President Barack Obama’s reelection, tweeted, “Call me Oprah. I’ve got some Iowa county chairs who would love to hear from you.”
If you could characterize Donald Trump as one of the unfortunate consequences of The Matrix Conspiracy, Oprah would have to be characterized as a leading Matrix Sophist. In my critique of Donald Trump I saw him as a result of the American anti-intellectualism and anti-science movement. Anti-intellectualism is hostility to and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectualism commonly expressed as deprecation of education and philosophy, and the dismissal of art, literature, and science as impractical and even contemptible human pursuits.
Notable anti-intellectual philosophies include pragmatism, positivism, and Bergsonism, which advocate distrust of reason and promote feeling and emotion over thought, intuition over logic, immediate action over critical consideration, and results over means.
Anti-intellectuals present themselves and are perceived as champions of common folk—populists against political and academic elitism. They tend to see educated people as a status class detached from the concerns of most people, and feel that intellectuals dominate political discourse and control higher education. In short: popular culture is permeated with anti-intellectualism (see my article The Confabulation of Trump, and the Matrix Dictionary entries Donald Trump and Anti-intellectualism and Anti-science).
This is certainly also a characteristic of Oprah Winfrey, but with quite another touch than Donald Trump. So, if anti-intellectualism is the reason why Donald Trump could be elected as president, so could Oprah Winfrey, and that with a much broader appeal. In this article I will follow Oprah´s choices, especially with links to articles in the end of this article. In the following I will describe Oprah with a connection to the presidential possibility seen in relation to The Matrix Conspiracy.
Oprah Winfrey is best known for her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was the highest-rated television program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011. Credited with creating a more intimate confessional form of media communication, she is thought to have popularized and revolutionized the tabloid talk show genre pioneered by Phil Donahue, through which, according to a Yale study, she broke 20th century taboos and allowed LGBT people to enter the mainstream. By the mid-1990s, she had reinvented her show with a focus on literature, self-improvement, and spirituality. Though criticized for unleashing a confession culture, promoting controversial self-help ideas, and an emotion-centered approach, she is often praised for overcoming adversity to become a benefactor to others.
Newsweek featured an article by Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert (5/29/09), Why Health Advice From Oprah Could Make You Sick that deconstructs the world according to Oprah. If this article is a sign of what the newly revamped magazine will be like in the future, sign me up. I suggest Larry King be the next woo-woo promoter to be featured by Newsweek!
One should be very careful to criticize Oprah Winfrey. You won´t be popular. Nobody in the mass media goes after the all-powerful Oprah. Newsweek deserves beaucoup props for exposing ”the most dangerous woman in the world.” Her medical advice alone could namely be killing and maiming thousands daily.
In Oprah's world, vaccines don't prevent children from suffering, they cause autism. In Oprah's world, you can cure cancer with happy thoughts. In The Oprah's, Suzanne Somers and Jenny McCarthy are medical experts. In Oprah's world, Rhonda Byrne and Marianne Williamson are philosophers (both are New Thought gurus – see my article The New Thought Movement and The Law of Atrraction).
In Oprah's world, injecting hormones will keep you forever young. In Oprah's world, the HPV vaccine kills people. In Oprah's world, cancer-causing sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented by eating healthy foods. In Oprah's world, thyroid dysfunction is an energy blockage caused by "a lifetime of 'swallowing' words one is aching to say."
In Oprah's world, if you're hypothyroid you should take iodine supplements and drink soy milk. In Oprah's world, all you need for a quick face-lift without having to worry about side-effects is a needle and thread, or radio waves. In Oprah's world, psychics who claim to get messages from the dead are not exploiting grieving people, they are helping them through the grieving process. In Oprah's world, feelings always trump reason, intuition always trumps science, and hope always trumps fact. In Oprah's world, wishful thinking is considered science.
In Oprah's world, if you want to be thin and healthy, all you have to do is hang around thin, healthy people. If that doesn't work, and it obviously doesn't, try regular exercise and eating sensibly. If that doesn't work, sit on the couch and watch Oprah. Wait until she brings on an expert who will explain why her world of magical thinking is so appealing to millions of her fans. You may not end up healthy, but I guarantee that you will end up very thin.
