The recent controversy over the fraudulent memoir A Million Little Pieces, and Oprah Winfrey’s initial defense and then public pillorying of its author, has laid bare the reality behind the cultural phenomenon that is Oprah. Oprah is an overwhelming political force in America, the unopposed emotional autocrat of a broad section of American womanhood, and her career has been as efficient and brutal in its way as those of some of history’s most accomplished tyrants.
The obviousness of the similarities between the worship of Winfrey and that of the cults of personality surrounding history’s more successful dictators should not dissuade us from exploring their relevance.
The dictator’s power rests on force; it is maintained not only by this threat, but through mystification veiling the despot with the illusion of deific stature, all powerful and all knowing. This is made benign by the constant celebration of his status as a common man made transcendent. His glory is therefore the glory of the folk itself; he is its human apex. This works to strengthen his hold on power by both appealing to the vanity of his subjects and discouraging criticism of the leader as betrayal of the clan.
Every effective despot must craft an ideology, usually a farrago of convenient political clichés and sloganeering presented as a bold new way, sprung from the brow of the Great Leader. This ideology will necessarily be given a religious gloss. Oprah’s ideology is a vague, nameless emotionalism. It is defined less by any central assertions than by a general credulity toward any psychological theory that appeals to vanity and is impatient with logic, rigor, and modest fortitude (in short, anything that requires something of us). “Spirituality”, a word so over-applied as to have become as meaningless as it is ubiquitous, is often invoked. This word is no longer attached to a thing or idea, but is identifiable by what it isn’t. It isn’t most things, starting with that list of three above. Yet it still has currency somehow. It is the mau mau of the revolt against Reason.
The despot’s psychological tyranny begins with his ubiquity.
I don’t watch Oprah, but like every one of my countrymen not ensconced in a geodesic dome in the Alaskan outback, I cannot avoid her omnipresent image, beaming at me from grocery store check-out lines, leaping out at me as I attempt to navigate the already jarring transition from CSPAN to The OC, assailing me in news reports.
Even for those of us who would rather avoid her, Oprah exists as an oversized, ubiquitous, disembodied head that menaces us with the sheer invasiveness of her overpowering smile. Her smile isn’t a facial expression communicating warmth or joy, but a highly aggressive expression of ego, of self concern not simply as a necessary consideration but as a creed. As all creeds it cannot exist independent of proselytization. Oprah’s smile does more than announce to the world Oprah’s own immense self esteem and confidence, but declares the primacy of self esteem as a value and as a moral code.
Self esteem is confused with personal autonomy in the mind of Oprah’s proselytes by the imprecise, sub-literate language of our frenetic, image intensive time. An adherent of Oprah confuses the quest for emotional gratification with the basic right to liberty.
Oprah’s tyranny is enforced not by guns, secret police, and informants; Oprah’s power is a result of her aggressive, expert manipulation of public sentiment using today’s censorious weapons of mass destruction: race, gender, and victimhood.
Oprah’s brilliant use of her public testimony of being sexually abused by male relatives, combined with her status as black woman (the unassailable birthright of which is placement atop the hierarchy of victim politics), and a star quality endearing her to millions of middle class women, makes her a virtual Spanish Armada of modern American moral purity.
These weapons she deploys tear not at limbs and vital organs but assault, ironically, the personal sense of worth of their targets.
The Great Leader is portrayed as a kindly figure, a benign and wise uncle, who loves children and animals, dispenses common sense advice, and is, at heart, a common man.
Oprah maintains this image by adopting a folksy demeanor, dipping in and out of black urban verbiage and inflection with just enough authenticity to endear her to legions of white housewives, eager to absolve themselves of the ever present accusation of racism while at the same time allowing them to feel that they are cosmopolitan; intimate and comfortable with this funky, down to earth black woman.
Oprah even has her own state organ; Oprah magazine. If Oprah magazine didn’t exist, describing its concept and structure to someone would surely elicit disbelieving laughter: a magazine named after a celebrity, featuring a picture of that celebrity on every issue.
The magazine is a brilliant combination of three key elements in the despot’s art: ubiquity; regular, iconic deification; and an official mouthpiece. Oprah implies a religious imprimatur of the deity, Oprah, bestowed upon those who purchase it. Bearing the glossy, glamorous image of the icon, it takes on a Koranic stature in the eyes of the acolytes, whether or not it is read. A sobering thought: somewhere out there are women who have every issue of Oprah magazine stored away.
I am convinced that the purpose of that magazine is as much to place Oprah’s picture in every supermarket check-out line in the country as any thing else. The pure, supra-temporal nature of still photography makes it a form of iconography transcendent of the more frenetic and inherently irreverent medium of television. The magazine is the means by which Oprah’s image is immortalized in a more august manner, and distributed widely every month, using the only art form left that is purely a celebration of beauty: fashion photography.
The magazines occupy the same space near those ever important supermarket queues, yet the image of the deific leader shifts periodically; both immovable primacy of hierarchal pre-eminence and a numinous, continual metamorphosis are inferred.
On the cover of Oprah, the icon takes on the various archetypes necessary to maintain her image as one of the common folk made Godlike; in highly conceptualized glamour shots to faux-candid takes of her in exercise gear. Oprah is every woman made glorious.
