Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Thou shalt have no other gods before Oprah (and maybe Dr. Phil)!

But graven images are fine. In fact, the more the merrier.

No, no -- I'm not going to place Oprah among the Signs of the Apocalypse. To be sure, there's a good deal I dislike about her -- such as her ubiquitous cult of personality, sustained by what must be a massive, I-am-the-lord-thy-favourite-TV-personality ego (uh, who always appears on the cover of her eponymous magazine?), her everywoman I'm-just-like-you-so-follow-me pretension (uh, isn't she, like, one of the richest people in America?), her claim to literary taste (uh, who is she exactly to determine the enduring quality of a book?), and at least one unfortunate product of her celebrity seed (uh, didn't she spawn Dr. Phil?). But there is a case to be made for her, and that case is made in today's Washington Post by columnist Eugene Robinson, who claims that Oprah leads what amounts to a new religion, exemplified by her 2005 "Live Your Best Life" tour:

Oprah's great gift, and the foundation of her lay ministry, is her understanding that even women who have enjoyed great success in their personal and professional lives can still struggle to find meaning and fulfillment, and that they can learn from Oprah's own search for the same things.

Oprah gets fat, Oprah goes on a diet, Oprah loses the weight, Oprah gains it back, Oprah loses it again, maybe this time for good. Oprah fights an ongoing battle with her hair. Oprah's relationship with her significant other seems to lack something, since she and Steadman never get married, but she hangs in there with him anyway. Oprah has a best friend, Gayle, who sticks with her through everything. Oprah makes charitable gifts. Oprah promotes books, mostly by women writers or with strong female characters, many of them difficult books that offer not comfort but more questions.

Fair enough. Shall I mention, however, that tickets to the feel-good shows of her tour cost at least US$185? Is that important? No, maybe not. So what if most people will only ever be able to admire (worship?) her from afar, through the detached medium of television?

Despite my unavoidable skepticism, for I am skeptical of all such pop-religions, I do appreciate that many people out there, and not just women, "struggle to find meaning and fulfillment" in a world that seems increasingly devoid of either. Modernity has witnessed the breakdown of traditional religious institutions and the concomitant deification of the autonomous individual -- a development itself torn asunder by postmodernism's reckless de-deification of the autonomous individual (and all such truths). Simone Weil captured this existential phenomenon with the term "rootlessness," and it is fair to say, I think, that many of us feel somehow rootless, unable to connect with anything beyond ourselves (if even ourselves). This is how the Japanese writer Fumiko Enchi put it so eloquently in her beautiful short story "The Flower-Eating Crone": "When people no longer have any impact on the world around them, when they can no longer move forward, perhaps the only way they can continue living is to direct their gaze down into their own psyche --either that, or else, digging out old memories, to look back at their past." This is precisely what has made Oprah what she is.

Yes, Oprah offers the ready-made therapeutic band-aid so characteristic of pop-psychology. However, in the sense that she gives people hope, in the sense that she helps people build self-respect, believe in themselves, and deal more effectively and compassionately with the world around them, in the sense that she acts as a role model to rootless people searching for some way to live healthy, meaningful lives, I'm not sure anymore that that's such a problem. In fact, despite my continuing resistance to her annoying cult of personality, I can finally admit that she does more good than harm (and that much of the harm is already built into our culture).

But Dr. Phil? That's truly unforgivable.

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