Please read the article by Kosova and Wingert in Newsweek.
Update: Oprah's response to "Crazy Talk: Oprah, Wacky Cures & You" has been posted:
For 23 years, my show has presented thousands of topics that reflect the human experience, including doctors' medical advice and personal health stories that have prompted conversations between our audience members and their health care providers. I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them.
How she knows what her audience is doing with her information is anybody's guess. She claims she's not promoting strange and dangerous medical advice. She's simply giving people a platform to present ideas that her audience can discuss with their health care providers. She's just trying to start a conversation! This response seems a bit disingenuous when you consider that Oprah frequently brings on token opponents to her wacky guests and clearly indicates which side she's on. On the other hand, I've seen shows on topics like acupuncture that were clearly not intended to start any dialogue, but were aimed at promoting a particular practice.
Postscript: The Newsweek article gave Dr. Mehmet Oz kudos for his medical advice over the years. His medicine bag is mixed with good advice and quackery, however. In any case, he says he's made his last appearance on Oprah's show. "The Dr. Oz Show" starts on September 14. Dr. Phil might be jealous.
From 2006 to 2008, Oprah´s endorsement of Obama, by one estimate, delivered over a million votes in the close 2008 Democratic primary race.
The power of Winfrey's opinions and endorsement to influence public opinion, especially consumer purchasing choices, has been dubbed "The Oprah Effect". The effect has been documented or alleged in domains as diverse as book sales, beef markets, and election voting.
Late in 1996, Winfrey introduced the Oprah's Book Club segment to her television show. The segment focused on new books and classics and often brought obscure novels to popular attention. The book club became such a powerful force that whenever Winfrey introduced a new book as her book-club selection, it instantly became a best-seller; for example, when she selected the classic John Steinbeck novel East of Eden, it soared to the top of the book charts. Being recognized by Winfrey often means a million additional book sales for an author.
In Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America (2005), Kathleen Rooney describes Winfrey as "a serious American intellectual who pioneered the use of electronic media, specifically television and the Internet, to take reading – a decidedly non-technological and highly individual act – and highlight its social elements and uses in such a way to motivate millions of erstwhile non-readers to pick up books."
In Oprah Winfrey lore, one particular story is repeated over and over. When Oprah was 17, she won the Miss Fire Prevention Contest in Nashville, Tennessee. Until that year every winner had had a mane of red hair, but Oprah would prove to be a game changer.
The contest was the first of many successes for Oprah. She has won numerous Emmys, has been nominated for an Oscar, and appears on lists like Time’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She founded the Oprah Book Club, which is often credited with reviving Americans’ interest in reading. Her generosity and philanthropic spirit are legendary.
Oprah has legions of obsessive, devoted fans who write her letters and follow her into public restrooms. Oprah basks in their love: “I know people really, really, really love me, love me.” And she loves them right back. It’s part of her “higher calling”. She believes that she was put on this earth to lift people up, to help them “live their best life”. She encourages people to love themselves, believe in themselves, and follow their dreams.
Oprah is one of a new group of elite storytellers who present practical solutions to society’s problems that can be found within the logic of existing profit-driven structures of production and consumption. They promote market-based solutions to the problems of corporate power, technology, gender divides, environmental degradation, alienation and inequality.
One of the five programming technologies of The Matrix Conspiracy is precisely Management theory, which is intimidately linked to postmodernism (see my articles Management Theory and The Self-help Industry and Constructivism: the Postmodern Intellectualism Behind New Age and the Self-help Industry).
We live in a postmodern society, where the distinction between reality and appearance/superficies is about to disappear. Reality is often the images, we receive through the stream of information. And it becomes more and more difficult to see, which objective reality that lies behind. It seems more and more to be the images, which are real, and not some behind lying reality. In that sense all images are equal true - (because there is no objective instance to decide what is more true than something else) - but they are not equal good, for some images are more fascinating than others, some images affect us more than others. Therefore the expression of the image has come in focus. The expression of the image – its aesthetics – decides, whether it fascinates us or bores us. What apply for today, is the intensity and seduction of the expressions. The new truth criterion is, whether something is interesting or boring. Eternal values such as goodness, truth and beauty fall more and more away.
