Oprah and the Downfall of American Society

A journalism professor finds a straw woman on daytime TV and, in the name of scholarship, knocks her right down.
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In the fall of 2000, I was a member of a Tuesday-evening therapy group in Santa Barbara, Calif. We normally avoided talking politics, but as the election-night session drew to a close, the counselor flipped on his computer and informed us the early trends looked favorable for the Democrats. He responded with a smile to our audible expressions of delight. “Did everyone here vote for Gore?” he asked with bemusement.

Of course we had, for reasons that seemed obvious to me. A willingness to look within — which, if done correctly, involves working through layers of anger and defensiveness to a core of vulnerability — helps foster the ability to empathize with others. Once you’ve acknowledged your own fears and flaws, it’s difficult to demonize those with similar defects. Once you’ve recognized the foundations of your belief system may be shaky, it’s harder to justify killing others in its name. To my mind, all this suggested we’d be drawn toward progressive politics, albeit of the mild rather than radical variety.

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On the other hand, self-reflection can sometimes lead to self-absorption. That’s the central point of Janice Peck, a social critic who feels far too many people are sitting on yoga mats when they should be marching in picket lines. An associate professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, Peck equates America’s “therapy culture” with increased levels of economic inequality and an unwillingness on the part of a self-centered populace to challenge the status quo. And her symbol of this age of navel-gazing narcissism is Oprah Winfrey.

In her new book, The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, Peck charts the rise of the wildly successful talk show host and entrepreneur and links it to the ascendance of an individualist ethos that is pitiless toward the poor. She argues these two trends are mutually reinforcing: Oprah’s gospel of spiritual strength and self-reliance made Ronald Reagan’s dismantling of the welfare state more palatable.

It’s a provocative thesis, one that has been explored by the well-known Jungian analyst James Hillman. In his 1992 book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World’s Getting Worse, the curmudgeonly intellectual wondered if the pendulum has swung too far toward introspection. While Hillman’s tone is one of concern and curiosity, Peck’s prose is marked by angry indignation. She uses plenty of academic jargon and loads of footnotes, but there’s no spirit of intellectual inquiry to this book: The author is an outraged prosecutor making her case. She argues we are so consumed with fulfilling our own potential that we barely notice the prejudice and poverty all around us — and when we do, we reflexively blame the victims for not making more of their lives.

The question of individual vs. societal responsibility for ills such as poverty is a complex one, and for a variety of reasons, Americans leaned toward a tough-love approach long before Oprah ever set foot in a television studio. Nevertheless, Peck persistently pursues her perceived link, a quixotic quest that inevitably leads to overreaching. “At the point that making good on his promise to end welfare was speeding Clinton toward re-election, Oprah Winfrey was launching Oprah’s Book Club,” she writes, as if these two powerful people hatched their nefarious plot in the White House basement one night. (“I’ve got it!” Oprah cackled to Bill. “I’ll divert their attention by turning them on to Tolstoy!”)

As that example suggests, Peck is at her least persuasive when discussing the book club, a regular feature in which Winfrey designates a work of literary fiction as the book of the month and builds a program around discussing its contents. Peck dutifully notes the praise Oprah has received from critics and academics alike for promoting serious reading before complaining that Winfrey seems to believe “the purpose of reading literature is to augment and enrich one’s self” and “cultivate self-knowledge.” (Horrors.) She laments that the book-centric episodes are not structured to help readers forge “a new relationship to authority” or “hold a critical mirror up to society.”

So persuading thousands of daytime television viewers to read Cormac McCarthy isn’t good enough because they’re not appreciating his work in the correct way? This arrogant analysis begs countless questions. Does Peck not believe there are many valid approaches to a piece of literature? Why is Oprah obligated to analyze novels from a sociopolitical perspective? And how does she know that these books didn’t inspire political discussions between individual readers?

To her credit, Peck does include alternative perspectives in her book; she will generally provide a one- or two-page summary of conventional wisdom regarding a given topic before turning to the contrarian position she considers closer to the truth. But often, all that does is expose the weakness of her argument. Too often, the book conveys the impression she arrived at her thesis and then began the search for evidence to back it up. At least that would explain why she so often seems to be doing intellectual contortions as she attempts to prove her thesis.

At one point, she declares: “The explosion of the recovery movement during the Reagan era is no coincidence, in that the ‘dysfunctional family’ and wounded self at the core of the recovery model turned out to be compatible with the ‘breakdown of family values’ … at the center of Reaganism’s ideological agenda.” Compatible? One view idealizes the traditional family structure, while the other identifies it as a mechanism by which fears, prejudices and questionable values get passed down from generation to generation. She’s essentially saying Father Knows Best conveys the same worldview as Six Feet Under.

Oddly, there is little information about Oprah’s endeavors beyond the year 2000. But the book does, in its very last pages, include a pre-emptive answer to an obvious criticism: How is it that this woman whom Peck accuses of “depoliticizing” the nation got involved in the Obama campaign?  That’s not a contradiction, Peck insists: Oprah endorsed her home-state senator because he represented, to her, “something beyond and above politics.” In fact, the Democratic presidential candidate has staked out a clear spot on the ideological spectrum; he clearly stands for a shift in political direction, although not the radical one Peck is pining for. His implicit message is that, under the right circumstances, our better natures can and will emerge — a notion that aligns very nicely with the ethos of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

To Peck, self-inquiry is essentially the same as self-involvement, and the quest to live up to your own potential inevitably leads to a willingness to stomp over anyone who gets in your way. I wonder what the professional nurse in my group would say to that. She’d probably laugh at Peck’s assertion that making yourself a better person and making the world a better place are mutually exclusive endeavors. Rather, it is those living unexamined lives who are most easily manipulated into blaming society’s ills on improbable scapegoats such as immigrants and homosexuals. Or, for that matter, talk show hosts.

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