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.com.
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.