The death of the eternal values doesn't only apply for reality, but also the personality. The individual human being lives in a space without truth, in a time without direction, and with an information flow so huge, that the manageability beforehand has to be given up. How are we to live then? Well, the management theorists claim, you do this by creating yourself in a never-ending new production. The personality then becomes a persona (mask), an eternal change of role, because when the role begins to stiffen, it becomes uninteresting and boring. New is good, as these theorists say. What before characterized the personality´s relationship to the world, was a call. Now the relationship has become a project (or as the management theorists say: a good story, a good branding, a good spin), which is formed, quickly is being carried out and dropped for the benefit of a new project, that can maintain the constant demand for intensity and seduction.
It is precisely the management theories, which are lying behind the companies´ much talk about the employees´ willingness to personal development, flexibility, innovation and readiness for change. Words, that appear in almost any job advertisement.
And therefore also so much bet on PR; that is: not only concerning consumer goods, but also concerning people, for example politicians. The image of the politician in the media is today more important for his choice than the politics, he may advocate. Politics becomes, like everything else, a ware, which has to be sold through good stories (branding, spin). Everything becomes a business, which have to be runned economical. The business community of the management culture, with its active leaders, is being transferred to all areas of life, where everything is being evaluated from if it can be sold, not from the Source of wisdom: the Good, the True and the Beautiful.
So the management theories, and its belonging self-help industry, have actual become a common accepted ideology. A whole time-tendency within school, folk high school and continuing education, focus on so-called ”personal development/self-improvement”. Therefore you can´t avoid being encouraged to an unrestrained and Egoistic self-expression, where you are letting your choices (story-telling, self-branding) decide everything, in the belief that you through your choices can create a successfull life as it fit you. From the management theorists you hear slogans such as: ”It is not facts, but the best story, which wins!”
In this climate of stress and uncertainty, Oprah tells us the stories of her life to help us understand our feelings, cope with difficulty and improve our lives. She presents her personal journey and metamorphosis from poor little girl in rural Mississippi to billionaire prophet as a model for overcoming adversity and finding “a sweet life”.
Oprah’s biographical tale has been managed, mulled over, and mauled in the public gaze for 30 years. She used her precocious intelligence and wit to channel the pain of abuse and poverty into building an empire. She was on television by the age of 19 and had her own show within a decade.
The 1970s feminist movement opened the door to the domestic, private sphere, and the show walked in a decade later, breaking new ground as a public space to discuss personal troubles affecting Americans, particularly women. Oprah broached topics (divorce, depression, alcoholism, child abuse, adultery, incest) that had never before been discussed with such candor and empathy on television (see my article The New Feminism and the Philosophy of Women´s Magazines).
The show’s evolution over the decades mirrored the evolution of Oprah’s own life. In its early years the show followed a “recovery model” in which guests and viewers were encouraged to overcome their problems through self-esteem building and learning to love themselves.
But as copycat shows and criticisms of “trash talk” increased in the early 1990s, Oprah changed the show’s format. In 1994, Oprah declared that she was done with “victimization” and negativity: “It ’s time to move on from ‘We are dysfunctional’ to ‘What are we going to do about it?’” Oprah credited her decision to her own personal evolution: “People must grow and change” or “they will shrivel up” and “their souls will shrink”.
In an appearance on Larry King Live, Oprah acknowledged that she had become concerned about the message of her show and so had decided to embark on a new mission “to lift people up”. Themes of spirituality and empowerment displaced themes of personal pathology. For Oprah, the transformation was total: “Today I try to do well and be well with everyone I reach or encounter. I make sure to use my life for that which can be of goodwill. Yes, this has brought me great wealth. More important, it has fortified me spiritually and emotionally.”
With my concept of the Matrix Conspiracy I claim that the self-help industry today is a central part of the ideology of the society as such, which is introduced in schools, in education, on workingplaces (psychotherapy and coaching), in politics (spin doctors), mass media (reality shows, talent shows, internet, etc.), in activation courses for unemployed, etc., etc.
