Monday, March 05, 2007

Oprah's Big Ugly Secret

Peter Birkenhead, writing over at Salon, is not too impressed with all the noise being made about The Secret, and especially Oprah's role in legitimizing the scam. I agree completely (see below).

The main idea of "The Secret" is that people need only visualize what they want in order to get it -- and the book certainly has created instant wealth, at least for Rhonda Byrne and her partners-in-con. And the marketing idea behind it -- the enlisting of that dream team, in what is essentially a massive, cross-promotional pyramid scheme -- is brilliant. But what really makes "The Secret" more than a variation on an old theme is the involvement of Oprah Winfrey, who lends the whole enterprise more prestige, and, because of that prestige, more venality, than any previous self-help scam. Oprah hasn't just endorsed "The Secret"; she's championed it, put herself at the apex of its pyramid, and helped create a symbiotic economy of New Age quacks that almost puts OPEC to shame.

Why "venality"? Because, with survivors of Auschwitz still alive, Oprah writes this about "The Secret" on her Web site, "the energy you put into the world -- both good and bad -- is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day." "Venality," because Oprah, in the age of AIDS, is advertising a book that says, "You cannot 'catch' anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought." "Venality," because Oprah, from a studio within walking distance of Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green Projects, pitches a book that says, "The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts."

Worse than "The Secret's" blame-the-victim idiocy is its baldfaced bullshitting. The titular "secret" of the book is something the authors call the Law of Attraction. They maintain that the universe is governed by the principle that "like attracts like" and that our thoughts are like magnets: Positive thoughts attract positive events and negative thoughts attract negative events. Of course, magnets do exactly the opposite -- positively charged magnets attract negatively charged particles -- and the rest of "The Secret" has a similar relationship to the truth. Here it is on biblical history: "Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of." And worse than the idiocy and the bullshitting is its anti-intellectualism, because that's at the root of the other two. Here's "The Secret" on reading and, um, electricity: "When I discovered 'The Secret' I made a decision that I would not watch the news or read newspapers anymore, because it did not make me feel good," and, "How does it work? Nobody knows. Just like nobody knows how electricity works. I don't, do you?" And worst of all is the craven consumerist worldview at the heart of "The Secret," because it's why the book exists: "[The Secret] is like having the Universe as your catalogue. You flip through it and say, 'I'd like to have this experience and I'd like to have that product and I'd like to have a person like that.' It is you placing your order with the Universe. It's really that easy." That's from Dr. Joe Vitale, former Amway executive and contributor to "The Secret," on

Oprah Winfrey is one of the richest women in the world, and one of the most influential. Her imprimatur has helped the authors of "The Secret" sell 2 million books (and 1 million DVDs), putting it ahead of the new Harry Potter book on the Amazon bestseller list. In the time Oprah spent advertising the lies in "The Secret," she could have been exposing them to an audience that otherwise might have believed them. So why didn't she? If James Frey deserved to be raked over the coals for lying about how drunk he was, doesn't Oprah deserve some scrutiny for pitching the meretricious nonsense in "The Secret"?

I'm usually in the position of defending Oprah, but in this case I agree with the author of this article (read the whole thing here). I'm beginning to question my defense of Oprah at all after reading this article.

I find this whole thing rather troubling, particularly because of the "blame the victim" bullshit. I have a very close friend who was tortured (literally) by her father as she grew up, and possibly sexually abused. Did she draw this to herself with negative thoughts? Not even close. Her father was mentally ill. Did she choose an abusive father and a demeaning mother, as some of this New Age crap would insist? Hell no.

The Secret is a lame ass attempt to sell snake oil. It's quasi religion with a feel good veneer. But the reality is that the universe in unpredictable at times. Sick and wounded people hurt other people for no apparent reason. Machines malfunction and people die. Disease kills thousands of children every day in Third World nations -- and down the street in America. Did these children think bad thoughts that invited sickness into their lives? Fuck no!

I get really angry with this kind of lazy, head in the sand thinking. Of all people, Oprah should know that it is crap. She didn't get where she is by thinking positive thoughts -- she busted her ass for years to create her empire.

Birkenhead sums up how I feel about all of this pretty well:

Books like "The Secret" have created, and are feeding, an enormously diverse market of disciples, and they're thriving in every corner of the culture, in megachurches and movies, politics and pop music, in sports arenas and state boards of education. Oprah has far more in common with George Bush than either would like to admit, and so do the psychics of Marin County, Calif., and the creationists of Kansas. The believers come from all walks of life, but they work the same way -- mostly by bastardizing and warping source materials, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita, to make them fit their worldview. On Page 23 of "The Secret" you'll find this revealing doozy: "Meditation quiets the mind, helps you control your thoughts." Of course, the goal of meditation is precisely the opposite -- it is to be conscious, to observe your thoughts honestly and clearly. But that's the last thing the believers want to encourage. The authors of "The Secret" sell "control" in the form of "empowerment" and "quiet" in the form of belief, not consciousness.

