Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Secret

This book recently showed up in my house. That means money was spent on it (not my own, of which there is precious little and more on that in a moment). We all get pulled by shiny things from time to time. So often on closer look, the shine fades. Personally, I'm a sucker for the latest motorcycle magazine, any "special issue" of Fine Homebuilding and the occasional lottery ticket. Embedded in that grab is the idea that whatever I just dropped my cash on is somehow going to improve my life. How often does that pan out?

I was not surprised, then, to hear from the secret "Secret" buyer a bit of buyer's remorse. Not just the simple, "eh, it wasn't that good," but rather more like, "what a load of crap!" No kidding. Oprah's plugging it, though, so there must be something there, right?

Well, no, actually.

I was going to write a little blog about the "culture of Oprah" but I soon discovered that Peter Birkenhead of had already done so, and done so much better than I would. In fact, a bunch of people have noted the venal (if not actually depraved) culture-of-Oprah that seems to embody our whole American tapestry right now. I'd like specifically to tip my hat to Chris Floyd of Empire Burlesque, whose ideas on the Salon piece I'm pretty much stealing, right down to the photo.

The thing about Oprah that has always bugged me is that no matter what, the second you criticize her someone is bound to say, "But she's done so much good."

Birkenhead's response: "Has Oprah ever done anything that didn't leave people with mixed feelings? And at what point do we stop feeling like we have to take the good with the craven when it comes to Oprah, and the culture she's helped to create?"

Why craven, you ask?
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."
So that's the problem! Not that I was out of work for three months, that I haven't had health care for three years and that I spend too much money keeping my car on the road and food in my (ever expanding) belly. I've been blocking. Well thank goodness I haven't been thinking about genocide. I just need to start believing (in wealth, in happiness and success in Iraq). Great strategy.

"The Secret" is garbage. But it is a kind of garbage that infuses our culture bottom to (more recently) top.
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."
Why bother pointing all this out? As Birkenhead and Floyd and now myself say, because she's Oprah. Better name recognition than Nelson Mandela, reaches more people than Bill O'Reilly. She's a movement. She creates best-sellers with a whisper and builds vastly expensive finishing schools in South Africa with a wave of her hand. Birkenhead: "The things that Oprah does, like promoting "The Secret," can seem deceptively trivial, but it's precisely because they're silly that we should be concerned about their promotion by someone who is deadly earnest and deeply trusted by millions of people."

Go read Birkenhead's piece on Salon. And stop by Empire Burlesque. Good stuff there.


Meli said...

Hello Jim!
I was very excited and interested that you have posted on Oprah, since my developing blog will be an analytical site on Oprah and her impact on popular culture. The fact that you have also touched the subject of the “Oprah books” is certainly a popular issue. I gained in interest for Oprah when the controversy of “A Million Little Pieces” erupted. Moreover, I have not been checking up on any of her recent book reviews, but now I see that “The Secret” has also been stemming some controversy, since it’s appearance on her show in February. I am so glad that you were able to direct your readers to Peter Birkenhead’s “Oprah’s Ugly Secret” on I also enjoyed reading his commentaries on her book review and the opening of her all girls academy in South Africa. I mean you are right he could not have said things any better and the picture that he has of Oprah with those rays of light was truly genius.
Furthermore, I would like to personally comment that I do feel the mixed emotions when it comes to the topic of Oprah. Her show is truly inspiring and she is a woman to recognize. Yet, the amount of power that she contains and her “culture” is truly astonishing. (On other blogs I have even seen her described as working through Satan.—Thats certainly rough though.) It does seem like she has a crowd of noble followers (specifically women). Moreover, for all the money that she may have and all the accomplishments she has succeeded to complete, I would like to further research if her being a female or being black makes any difference to the world. I know that times are different now, but I know that being a black woman in society and to have the amount of success she has is—well impossible. She must be the only well known case. I would like to find out any type of input from you on Oprah besides, of course, the power she has in making any book – a best seller. Also, out of curiosity—did you read “The Secret”—I would like to know what you didn’t like about it. I haven’t read it myself.

My blog website:

Jim said...


Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you liked my post, though as I noted most of the best ideas in it belong to someone else.

I've read very little of The Secret -- only enough to know that I agree with Mr. Birkenhead's evaluation of it. Most of what he says about it goes for me, too.

Basically, my frustration with these kinds of "advice" books is that there's very little useful advice in them. The Secret proposes that a simple shift in outlook is enough to alter your life. While that sometimes is true, the fact is that "positive thinking" quite simply isn't enough to overcome most people's problems. And the very idea that money isn't coming in because I'm "blocking" it somehow is absurd--as are many of the book's assertions.

But, like I tried to emphasize in my blog-post, it isn't "The Secret" per se that I take issue with. It's the fact that Oprah has such incredible cultural penetration that I believe she should be a bit more responsible with what she does with that. Hundreds of thousands of people look to Oprah for suggestions. She therefore shouldn't make stupid suggestions. "The Secret" and the idea that it has the ability to change your life are, IMO, stupid (and I'm ripping right from Birkenhead because I can't find where my gf put the book):

1. "You cannot 'catch' anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought." Seriously? If I stop thinking I can catch the flu, you mean I don't have to keep washing my hands?