But when the self-help industry tells people, that they through self-improvement can become themselves, it opens the doors for its own built-in paradox. It promises people liberation and praises the responsible and self-leading human being – but creates at the same time people, who are dependent of continued therapeutic intervention. The more people are told, that they can treat themselves, the more they are in the risk of being made into uncritical objects for therapeutic treatment.
The widespread psychologized, emotionalized and therapized belief in the hidden aspects of humans (the unconscious) has not only given humans a new way of self-creation, but also a new outer definition of new authorities (self-help consultants, practitioners, identity-experts, therapists, coaches, spin doctors), who are characterized by, that they neither want to be authorities or to be looked at as authorities. People in the age of authenticity will no longer suppress others or be suppressed from the outside, they want to express others and themselves be expressed from within. But the expression doesn´t come by itself; it has to be established in a self-help process, which builds on the idea that people have a chronically authenticity-problem and therefore are in need of treatment.
The self-help industry, and its belonging therapeutic techniques, thereby exposes the paradox, that the more resource-filled a human being is conceived to be, the more it has to be supported therapeutic. The more self-actualizing a human being becomes, the more it is in need of help to actualize itself. And the more responsibility a human being is said to have for its own life, the more this same human being, as a basic starting point, is considered as a victim, as non-authentic, and therefore as powerless.
The one face of this paradoxical Janus head is the empowerment culture, the other face is the victimization culture (and the connected recovery movement). Oprah is the living example of this Janus Head, deciding what a whole nation, USA, shall think. And when it is thought in the USA, it spreads to the rest of the world.
Fortunately some other critics have also discovered this paradox, for example the investigative reporter Steve Salerno in his book SHAM – How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, and the American lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer in her book I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions
Self-help: To millions of Americans it seems like a godsend. To many others it seems like a joke. But as Steve Salerno reveals in his groundbreaking book, it’s neither—in fact it’s much worse than a joke. Going deep inside the Self-Help and Actualization Movement (fittingly, the words form the acronym SHAM), Salerno offers the first serious exposé of this multibillion-dollar industry and the real damage it is doing—not just to its paying customers, but to all of American society.
Based on the author’s extensive reporting—and the inside look at the industry he got while working at a leading “lifestyle” publisher—SHAM shows how thinly credentialed “experts” now dispense advice on everything from mental health to relationships to diet to personal finance to business strategy. Americans spend upward of $8 billion every year on self-help programs and products. And those staggering financial costs are actually the least of our worries.
SHAM demonstrates how the self-help movement’s core philosophies have infected virtually every aspect of American life—the home, the workplace, the schools, and more.
Salerno shows the paradox by claiming that SHAM has two polar camps: One camp is Victimization. The other camp is Empowerment. And Salerno exposes the downside of being uplifted, showing how the “empowering” message that dominates self-help today proves just as damaging as the blame-shifting rhetoric of self-help’s “Recovery” movement, which are connected with the Victimization culture.
SHAM also reveals:
As Salerno shows, to describe self-help as a waste of time and money vastly understates its collateral damage. And with SHAM, the self-help industry has finally been called to account for the damage it has done.
Wendy Kaminer´s book I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions is a non-fiction book about the self-help industry.
The book is a strong critique of the self-help movement, and focuses criticism on other books on the subject matter, including topics of codependency and twelve-step programs.
The author addresses the social implications of a society engaged in these types of solutions to their problems, and argues that they foster passivity, social isolation, and attitudes contrary to democracy.
Of the self-help movement, Kaminer writes: "At its worst, the recovery movement's cult of victimization mocks the notion of social justice by denying that there are degrees of injustice.”
Kaminer also criticizes the lack of a free-forum for debate and reasoning within these groups, noting that those who disagree with the tenets of the organization are immediately branded "in denial", similar to the way a fundamentalist might characterize a free-thinker as a heretic.
Kaminer gives a deconstruction of the history and methodology of some of these groups, which are depicted in the book as simplistic and narcissistic. She blames New Age thinking for encouraging "psychologies of victimization."