The promises of Oprah culture can seem irresistible, and its hallmarks are becoming ubiquitous. Believers may be separated into tribes according to what they believe, but they do it in pretty much the same way, relying on a "Secret"-style conception of "intuition" --- which seems to amount to the sneaking suspicion that they're always right -- to arrive at their tenets. Instead of the world as it is, constantly changing and full of contradiction, they see a fixed and fantastical place, where good things come to those who believe, whether it's belief in a diet, a God, or a Habit of Successful People. These believers may believe in the healing power of homeopathy, or Scripture or organizational skills -- in intelligent design, astrology or privatization. They all trust that their devotion will be rewarded with money and boyfriends and job promotions, with hockey championships and apartments. And most of all they believe -- they really, really believe -- in themselves.

For these believers, self-knowledge is much less important than self-"love." But the question they never seem to ask themselves is: If you wouldn't tell another person you loved her before you got to know her, why would you do that to yourself? Skipping the getting-to-know-you part has given us what we deserve: the Oprah culture. It's a culture where superstition is "spirituality," illiteracy is "authenticity," and schoolmarm moralism is "character." It's a culture where people apologize by saying, "I'm sorry you took offense at what I said," and forgive by saying, "I'm not angry at you anymore, I'm grateful to you for teaching me not to trust shitheads like you." And that's the part that should bother us most: the diminishing, even implicit mocking, of genuine goodness, and of authentic spiritual concerns and practices. Engagement, curiosity and active awe are in short supply these days, and it's sickening to see them devalued and misrepresented.

'Nuf said. I can think of no better example of the mean green meme in action.


Anonymous said...

First of all, on one level, I entirely agree with you. Just so you know that at outset.

Let's imagine, purely as in intellectual exercise, that as we are making our Integral Kosmic map, we ask ourselves the question: "What (positive) role the does the mean green meme have to play?" I believe there is indeed a role for it, and an important one--even vital.

One thing I've noticed about myself--and I believe it's true of you, too, as I observe you cogitate on this blog--is that I'm always obsessed with the implications, ramifications, connotations and logical consequences of every proposition (such as is demonstrated above, by pairing ideas from "The Secret" beside examples which make those ideas appear nonsensical, cruel or "venal.") But, have you noticed, Bill, most people don't think that way at all; most people, in my experience, cannot penetrate much beyond the blank denotation of a statement or proposition (e.g. "You create your own reality with your thoughts.") What this means is, when trying to deliver certain messages, your message is irretrievable lost for the majority if your delivery is too qualified, too nuanced (e.g., "Along with nonnegotiable, univeral physical imperatives, cultural and familial circumstances beyond your control, genetic propensities and liabilities, and ongoing social pressures [which may or may not prove insuperable because of aforementioned factors] one's own thoughts and perspectives contour the reality one experiences." Whew! That was a mouthful and a headful, wasn't it? How much of the class do you think I retained when I made it?)

My point is that I believe we need people who will proclaim certain ideas oversimplified-to-the-point- of-stupidity (e.g. "You create your reality with your thoughts!") in order to be heard over the roar of even stupider, more primitive ideas (e.g. "God is making you suffer, there's nothing you can do about it!" "You were born poor and black, and awful, terrible social pressures are making you suffer; there's nothing you can do about it!") I'm talking about how ideas move, take root, dessiminate and displace older ideas on the macro, cultural level: we need such stupidness. But we also need wiseheads, like you, to point out the idiocy for those who are just about ready for a more nuanced understanding.

Kai in NYC

william harryman said...

Hey Kai,

Thanks for the perspective.

I can see your point. And I do think there is some value in positive thinking, but the ego-driven crap of The Secret (all about wealth and wish fulfillment) drives me nuts. I have a hard time being tolerant of this stuff.

But what really sets me off -- and something I can't tolerate at all -- is the blaming the victim stuff. I'll never let that slide when I see it or hear it without saying something. It's just so ignorant.

But, again, I do see that people aren't going to be able to hear a real message, one that accounts for the full spectrum of reality. Too bad.

But in the meantime, it would be nice if Oprah used her considerable power to promote a more healthy and less egoic vision for happiness. As much as I think she has done some real good in the world, shit like this cancels a lot of that out.


Unknown said...

I think what bothers me most about this The Secret business is the other side of the coin to what you are focussing on, Bill. That is, the way this all becomes a justification for being uberwealthy and living in posh circumstances in the midst of dire poverty.

