I've decided that if I were to pick one person who embodies the ersatz character of contemporary American culture, that person would be Oprah Winfrey.
Let me explain.
Over the course of her long career, Oprah has stood for much of the best of American public life. In her daytime talk-show heyday, Oprah created space for people to reflect on their inner selves, to connect to big ideas, and to find a point of entry into a shared community of people who were committed to living better, fuller, more community-centered and empathetic lives. It's for this reason that she has become so beloved, justly, by millions of Americans -- and the scale of her success has felt all the more resonant because of the way she rose from humble origins to become a truly global phenomenon. She is Horatio Alger incarnate, or as close as we've ever come.
When I see Oprah these days, however, I see someone whose work increasingly reflects a dangerous conflation of America's equally revered, slightly oppositional founding principles: capitalistic consumption; spiritual self-fulfillment; and democratic community-building. And the yield of that vacuous mixture is best embodied by her current "The Life You Want Weekend" tour.
As the New York Times reported this weekend, the vibe at these events is akin to a Great Awakening of the modern era -- except whereas the previous Great Awakenings were purely religious revivals, Oprah's events are more like what happens when you combine a deeply felt spiritual yearning with a deeply embedded profit motive. At the event in Auburn Hills, Michigan, reporter Jennifer Conlin chronicles a steady line of opportunities for people to pay at the altar of self-improvement -- from a tiered $199 magazine/fan club subscription, to a $999 VIP upgrade, to a smaller set of items like t-shirts, hoodies, books and phone covers. By the end of the weekend, after Oprah's appearance on stage triggered the audience's wristbands to glow orange (like the sun), and attendees wrote vision statements for the future and took notes during self-help seminars, Oprah's parting words seemed unintentionally revealing. "Thank you for your money," she told everyone. "I know how hard you all work."
Now, don't get me wrong -- events like these must cover costs, and there's nothing wrong with ending up in the black. For lack of a better way to put it, doing 'good' and doing 'well' are equally valued aspirations of the American identity, and since our dual allegiance to capitalism and democracy isn't going anywhere anytime soon, our ongoing challenge is to strike the happy medium between, in this case, profit motive and personal fulfillment.
The problem is when we assume that one's conscience is heightened based on the products one consumes. That, in a word, is gibberish, and yet that is what Oprah has come to personify -- whether it's a giveaway of free cars, a magazine that highlights her favorite stuff (and only features her on the cover), or a highly monetized national tour of self-actualization. As one frustrated attendee put it, "I came here to be spiritual, not commercial."
A capitalist economy depends on our insatiable desire for things. A spiritual life demands that we be free from the suffering of desire. And a democratic society demands that we unite in service to a shared society that allows our best selves to emerge.
How do we reconcile these three components of our aspirational civic order?
The first step is to start acknowledging the inherent tensions that exist between our democratic, our spiritual, and our capitalistic selves -- and to stop trying to tend to them all at once. Oprah has become a larger-than-life guru because we asked her to be. I can't imagine what it's like to be at the nexus of the spiritual and the corporate worlds, as she is, and the ways in which that must distort one's sense of reality. (Though this video paints a pretty vivid picture.) So to be clear, I'm not blaming her -- I'm blaming us for what we've asked her to become, and what our neediness says about who we are, and who we think we aspire to be. It's telling, for example, that the first words Oprah uttered at her Auburn Hills tour event were, "You came! You're here! Why are you here?"
Why indeed. And here's the thing -- the path toward "turning up the volume on our lives" does not lead through a Toyota Prius dealership, a magazine subscription, or a suite of Oil of Olay bath products. The things Oprah once gave us -- the sense of community, the relevant national conversations and lines of inquiry, and the iconic model of intelligent self-reflection -- have been cheapened by her attempt to align them with things. We cheapen her legacy, and ourselves, by pretending that they can be.
What we need is a room of one's own, not merely something to OWN. And the reality is we can't really have them both; at some point, despite what Oprah is telling you, we need to choose.