She explains a two-step process used to write a popular self-help book: First, "Promote the prevailing preoccupation of the time," (either health or wealth) and then "Package platitudes about positive thinking, prayer or affirmation therapy as sure-fire, scientific techniques."
Kaminer maintains that self-help has negative effects on both politics and personal development.
Kaminer acknowledges that there are those who have real problems and receive benefit from groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, but she also "picks apart the tenets of the recovery religion – for she sees striking parallels with religious fundamentalism."
In addition to Alcoholics Anonymous and the codependency movement, other books and self-help movements critiqued in the book include Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking and Werner Erhard's Erhard Seminars Training "est" organization.
The writings of Mary Baker Eddy, and Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich are also analyzed and critiqued.
Though Kaminer "ridiculed the excesses of self-help psychology and theology," she approved of the motivational work done by Rabbi Harold Kushner.
Kaminer criticized the effect that talk shows have on American society, and recounted how a producer for The Oprah Winfrey Show coached participants to "jump in" and interrupt each other on the show.
Kaminer writes that it is not the content that appears on talk shows that is the problem, but rather that "they claim to do so much more than entertain; they claim to inform and explain. They dominate the mass marketplace and make it one that is inimical to ideas."
At the time of the book's publication, Kaminer cited a statistic from industry sources asserting that ninety-six percent of the population in the United States were victims of codependency and warped family upbringing.
Note: In connection with the postmodern intellectualism (subjectivism and relativism) I claim that both the Empowerment culture and the Victimization culture are closely related to the power of reductionism in our culture. When you today ask: what is a human being? Then most people answer, that Man ”is a product of heredity and environment”. This has become a whole ideology in the Western world, and a fundamental part of the Illuminati aspect of The Matrix Conspiracy. It is actually a kind of sociobiology, or social Darwinism.
If Man only is a product of heredity and environment, then he has no longer any responsibility for his actions. Even the murderer, who is standing accused in court, is able to defend himself with, that he basically can´t help, that he has committed a murder. Firstly he was born with some unfortunate genes, which made, that he wasn’t all too clever. Therefore he was bullied in the school, and thereby he was developed to become aggressive and hot tempered. All this caused, that he in a certain situation committed a murder, but this he could not help. Heredity and environment led him precisely to this situation. Guilty? No, many people would say today, he is no more guilty, than a person is to blame, that he came to cough in a place filled with smoke. No, on the whole it is society and environment, which are to blame for the murder.
When you are advocating a reductionism and are claiming, that Man is nothing else than for example a product of heredity and environment, then concepts such as responsibility, guilt and duty lose all meaning. And it becomes meaningless to talk about human ideals. Why admire people, who have achieved something great? They have only good genes and a beneficially environment. Why condemn people, who spoil and break down society? They can´t help it.
In fact, today we have two ruling metaphysical reductionisms in the Western society: materialism (the science bias) and idealism (the New Age bias). The consequences of both are a worship of the ego. In materialism this could be depicted in Richard Dawkins´s notion of The Selfish Gene. In her book The Solitary Self – Darwin and The Selfish Gene, the renowned philosopher Mary Midgley, explores the nature of our moral constitution to challenge the view that reduces human motivation to self-interest. Midgley argues cogently and convincingly that simple, one-sided accounts of human motives, such as the “selfish gene” tendency in recent neo-Darwinian thought, may be illuminating but are always unrealistic. Such neatness, she shows, cannot be imposed on human psychology. Midgley returns to the original writings of Charles Darwin to show how the reductive individualism that is now presented as Darwinism does not derive from Darwin but from a wider, Hobbesian tradition in Enlightenment thinking. She reveals the “selfish gene” hypothesis in evolutionary biology as a cultural accretion that is not seen in nature. Heroic independence, argues Midgley, is not a realistic aim for Homo Sapiens. We are, as Darwin saw, earthly organism framed to interact with one another and with the complex ecosystems of which we are a tiny part. For us, bonds are not just restraints but also lifelines. The Solitary Self is a significant re-reading of Darwin and an important corrective to recent work in evolutionary science, which has wide implications for debates in science, religion, psychology and ethics.