The skillful manipulation and continual morphing of the ruler’s image is an essential part of his cunning; he takes on all the familiar archetypes of his folk; thereby strengthening his image as a transcendent, deific creature intimately identified with his people and therefore a source of both reverential awe and sentimental kinship. He is one of us and he is all of us, at our best. Think of the countless monuments to Hussein that littered Iraq: here is Saddam in military garb; there he is as Saladin; here he is posing as a scholar; there he is in business suit.
Another technique used by despots to ensure the loyalty of the abject is by the sensationalized distribution of wealth. On Oprah’s television program, this is given a distinctly modern American twist, as an occasion for the cross promotion of the various gilded minor treasures she bestows upon her screeching, fawning subjects.
At some point, every dictator needs a war. It is a little known fact that for a brief period of Saddam Hussein’s rule, Iraq developed at an encouraging pace, and appeared to be a modernizing country. Then something happened. Saddam needed his glorious war. The newly weakened and always despised Iranians, fresh from Khomeini’s fundamentalist revolution, were in possession of an oil rich province he coveted. The disastrous war between Iraq and Iran would result.
Oprah, like all autocrats, cannot be satisfied with wealth and the adulation of millions. Casting about for her oil rich disputed territory, she finds race, America’s richest natural resource for demagogic miners of cathartic outrage. The high end boutique Hermes (stuffy, French, and too expensive for the rabble, making it a perfect foil), in mistaking the ruler for a subject would find her well heeled jackboot on its neck. Bringing the vanquished foe’s contrite representative before her jeering minions, Oprah personally oversees his ritual abasement. She constructs for herself the role of moral superhero; striking a blow for equality, brilliantly conveying the entire production to her public as her victimization by and heroic vanquishing of racism. She would deftly co-opt the cultural moment, calling the affair her “Crash moment”, tying it to a current film about race relations. Its equivalent would be if Saddam Hussein had led a successful charge against a fortified Iranian postition, emerging wounded but victorious. One has to admire the skill and audacity of it.
Things would calm for a while, as it appeared the titaness had been sated, but imperious overlords who have crested middle age tend to act out on a huge scale the midlife crises that most of us harmlessly suffer in relative silence. As physical prowess fades and mental acuity lessens the leader senses his hold on power will be challenged. He must continually reassert it, challenged or not. Long removed from any approximation of a normal existence, the aging tyrant who has endured long into a successful reign will begin to lose touch with reality, becoming increasingly paranoid. Those close to the leader must be increasingly careful.
This is when the purges begin.
An author of a memoir of recovery and redemption falsified, maybe, a little more than the countless many presented at court before him is revealed as a fraud. Oprah, long disdainful of truth’s stubborn complexities, had long before built her empire employing such mercenaries as the pedophilia and repressed memory hysterias of the eighties and nineties. An untold number of people were jailed wrongly because the nation somehow became convinced that their communities were sitting atop vast underground networks of Satan worshipping kiddie-porn rings operating out of day-care centers (this is not flourish); abreast of this particular witch hunt would be the recovered memory fraud, as countless therapists of questionable character and credentials would advance the theory that repeated sexual abuse suffered as a child (most often a daughter abused by a father) was often repressed entirely in the memory of adults who would later recover these “memories” in therapy with these same professionals. These pseudo-scientific movements would appear as if crafted specifically for Oprah’s timely appearance on the scene as the grand inquisitor of a questioning, increasingly dissatisfied, and woefully under-educated American female populace. The commonality held by the two pogroms would be hostility toward fatherhood and patriarchy.
As these broad, criminal hoaxes would only wither away quietly without any great public outcry Oprah wouldn’t feel the need to publicly profess her outrage. The damage done to anonymous members of the population, no matter how great or how many, will never rise to the level of damage done to the image of the Great Leader; for any offense to the despot is an offense to the whole of the people.
The people needed a war of conquest against an ancient foe. The sexual revolution had not yielded universal happiness and sexual satisfaction; equality was not a given as men continued to behave as, well, men; running things with obsessive ambition, always building and tearing down, still uninterested in the poetry of Maya Angelou, and occasionally running off with their secretaries. Oprah’s television program is often a venue for large scale self criticism sessions, that common method of any enforced ideology. These would yield much in the way of symbolic obeisance and even render quite a few willing prostrators, though in reality the world would remain mostly unchanged for the masses, even as Oprah’s power and influence would appear infinite. Meet the new boss…
But every tyranny comes to an end. Sometimes its power is drained as the population gradually loses its fear and reverence of an aging leader who is increasingly removed from reality by dotage and the machinations of his advisors, until one day someone shows up and respectfully ushers the old coot out of the presidential palace and off to a comfortable exile. This is often best. Perhaps this recent “controversy” is the beginning of Oprah’s decline. I wish no misfortune upon the woman herself, because in the end she is as much a product of her time as she is a product of her immense will. She is swept up in her own nonsensical rhetoric, and taken in as much as her acolytes by the con. But hers is a powerful cult of personality and, as all cults, it deserves the earliest possible burial attended by a eulogy of ridicule.
sic semper tyrannus.