by Kurt Andersen · January 10, 2018
Oprah Winfrey gave national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by OWN Network, Cindy Ord/Getty Images for iHeart, Jemal Countess/Getty Images, and Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images.
Adapted from Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History copyright © 2017 by Kurt Andersen. With permission from the publisher, Random House. All rights reserved.
Forty-eight hours ago, after watching Oprah Winfrey give a terrific, rousing feminist speech on an awards show, millions of Americans instantly, giddily decided that the ideal 2020 Democratic nominee had appeared. An extremely rich and famous and exciting star and impresario—but one who seems intelligent and wise and kind, the non–Bizarro World version of the sitting president.
Some wet-blanketing followed immediately, among the best from the New York Times Magazine writer Thomas Chatterton Williams in an op-ed headlined “Oprah, Don’t Do It.” “It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act,” he wrote. “Indeed, the magical thinking fueling the idea of Oprah in 2020 is a worrisome sign about the state of the Democratic Party.”
Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.
Oprah went on the air nationally in the 1980s, just as non-Christian faith healing and channeling the spirits of the dead and “harmonic convergence” and alternative medicine and all the rest of the New Age movement had scaled up. By the 1990s, there was a big, respectable, glamorous New Age counterestablishment. Marianne Williamson, one of the new superstar New Age preachers, popularized a “channeled” book of spiritual revelation, A Course in Miracles: The author, a Columbia University psychology professor who was anonymous until after her death in the 1980s, had claimed that its 1,333 pages were dictated to her by Jesus. Her basic idea was that physical existence is a collective illusion—”the dream.” Endorsed by Williamson, the book became a gigantic best-seller. Deepak Chopra had been a distinguished endocrinologist before he quit regular medicine in his 30s to become the “physician to the gods” in the Transcendental Meditation organization and in 1989 hung out his own shingle as wise man, author, lecturer, and marketer of dietary supplements.
Out of its various threads, the philosophy now had its basic doctrines in place: Rationalism is mostly wrongheaded, mystical feelings should override scientific understandings, reality is an illusion one can remake to suit oneself. The 1960s countercultural relativism out of which all that flowed originated mainly as a means of fighting the Man, unmasking the oppressive charlatans-in-charge. But now they had become mind-blowing ways to make yourself happy and successful by becoming the charlatan-in-charge of your own little piece of the universe. “It’s not just the interpretation of objective reality that is subjective,” according to Chopra. “Objective reality per se is a concept of reality we have created subjectively.”
Exactly how had Chopra and Williamson become so conspicuous and influential? They were anointed in 1992 and 1993 by Oprah Winfrey.
As I say, she is an ecumenical promoter of fantasies. Remember the satanic panic, the mass hysteria during the 1980s and early ’90s about satanists abusing and murdering children that resulted in the wrongful convictions of dozens of people who collectively spent hundreds of years incarcerated? Multiple Oprah episodes featured the celebrity “victims” who got that fantasy going. When a Christian questioner in her audience once described her as New Age, Winfrey was pissed. “I am not ‘New Age’ anything,” she said, “and I resent being called that. I don’t see spirits in the trees, and I don’t sit in the room with crystals.” Maybe not those two things specifically; she’s the respectable promoter of New Age belief and practice and nostrums, a member of the elite and friend to presidents, five of whom have appeared on her shows. New Age, Oprah-style, shares with American Christianities their special mixtures of superstition, selfishness, and a refusal to believe in the random. “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she has said. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck.”
Most of the best-known prophets and denominational leaders in the New Age realm owe their careers to Winfrey. Her man Eckhart Tolle, for instance, whose books The Power of Now and A New Earth sold millions of copies apiece, is a successful crusader against reason itself. “Thinking has become a disease,” he writes, to be supplanted by feeling “the inner energy field of your body.” The two of them conducted a series of web-based video seminars in 2008.
New Age, because it’s so American, so utterly democratic and decentralized, has multiple sacred texts. One of the most widely read and influential is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, emphatically placed in the canon by Winfrey as soon as it was published a decade ago. “I’ve been talking about this for years on my show,” Winfrey said during one of the author’s multiple appearances on Oprah. “I just never called it The Secret.”
A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream.
The Secret takes the American fundamentals, individualism and supernaturalism and belief in belief, and strips away the middlemen and most of the pious packaging—God, Jesus, virtue, hard work rewarded, perfect bliss only in the afterlife. What’s left is a “law of attraction,” and if you just crave anything hard enough, it will become yours. Belief is all. The Secret’s extreme version of magical thinking goes far beyond its predecessors’. It is staggering. A parody would be almost impossible. It was No. 1 on the Times’s nonfiction list for three years and sold about 20 million copies.
“There isn’t a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge,” the book promises. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want.” Because it’s a scientific fact.
The law of attraction is a law of nature. It is as impartial as the law of gravity. Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts. … In the moment you ask, and believe, and know you already have it in the unseen, the entire universe shifts to bring it into the scene. You must act, speak, and think, as though you are receiving it now. Why? The universe is a mirror, and the law of attraction is mirroring back to your dominant thoughts. … It takes no time for the universe to manifest what you want. Any time delay you experience is due to your delay in getting to the place of believing.
To be clear, Byrne’s talking mainly not about spiritual contentment but things, objects, lovers, cash. “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts. … It is not your job to work out ‘how’ the money will come to you. It is your job to ask. … Leave the details to the Universe on how it will bring it about.” She warns that rationalism can neutralize the magic—in fact, awareness of the real world beyond one’s individual orbit can be problematic. “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.”
