Sunday, August 19, 2007



It’s after the August long weekend, and I haven’t posted since before July First. My unplanned SUMMER HIATUS was stereotypically BC—going away on a short vacation, recharging after travelling, revelling in the summer music and arts festivals, and hosting the stream of summer visitors. (As Grandma used to call it: managing the Dew Drop Inn.) I did finish and mail four reviews, prepare and present a workshop, and read a couple of books for pure pleasure (Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam and his Atonement).

One of BC’s surprise summer visitors dropped into a small community off the northeast tip of Vancouver Island. Borne in her friend Jimmy Pattison’s yacht, American media icon, Forbes Magazine’s most powerful celebrity in the world, OPRAH WINFREY stopped for a short visit in Alert Bay the Friday of the long weekend. Oprah accepted an invitation to a potlatch, made a short speech, shook hands, kissed babies, hugged people, and posed for photographs. A visitation. A star descending, shining in our midst.

Oprah is absolutely one of my heroes. She’s intelligent and compassionate; she laughs, she celebrates, she educates, she models worldly and spiritual generosity. She uses her celebrity and her connections and her wealth to instigate positive change in the world.

But I stopped watching the Oprah show about seven years ago. I admit I do flick in to check what the topic is, and sometimes I’ll stay. Maybe for Dr. Oz. Or for Oprah and Gayle driving across America (because it’s about travel and friendship). Maybe for a good booktalk or author interview. But mostly, not. Not interested. Not interested any more.

I abandoned Oprah as a daily mentor back in 2000 when George Bush charmed the pants off her before his first election. Not that I’m a partisan or anything like that; as a Canadian, I can stand aloof, and peer over the border and shake my head at the shortcomings of their system, painfully aware that they do not even know how we cherry-picked from them when Canada was invented in 1867.

The main reason I abandoned the Oprah show is political, because, by allowing George II to charm her viewers, she played into the stereotype, the argument against extending the franchise to women because we are not smart enough to participate in important decisions, that we will vote emotionally, based on looks and charm, without really searching below the surface for the underlying issues. I’m not saying Oprah’s the only media person who has fallen for this, this dumbing down, but when she did it, back before 9/11, when the election was so close the winner wasn’t known for weeks, the results were pivotal, and have changed the course of world history. It paved the way for a weak president manipulated by interest groups acting out in ways that are illegal in international law and immoral to people who believe that violence against a by-standing nation was an inappropriate response to non-state terrorism.

The second reason that I am no longer a loyal watcher is cultural. Oprah seems like a wonderful person; she is a living embodiment of the American dream of equality of opportunity--that it doesn’t matter where you come from, where you start from; that any woman, by working hard, can become the richest woman in America; those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame. (Isn’t this the cultural tenet upon which the American health-care system is based?) Now that Oprah has her program, and a world-wide audience, and her own company, she can push her own agenda. One of her goals seems to be the increased integration of African-American culture into the American mainstream and thus, on to the world screen. This is probably a good thing, and noble of her, thinking about “her People” in the States as well as in Africa. But it can make many shows seem to be just infomercials for other media, American films and Broadway plays. Dream Girls, The Colour Purple, American Idol are not ones I am likely to watch or likely to get to see.

American media culture just isn’t that interesting to me, as a Canadian. I have enough already and I’m not looking for more. I’ll watch APTN whenever I can, for alternate perspectives, and listen to CBC radio for some world news not filtered through America. I do watch some CNN, but I see no evidence of better critical thinking there. The yelling, the presenting of opinion as if it is fact, is really offensive. I do like Anderson Cooper’s take on America, “keeping them honest”, showing how government fails the people, and, by public exposure, trying to shame elected officials into action. His stance highlights more that is great about Oprah, who tends to present the stories from the point of view of the people who are impacted, and tries to empower those people to take control and make change happen.

The fourth reason I’ve abandoned the Oprah show is the excess of pity parties, the emphasis on painful topics such as poor health, crime, irresponsibility, and abuse. I’m uncomfortable with the often not-so-subtle suggestion that a fairy-godmother is going to alight, sprinkle some stardust, and solve all problems by providing a new house or a decorator or a car or an organizer, etc. This emphasis on the charity of individual millionaires may make people feel good, but it does nothing to address the systemic issues which allow or create the inequalities in the first place. So maybe what I react to is the ultra-conservatism, the emphasis on individual responsibility and not on systems analysis and reform.

I really object to the insertion of emotionalism into the criminal justice system, the “public flogging and execution” mentality of the hunt for child molesters. Demonizing pedophiles risks turning them into murderers, the better to avoid detection. It is such a wrong and dangerous message to suggest that putting specific individuals in jail will ensure child safety. Not! Street-proof kids, protect them and teach them to protect themselves. No one can be “the catcher in the rye”. Analyze the origins of the perversions; every pedophile had a mother. What went wrong? Address the causes before the symptoms appear. Thoughts precede actions. If she chose to do so, Oprah could make the connection between the attitudes and errors of thinking of a pedophile and of an invading nation—the arbitrariness, the lack of empathy, the solipsism, the issues of control and being controlled by an outside force.

The final reason I abandoned the Oprah show is reruns, although one benefit of reruns is that they remind us of the cultural impact Oprah has in America. She introduces phrases that become part of pop culture—“you go, girl”, “this I know for sure”, “it takes a village”, “when we know better, we do better”. And she recognizes talent and gives others opportunity. Oprah has introduced stars such as Suze Orman, Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, and her annual garden party celebrating African-American women has become an American “event”.

As Canadians, don’t we have our own culture, our own myths and icons? Can’t we leave America to its own choices and concentrate on the issues at home? I wish we had a Canadian Oprah who would show us things we don’t want to look at about Canadian culture. Marilyn Denis does a comfortable job out of Toronto, but even she is bored with the repeat themes of decorating, makeovers, fashion, and food on CityLine. Are all women that limited, that only these superficials matter? CBC’s Gill Deacon is still finding her C-legs. She did a roundtable about the Slate article that attacked Oprah’s values for starting a school for girls in South Africa rather than doing something at home in America. They talked about the dumbing down, but I didn’t hear any mention that Oprah-bashing is woman-bashing. Donald Trump deserves values-scrutiny way more than Oprah, but who ever tries to challenge him? (Well, maybe Rosie, but look where that got her.) And Oprah-bashing, criticizing what the rich choose to do with their money, is really America-bashing, bashing the American dream. Oprah seems to want to make African Americans the same as rich white Americans, to even out the inequities rather than to think about the defining values of her nation.

My reasons for abandoning the Oprah show are about me, not about Oprah’s right to make the choices she makes. So what if they’re not always to my taste? I’m not even her target audience; no big deal. I still think she is the best and most human being on television. I respect her values. I do still buy the Oprah magazine, and is on my favourites list, mainly because being able to get the recipes off the Internet allows me to recycle the magazines, which I do once a year. That way, I’m saving a few Canadian trees while letting more readers enjoy Oprah’s wisdom. The glossy pages of the August edition are a perfect souvenir of a summer surprise. Who knows when she will drop back to BC in person again?

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