I don't see this as green. Where is the egalitarianism? This is a narcissitic, self-involved, blithe-amid-the-suffering-of-others manner of being. This is snakeoil, true enough, but it appeals to those who seek something for nothing, who have no feeling of guilt if others are harmed in their wake.

This Secret appeals to those who believe they are apart from everyone else. The Secret exposes the rot at the heart of the so-called American Dream: that becoming wealthy is a cause of great suffering for everyone, the exploited and those that exploit.

Anonymous said...

Two more points, more controversial. First to you, Bill: at some point in the evolutionary process, we've got to blame the victim. Obviously, that's not the most compassionate way to express my point, but bear with me a moment. Right now our cutting edge as far as vicimization seems to go: "Terrible things happened to happened to you. It wasn't your fault. Don't be ashamed. Tell your story far and wide and without shame. Own your identity as a victim to whom terrible things happened, and never let oppressive forces silence you." Personally, I think that's a HORRIBLE stopping place on the evolutionary circuit, but I come across countless people satisfied never to go a step further. Here, I guess I'll offend you, but my life personally broke open into far greater freedom when I heard the message: "You are free in this moment to be whoever you choose to be. You are not a victim unless you think you are." As I suggested above, there's a nuanced, less stupid way to deliver that message: but I'd rather have heard a stupid version of it, than never to have heard it at all.

And to Tom:. You're familiar with the psychological model of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, aren't you? In case you aren't, in simplified form, it suggests that poor people dying of starvation do not yearn, above all other things, for fame and professional acclaim (they want food and water). Nor do well fed persons, who are desperately insecure with immature ego development, yearn to renounce all worldly concerns and uplift humanity in toto. By bringing up the hierarchy of needs, I'm suggesting that the message folks CAN hear (notice I did not say "want to hear") relates inextricably to their psycho-spiritual development. Are you Buddhist? The Buddha certainly does not condemn rich people or riches: they too can participate in a full way in dharma. I'm not suggesting that renunciation is anything other than a very high, extremely beautiful . But I am suggesting that it's one each must organically grow towards, passing through all the more crass, worldly stations first. I see a lot of what you might call "premature transcendence" among the Integral crowd, which would be a desire for--and claiming of--realized perspectives which have not yet in truth been earned. Oprah's billion+$$$ might seem appalling, and yet how far might the poorest family on earth stretched the 5 bucks you dropped on a latte and croissant this morning? Could you/should you have been more frugal and given the difference away? Someone on earth is appalled thinking of your extravagance--a month's pay for breakfast!!! We are wise (I don't claim to be wise) when we know with absolute certainty the answer to the latter question.

Kai in NYC

william harryman said...


I actually mostly agree with you about the victim thing. I was in a long term relationship with someone who had adopted the victim mentality as a primary identity. She blamed all of her misbehavior on childhood abuse or on the actions of others (and me), but never was able to own her actions as her own pathology. It was horribly frustrating. So I really reject the idea of people assuming "victim" as an identity in any way. I do think it's healthy to look at the past and see how it impacts the present, of course, but I agree that people can choose their identity -- and victim is not a healthy identity choice. The ONLY time it is ever appropriate, to me, to blame the victim is when the person falls into that role and refuses to move beyond it -- but that's a separate issue from blaming the victim for what happened to them.



What Kai said.

AND, I think what you are seeing is the narcissistic pathology that infects Green. It can look an awful lot like Orange strive/drive on the surface. But what gives it away as a Green pathology is the empathic failure you mention (generally not an issue with Orange because empathy is not common at the Orange altitude -- which is not say Orange can't develop empathy). It's pure narcissism. So what these people are doing looks like an effort to help others achieve success and happiness (Green egalitarianism), but under the surface is this narcissistic pathology -- the lack of empathy -- that fails to acknowledge the actual life conditions that most people face (in a variety of developmental lines). The underlying belief is that if I can do it, so can you -- a typical inability in Green to see that not everyone else lives with the same life conditions. This is what makes this snake oil so nasty.

That's my take on it.

Peace to you both,

Anonymous said...

The time when it is appropriate and necessary to get a sense of being victimized is when a person needs help recognizing that they did incur harm, and when they need to develop or regain an appropriate sense of boundaries and also an appropriate sense that they have inherant dignity as human persons, that they are persons deserving of care, and respect, not things that can be used and discarded with impunity.

Its only when you dont yet have a full stable, cause and effect sense of what happened, is it appropriate and necessary to face being victimized. One must regain full access to what one has felt and actually experienced.

So long as someone is denying or dissociating what they've been through, advice that they are in victim mentality will actually hamper the healing process.

Only after developing this, is the person ready to retain their sense of dignity and go further by asking 'How can I use this ordeal as a practice opportunity?'