In idealism the ego-worship could be depicted as self-assertion (or self-love): the ultimate narcissism. Both materialism and idealism are included in The Matrix Conspiracy, though idealism is the ruling philosophy. The reason why both is included is that they define each other; they are so to speak complementary to each other, because they mutually exclude each other and at the same necessarily must supplement each other.
My own claim is that Richard Dawkins´s notion of The Selfish Gene (or The Selfish Meme) is a pure fantasy, which has no more scientific or philosophical validity than many of the theories of “the evolution of consciousness” we see in the idealism of New Age. Both are paradoxically enough new kinds of Social Darwinism (see my article A Critique of Richard Dawkins and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and the Matrix Dictionary update on Richard Dawkins). And both are involved in the rise of a new kind of fascism (see the Matrix Dictionary entry The Matrix Conspiracy Fascism).
The paradox of the Janus face of Empowerment and Victimization is rising because of the self-help industry´s goal-oriented ideology, where the supreme good is lying out in the future, and where the end therefore justifies the means. The goal is an idea, a point out in the future, projected by the mind, where salvation is coming in some form; a form which is based on the ideals created by the New Thought movement: success, prosperity, personal power, health, beauty, material glory.
Philosophy and spirituality are in opposition to all kinds of ideology (see my article The Difference Between Philosophical Education and Ideological Education). In philosophy of existence (and in true spirituality) the concept of being is covering the concepts of being yourself, of authenticity, autonomy, decisiveness and power of action. It is also covering the concept of happiness: the existential and life-philosophical concepts of reality, co-operation, movement, safety and meaning. Being yourself is therefore the same as being yourself present in the now, no matter what you are, no matter how much you are suffering, how poor you are, or how incompetent other people are conceiving you to be (see my article Suffering as an Entrance to the Source). Being yourself present in the now (passive listening presence, silence, or meditation) will by itself awaken a spirit of greatness.
In the self-help industry all this is turned upside down because of its ideological aspects. The second aspect of the above-mentioned paradox is therefore, that instead of focusing on being (where the self-help industry has the word authenticity from), it presses people to focus on becoming. In philosophy of existence (and in true spirituality) the concept of becoming is covering the concepts of trying to become something else than what you are, where you imitate others, are a slave of others ideas and ideals, and where your actions are characterized by irresoluteness and doubt. In short: non-authenticity. It is also covering the concepts of suffering: the existential and life-philosophical concepts of unreality, division, stagnation, anxiety and meaninglessness. Trying to become something else than what you are, is therefore the same as being yourself absent in the future, and it will directly create suffering in you.
It is this aspect of the self-help industry that has made me puzzled over that this industry actually is supporting what you in traditional philosophy and spirituality consider as the four philosophical hindrances for the opening in towards the Source. But not enough with that, it directly hates the corresponding four philosophical openings (see my article The Four Philosophical Hindrances and Openings).
This leads to the third aspect of the paradox, namely The Hermeneutics of Suspicion. The self-help industry ends up in a prejudiced worldview, where it condems being; that is: it not only condems what people are (we saw that it, as a basic starting point, considers people as non-authentic and powerless if they have not accepted their ideology and therapeutic techniques, where they are taught to want to become something else), it also condems people who actually are themselves present in the now, people who live in accordance with their own essence, and who have achieved that self-forgetful openness and absorption in the world, which is a condition for love, spontaneity, joy of life and wisdom: the true philosophers and spiritual masters.
Why? Because the teaching of such people will be in direct opposition to the teaching of the self-help industry: they will focus on being and not becoming.
Read more about the self-help industry´s paradox in my article Self-help and The Mythology of Authenticity.
A stream of self-help gurus have spent time on Oprah’s stage over the past decade and a half, all with the same message. You have choices in life. External conditions don’t determine your life. You do. It ’s all inside you, in your head, in your wishes and desires. Thoughts are destiny, so thinking positive thoughts will enable positive things to happen.