2. "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." Jesus was a prosperity teacher? You mean like when he said, "I tell you it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." Besides, I don't think Trump can't conceive of walking around in sandals and begging food. I just think his idea of an "affluent lifestyle" is a little heavier on the gold leaf.

3. "How does [the Secret] work? Nobody knows. Just like nobody knows how electricity works. I don't, do you?" Gosh, I guess I don't. This isn't a computer -- it's magic!!

I hope you agree that these quotes are, on their face, just about the dumbest stuff you've ever heard. But Oprah is peddling this as serious self-help. More disturbing than that, however, is the basic implication of Oprah's and "The Secret"'s: money is what matters. I call bullshit on that. Money is certainly a problem for a lot of people. But the idea that what you should be concerned with is accumulating as much of it as possible is anathema to me. It takes a very narrow and shallow person (indeed, hardly a person at all) to be fulfilled by the pursuit of cash and the consumption of product that is sure to accompany it.

To me, the whole thing is hollow. And I think Oprah should know better. And whether she does or not, I feel like her profile and influence justify holding her to a high standard for content and follow-through.

But your post raises some very interesting issues about Oprah herself that I don't really feel qualified to speak on. Birkenhead also notes these: She is black. That sentence says it all. In a world that is tilted firmly in the direction of white and male, she is the perfect antipode. She was a deeply deprived young child, poor and sexually abused and growing up as a racial minority in a country that is fundamentally obsessed about race and overweight in a country obsessed with appearance.

From that perfectly disadvantageous position, Oprah has ascended to become one of the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world. In the world. This is nothing short of amazing. The sheer will this must have required from her boggles the mind. And that fact raises (and highlights) all the other questions that I've had about her.

What might she have accomplished if her goals were academic rather than material? Or political, or social, or spiritual? I don't mean to suggest that she is uni-dimensional. Clearly not. But she is in show-business. That is a business fundamentally about the superficial and one that is ruled by the power of cash. She has expended a tremendous amount of capital and energy in building a media empire--the fundamental characteristic of which is a projection of her ego. That is to say, she is her empire. Much like Martha Stewart. After perusing your blog, I might suggest that Martha and Oprah would make a pretty interesting compare/contrast investigation.

Between the blog-post and this comment, I've now written more than I ever imagined I would about Oprah, so I think I'll leave it at that. Good luck with your blog!

Meli said...

Hey Jim: Thank you for the information about blogging. Well, yeah I am very new to blogging. I am apart of a Gender and Popular Culture college class, in which all of us (28 students) have online blogs about something that interests us from pop culture. I will probabably tell the rest of my class the advice. Thank you again!

Drunken Housewife said...

I flipped through a copy of "The Secret" yesterday at a bookstore, and I was revulsed. To me, it all seems part of a smug, blame-the-victim mentality I despise. It's poor people's fault they are poor, so we shouldn't have to help them! The same mentality prevails in born-again Christianity: obviously a person with a problem is an unworthy, bad person, otherwise God would have fixed up all those problems.

It's nice for people to think positively and be cheery, but that won't cure their cancer. I recommend reading a piece in the New Yorker some time ago about the wretched horrors of Lagos, Nigeria (I blogged about this); all the positive thinking about attracting money won't do much for a person literally born and raised in a garbage dump, with chronic health problems caused by pollution and a poor diet.

Anonymous said...

Nice article. You could submit it to

hughman said...

jim -

i totally agree with your perception of Oprah. i actually think you could've evaluated the whole spectacle as well as birkenhead's perception (without all the connections).

as a person with AIDS and "under the radar", i think it's easier for people like Oprah to dismiss the quagmire and intense scrutiny people like myself have.

sure, if i had zillions of dollars, it would be easier for me to deal with my illness and explore alternate ideas of reality. i have, in fact, done so in the past in many ways.

but when you have an illness or a condition, you are up against a wall. being against a wall leaves a smaller amount of freedom. i wish i had the room to envision or realize a new car - but i don't. i just keep pushing against the wall we all as humans come against.

thanks for your insight. you are an inspiration to me.


Jim said...


I've taken some time to come back to this. Mainly because being an "inspiration" to anyone in your socks is a heavy item for me. I'm glad. But I'm also, well, "honored" I guess is the word.

When you sit in the hughman chair, it's pretty easy to see right through the bs being peddled by the Harpo world. But I try to tread a thin line. We know enough about her root to give some space, but at the same time, it's that root that leaves me asking, "What the fuck? Don't you remember that place? It ain't pretty thoughts that got you out of it..."

And I wrote what I did because Birkenhead's assessment is right on Lincoln's nose: with survivors of the holocaust, or, in your case, people living with a disease contracted through love (!), the audacity to suggest that it's 'bad thinking' that brought them there is nauseatingly naive. Stupid.


Thanks for coming by, hugh. If you ever feel the urge to visit the Great State of Maine (its actual official name, I hear), look us up.

hughman said...

thanks jim.

you are kind,forgiving and hence inspirational.

i would love to sit on a deck over looking the water and have a beer with you. polly would love to sit at our feet.