Ultimately ALL PARTIES, both the powerholders and those harmed have to recognize their cause and effect contributions.

My concern about criticisms of 'victim mentality' is that these are often used to:

1) Deflect insight from abusive powerholders and structural power imbalance

2) Dissociate oneself from facing the pain of the human condition and one's own vulnerability/woundablity. Many of us want to feel spiritiual and cannot face how much life can just HURT. So its tempting to latch onto arguments that there is no such thing as being a victim.

The only person who has the right to suggest that it is time for us to question our victim stance is someone who has the following characteristics:

1) That person is not the one who has harmed us

2) That person has absolutely NO personal investment in protecting the person or group who harmed us

3) That person is capable of acknowledging the pain and vulnerability of the human condition and is not using the 'there are no victims' stance as a way to dissociate themselves from a pain that they find unbearable.

Finally, this person is someone know knows us, knows our actual capacities and can discern that we actually are ready to make the shift from feeling victimized to reclaiming a sense of agency

Finally this person is capable of insisting that persons who actually do possess power do remain accountable for its proper use.

When the 'there are no victims stance' is used to enable powerholders to do as they please with zero accountablity, that's wrong, and we have the right and responsibility as engaged practitioners to speak up and protest.

Unknown said...

This isn't like Nicherin Buddhism [or is it SGI, or both?] where the power of positive thinking is used to get you what you want, to motivate folks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

The 21st Century model Oprah is about affluence for the affluent. They WERE green, it seems to me, but are now in regression -- not all that dissimilar to what we see the Wilber crowd going through [with their regressing, crawlspace 2nd Tier]. This is justification of affluence, saying "see what I did." You COULD HAVE done the same, only you didn't, and the responsibility weighs on you.

But it goes beyond affluence, of course. One's whole life, by this model, is something you are wholly responsible for.

I think Kai is fully mistaken to suppose that Oprah's core audience of educated, affluent white women, who read literate and those thick phychology-interested O magazines are subject to oversimplified-to-the-point-of-stupidity arguments. They can handle nuance. They know a great deal about what they are doing.

Bill: Narcissism is not wholly the province of the greens. Look at Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and that self-captivated crowd. While it is true that Oprah's set are mostly liberal, chardonay-drinking women, they have no less of a drive to justify their right to extra comforts from what are mostly modest achievements.

This is the I-am-superior game -- my shit don't stink -- done in the Hollywood style.

What is going on here is simplistic logic, but not as a stairway for a "higher" worldview. This is regression backwards to a place such that you are more comfortable where you are. You are no longer tied to the suffering of others.

Of course, the Oprah show, like all her productions, is ABOUT OPRAH and FOR OPRAH. The audience just tags along. Oprah is already accomplished. ebuddha in his take on this is right (but in a wrong way, I would contend) that things are always about the Oprah biography. The Secret, in its Oprah push, is Oprah's explanation about how SHE got where she is; it is not something that everybody can do, as you point out, Bill, in your post -- but also because there is a fighting-over-the-scraps aspect to economic and life success; there is only room in the world for so much success.

At to Kai's suggestion that my latte makes me as guilty as Oprah for canibalizing resources is a falacious argument. That is a huge discussion that there is no room for here. Suffice to say that obscene wealth moves the scale beyond a benign transaction within a mostly-closed First World economy.

Anonymous said...

. . . you freakin rock for posting this . . . dang oh yeah, fabulous! it's been agony watching that load of caacaa get passed off as truth . . . hurtful, mean, devoid of love, full of predatory greed . . . really, can't we all let go of the enlightenment=soulmate+cash+happyhappyworldworld? and oh my gosh, what really freaked me was that they had all sorts of packaging using pyramids and george washington and wasn't that ben franklin i saw??? prosperity my ass . . . (okay, rant done :) Thank you for posting and so now I can link!

william harryman said...

Thanks Kate -- glad you enjoyed my rant! And thanks for sharing yours.


Anonymous said...

I've been practicing the law of attraction ever since I found my penis but the only thing that has manifested is a sticky hand.

Justice Marshall said...

"I create my own experience" is a perspective that can be deeply empowering and liberating.

When I believe that on some level "I" have CHOSEN to break from oneness and to incarnate as a human being on earth, and that I have chosen my challenges and even my suffering so that I might continue to find my way to my true self... I am able to find the opportunities within my challenges.

This works for me, but I'm cautious about foisting it on others. As a helping professional, I do often help my clients "try it on" or experiment with it in some form. I've also seen The Secret move people forward in a big way. Of course it's not an end-point, but hey, what is?

Frankly, the challenge I see with most integral discussion is that it's waayyy over the heads of just about everyone. In that sense, there's probably something really valuable for integralists to learn from the Secret!