When bad things happen to us, it’s because we’re drawing them toward us with unhealthy thinking and behaviors. “Don’t complain about what you don’t have. Use what you’ve got. To do less than your best is a sin. Every single one of us has the power for greatness because greatness is determined by service—to yourself and others.” If we listen to that quiet “whisper” and fine-tune our “internal, moral, emotional GPS”, we too can learn the secret of success. Can we really? Well, a simple reductio ad absurdum argument can show how much lack of thinking this involves. If true it would mean that the starving mom in Africa who are trying to find ways to feed her children has drawn this situation towards her with unhealthy thinking and behaviors. It is not the external conditions (for example drought) that have determined her life.
Janice Peck, in her work as professor of journalism and communication studies, has studied Oprah for years. She argues that to understand the Oprah phenomenon we must return to the ideas swirling around in the Gilded Age. Peck sees strong parallels in the mind-cure movement of the Gilded Age and Oprah’s evolving enterprise in the New Gilded Age, the era of neoliberalism. She argues that Oprah’s enterprise reinforces the neoliberal focus on the self: Oprah’s “enterprise [is] an ensemble of ideological practices that help legitimize a world of growing inequality and shrinking possibilities by promoting and embodying a configuration of self compatible with that world.”
Nothing captures this ensemble of ideological practices better than O Magazine, whose aim is to “help women see every experience and challenge as an opportunity to grow and discover their best self. To convince women that the real goal is becoming more of who they really are. To embrace their life.” O Magazine implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, identifies a range of problems in neoliberal capitalism and suggests ways for readers to adapt themselves to mitigate or overcome these problems.
Oprah recognizes the pervasiveness of anxiety and alienation in our society. But instead of examining the economic or political basis of these feelings, she advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment.
Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures. In doing so, they make the American Dream seem attainable. If we just fix ourselves, we can achieve our goals. For some people, the American dream is attainable, but to understand the chances for everyone, we need to look dispassionately at the factors that shape success.
The current incarnation of the American Dream narrative holds that if you acquire enough cultural capital (skills and education) and social capital (connections, access to networks), you will be able to translate that capital into both economic capital (cash) and happiness. Cultural capital and social capital are seen as there for the taking (particularly with advances in internet technology), so the only additional necessary ingredients are pluck, passion, and persistence— all attributes that allegedly come from inside us.
The American dream is premised on the assumption that if you work hard, economic opportunity will present itself, and financial stability will follow, but the role of cultural and social capital in paving the road to wealth and fulfilment, or blocking it, may be just as important as economic capital. Some people are able to translate their skills, knowledge, and connections into economic opportunity and financial stability, and some are not—either because their skills, knowledge, and connections don’t seem to work as well, or they can’t acquire them in the first place because they’re too poor.
Today, the centrality of social and cultural capital is obscured (sometimes deliberately), as demonstrated in the implicit and explicit message of Oprah and her ideological colleagues. In their stories, and many others like them, cultural and social capital are easy to acquire. They tell us to get an education. Too poor? Take an online course. Go to Khan Academy. They tell us to meet people, build up our network. Don’t have any connected family members? Join LinkedIn.
It’s simple. Anyone can become anything. There’s no distinction between the quality and productivity of different people’s social and cultural capital. We’re all building our skills. We’re all networking.
We are the perfect, depoliticized, complacent neoliberal subjects.
When the stories that manage our desires break their promises over and over, the stories themselves become fuel for change and open a space for new, radical stories. These new stories must feature collective demands that provide a critical perspective on the real limits to success in our society and foster a vision of life that does fulfill the desire for self-actualization.
All in all: postmodernistic hard bitten political ideology, dancing with Dawkins´s Selfish Gene and an obscure New Thought spirituality.
Now we have two years to see what Oprah´s up to. Below I will post updates.
Updates until now:
The Oprah-fication of medicine by David Gorski, Science-Based Medicine
The Matrix Conspiracy
The Confabulation of Trump
The New Feminism and the Philosophy of Women´s Magazines
Radical Feminism and the Anti-Vaccine Movement
The New Thought Movement and the Law of Attraction
A Critique of Richard Dawkins and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI)
Related in The Matrix Dictionary:
The Matrix Conspiracy Updates
The Matrix Conspiracy Fascism
Anti-intellectualism and Anti-science
Feminism as Fascism
The Matrix Dictionary