Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Oprahism and the Church of Obama

Sultan Knish

Many people have noted that Obama's rhetoric often feels off, but fewer have looked into why that is so. A great part of Obama's success has been his ability to invoke values detached from belief systems. To break away symbols and ideals from religious and national value systems, and mix and match them into his own soundbites. Like the famous Hope poster, that mixed patriotic color schemes with socialist realism, or Obama's own logo, which mixed corporate branding with national politics-- Obama's "brand" was built out of a barely coherent mishmash of clashing elements. The only thing they all have in common is that they are bricks in the wall of Obama's image. They all combine together to promote him. None of this could have succeeded if context mattered, but Obama's people were piggybacking on a culture where context had ceased to matter. Where growing numbers of people could not be bothered to understand and would not care about the different elements being combined together, only whether the final product appealed to them or not. Obama's image had more in common with the way hip hop artists sample songs, than with a symphony. His campaign was the perfect trailer to a movie that would never be released. It was the marriage of corporate advertising campaigns, pop culture, radical politics and Americana-- thrown together in a pot and boiled into one indecipherable mix that was appealing, and yet completely void of meaning.

Obama's speeches were robotic, not just because they were delivered via teleprompter, but because they had been assembled together artificially out of bits and pieces of old presidential speeches into generic templates that were meant to awe audiences through their presentation. And if afterward no one could quite remember what he said, or what he promised or why they were even impressed-- in an ADD culture that only added to his charm. And so Obama kept on saying very little of substance, yet entertaining his audiences. His speeches called up spirituality devoid of religion, Americana devoid of patriotism and ideals devoid of ideas. He appropriated them all and used them as props in his show.

His obvious inspiration for this was not Jeremiah Wright, who did however provide plenty of textual inspiration, but Oprah herself. Oprah's success lay in marketing that same diffuse spirituality, not grounded in any actual belief system. Instead what she offered was an endless self-centered buffet, spirituality as self-empowerment, with herself and her chosen gurus as the center of a new commercial belief system.

Obama echoed that same self-centeredness, telling audiences, "We are the ones we have been waiting for", a quote from one of Oprah's favorite authors, and appealing to their own search for meaning. A favorite Oprah theme. The search for meaning is a common enough crutch for the narcissist, who wants fulfillment on his or her own terms, rather than commitment. Oprah has been catering to her audiences' endless search for meaning, as expressed through products and courses they can buy. Obama was just the latest of those gurus offering a meaning, consisting entirely of inspiring quotes cribbed from more talented people, with no actual application to anything.

The implicit subtext of the commercial search for meaning is that the meaning itself can never be found, but searching for it is what makes you a better person. That search for meaning as identity defines Oprah, it also defined Obama, who turned that into his own brand with two separate books chronicling his search for meaning, as his identity. His own mentor, Jeremiah Wright, had discovered that packaging his Black Muslim background and Leftist politics into Trinity Church would make him more salable, than if he had marginalized himself as some radical crank. (It took videos of his own shameless speeches and stepping on Obama's media friendly toes to do that.) Obama similarly discovered that selling Islam and Alinsky in a vaguely Christian tone would make it go down smoother. And with enough tri-color bunting and American flags and hymn books scattered around the Trojan Horse, fewer people would notice what was really hiding on the inside.

Obama had daringly sold his journey as America's journey, encouraging voters to not only identify personally with him, but to identity America itself with him. Positioning his own background as the embodiment of America. This should have been an obvious warning sign, because rather than identifying with Americans, he expected them to identify with him. Structuring his campaign as a journey, he spoke to the need for drama by the detached and disaffected. People who were too busy looking for meaning, to understand that meaning cannot be detached from the larger religious and cultural ideas that define civilization. Yet that was exactly what Obama appeared to offer, context free ideas, faith without religion, hope without anything tangible to actually hope for. It was a one-sided romance in which the public, like chicks waddling over to a wire mother, mistaking a sham for substance.

If Oprah offered fast-food meaning on television, Obama offered fast-food solutions in politics. Paying for it was never an issue. Consequences were off the table as well. By clothing a self-centered appeal in altruistic clothing, people felt they were engaging in self-improvement, when they were only being manipulated by professional egotists.

Oprah and Obama did more than share a pastor. They shared broken families and a profound greed and resentment that they learned to disguise professionally as empathy and ambition. By channeling the resentments of others, they could get what they wanted, without appearing harsh or abrasive. By selling other people on answers they did not believe in themselves, they could position themselves as spiritual leaders, without the fuss and limitations of organized religions, written creeds and higher deities. Instead they marketed their own life stories as a form of spirituality, convincing their followers to become invested in their success. Their own achievements were no longer personal, but national and global.

Self-realization as religion is a thoroughly self-indulgent faith, which is what makes it both hollow and appealing. It begins with religion as therapy, and ends with therapy as religion. It borrows religious metaphors, while discarding their meaning. That is the faith that Oprah and Obama have successfully sold millions on. A vaporous hope and faith, with nothing standing behind them. Both came with an innate understanding of the profound weakness of their followers in a post-modern age. They copied the templates of the intersection of religion and entertainment, removing any gods from the equation, and leaving behind personal narratives, feel-good cleaning rituals and of course, money.

But while Obama proved that you can run a campaign, the way you run a talk show-- you cannot actually run a country the way you run a talk show. Oprah's paranoid commitment to secrecy could not be successfully mirrored at the White House, no matter how hard Obama tried. And people expected more from an elected official put into the highest office in the land, than they did from a talk show host. And there was no avoiding that. And now it is Sarah Palin who's creating her own media empire, with books, a TV show and public appearances. Meanwhile Obama is discovering that reality cannot be remixed. That trotting out upbeat brands, slogans and logos is no substitute for results. And that eventually even loyalist reporters will have questions they want answers to. If only to the question, "Why can't I ever ask you a question?"

Yet there is a larger problem behind Obama and Oprah, the problem of a culture that neglect context, and instead favors short-term entertainment. When the Obama Administration ends, it may well go down as the most expensive bit of public entertainment in American history. And what is worse, is that even if Obama is somehow shown the door tomorrow, the cultural blind spots he exploited will still be there, and only getting worse. The self-help shelves of bookstores are still jammed with the search for meaning. That same empty yearning, which Obama exploited so very well.

There is a hole in our culture, and it is there because the verities that once defined us have been marginalized. Religion and national identity are relentlessly mocked by the same media culture that has usurped their place, with its own replacements like Oprah. What once provided meaning to people, lies by the wayside. And instead people search for personal fragmented meanings, for happiness and self-realization, when the search itself represents a denial of the mature commitments that make happiness and self-realization possible. Behind that fragmentation is a culture's loss of who and what it is. Leaving behind lonely individuals looking for something to hang on to, and at the mercy of predators whose own identities come from gaining their confidence, and preying on them.

The left has always understood that it can only succeed by replacing religion and nationalism, either through direct assault, or through the Trojan Horse effect of dressing their own ideas up in mock nationalistic and religious colors. The left was never atheistic. Its religion was government, its functionaries and doctrines were its priests and its creed. The Communists radically launched a direct assault. The more moderate socialists rode inside the Trojan Horse. And their depredations have left behind a West with a wounded soul. It is not only the likes of Oprah and Obama who know how to exploit that wound. There are far worse predators drawing closer to the campfire. Islam is preparing to engulf a Europe that has turned its back on its own values. What predators will come for America in the night is still an open question. With Obama and Soros, we have seen the first ugly glimmer of what may be coming. But unless America reclaims its soul, far larger predators will arrive on the scene.

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