Right around the time The Secret came out, habitués of its general vicinity started buzzing about the year 2012. Ancient Mesoamericans, people were saying, had predicted that in 2012—specifically, Dec. 21—humankind’s present existence would … transition, when the current 5,125-year-long period ends. New Age religion-makers, like American Protestants, now had their own ancient prophecy for their own dreams of something like a near-future Armageddon and supernaturally wonderful aftermath.
Winfrey ended the daily Oprah broadcasts in 2011, and a month before the final episode, she interviewed Shirley MacLaine for the millionth time and asked about 2012: “What’s gonna happen to us as a species?”
“We’re coming into an alignment,” MacLaine explained. “It is the first time in 26,000 years—36,000 years—26,000 years, I’m sorry, that this has occurred. … You have an alignment where this solar system is on direct alignment with the center of the galaxy. That carries with it a very profound electromagnetic frequency—”
“Vibration,” Winfrey interjected.
“… vibration,” MacLaine agreed, “and gravitational pull. Hence the weather. What does that do to consciousness? What does that do to our sense of reality?” It’s why people feel rushed and stressed, she said.
Winfrey asked her audience for an amen: “Are you all feeling that?” They were.
“So my stuff isn’t really that far out. But what’s actually happening, Oprah,” MacLaine continued, explaining how the relevant astrology proved the supernatural inflection point was exactly 620 days away. “It’s the end of that 26,000-year procession of the equinox” and “the threshold of a new beginning. And I think what this pressure, this kind of psychic, spiritual pressure we’re all feeling is about, is that your internal soul is telling you ‘Get your act together.’”
It’s one thing to try to experience more peace of mind or feel in sync with a divine order. Mixing magical thinking with medical science and physiology, however, can get problematic. A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream. As with so many of the phenomena I discuss in my book Fantasyland, it’s driven by nostalgia and anti-establishment mistrust of experts, has quasi-religious underpinnings, and comes in both happy and unhappy versions.
And has been brought to you by Oprah Winfrey.
In 2004, a very handsome heart surgeon, prominent but not famous, appeared on Oprah to promote a book about alternative medicine. His very name—Dr. Oz!—would be way too over-the-top for a character in a comic novel. After Harvard, Mehmet Oz earned both an M.D. and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, then became a top practitioner and professor of heart surgery at Columbia University and director of its Cardiovascular Institute. Timing is everything—young Dr. Oz arrived at Columbia right after it set up its Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the 1990s.
Soon he was bringing an “energy healer” into his operating room, who placed her hands on patients as he performed surgery, and inviting a reporter to watch. According to Dr. Oz, who is married to a reiki master, such healers have the power to tune in to their scientifically undetectable “energies” and redirect them as necessary while he’s cutting open their hearts. When the New Yorker’s science reporter Michael Specter told Oz he knew of no evidence that reiki works, the doctor agreed—“if you are talking purely about data.” For people in his magical-thinking sphere, purely about data is a phrase like mainstream and establishment and rational and fact, meaning elitist, narrow, and blind to the disruptive truths. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” Oz told Specter, then added a kicker directly from the relativist 1960s: “I have my religion and you have yours.”
After that first appearance on Oprah, he proceeded to come on her show 61 more times, usually wearing surgical scrubs. In 2009, Winfrey’s company launched the daily Dr. Oz show, on which he pushes miracle elixirs, homeopathy, imaginary energies, and psychics who communicate with the dead. He regularly uses the words miracle and magic. A supplement extracted from tamarind “could be the magic ingredient that lets you lose weight without diet and exercise.” Green coffee beans—even though “you may think that magic is make-believe”—are actually a “magic weight-loss cure,” a “miracle pill [that] can burn fat fast. This is very exciting. And it’s breaking news.” For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.
Oz has encouraged viewers to believe that vaccines cause autism and other illnesses—as did Winfrey on her show before him. In 2007, long after the fraudulent 1998 paper that launched the anti-vaccine movement had been discredited, she gave an Oprah episode over to the actress Jenny McCarthy, a public face of the movement. That was where McCarthy gave the perfect defense of her credentials: “The University of Google is where I got my degree from!”
If Ronald Reagan became the first king of his magical-thinking realm in the 1980s, Oprah Winfrey became the first queen of hers in the following decade. Like Reagan, I believe she’s both sincere and a brilliant Barnumesque promoter of a dream world.
Discussing my book a couple of months ago on Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up, I was arguing that the realm of Fantasyland is, when it comes to politics, highly asymmetrical—the American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true, a fact of which President Donald Trump is a stark embodiment.
“Who would be, and could there be,” I asked Harris, “a Trump of the left that people on the left would, against their better judgment say ‘She’s a kook, and she’s terrible in this way, but she believes in socialized medicine, and this, and that—I’m going with her.’ To what degree and under what circumstances could that happen? It’s hard to imagine the equivalent, but I’m willing to accept that we might have to make those choices eventually.”
Such as who, Harris asked. Well, I replied, “people talk very seriously about Oprah Winfrey being a potential Democratic nominee for president. Is that my Trump moment, [like] what honest Republicans had to do with Donald Trump, and decide ‘No, I can’t abide this’ and became Never Trumpers? Would I be a Never Oprah person? That will be a test for me.”
I’ve been encouraged these past three days by the “whoa, Oprah” reactions among some liberals—as I was by the Republican resistance to Trump during the first six or nine months of his candidacy. When she starts polling ahead of all the mere politicians seeking the Democratic nomination, let alone winning primaries, we’ll see how stalwart the reality-based, anti-celebrity, naysaying faction remains.