If you don’t know, Bill Maher posted a video of his criticism of Oprah. Now before you get upset at the idea of someone taking a pot-shot at Oprah, hear me out on this.
Oprah certainly is a nice person, and I believe she tries to do right on her talk show. I mean, who could disagree? Since she gives out so much stuff! Trips to Australia, brand-new cars, iPads. . .
There is something subtler and darker at work here. Bill Maher caught it and bravely (and humorously) pointed it out. He expressed that watching another Oprah audience go ape-shit over getting free stuff was “one of the most disturbing things [he’s] seen on television.” What did he mean by that?
He means that there is more to life than shallow materialism. Our lives are more than the value of our possessions. The things that matter most are the relationships we build, and the love and charity we show to friends and family (and yes, even strangers). You can’t take an iPad with you beyond the grave, but *yes* you can be buried with it (and yes, there is an app for that).
Now, I’m not denying that it’s fine to get pleasure from your stuff. I have an Xbox 360, a nice TV, and I love my computer and the Internet. These things are all great. Let me elaborate a defense of limited materialism. Philosophically, your possessions represent the aggregate of your labors. Since you own your body, and you therefore own your time, you are allowed to give your time to labors that allow you to buy. . . well, stuff. It’s fine to enjoy the fruits of your labor. That’s good, in fact.
What gets excessive is that we begin to start deifying the almighty dollar. Look at shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and you see an almost pornographic obsession with living in enormously cush homes. It’s all part of that golden American dream: work hard, and you too will one day “make it”. I’m not going to get into the merits of the American Dream.
What I will say is that Bill Maher may be correct in saying that money is the new God. If we somehow manage to join the rich club, then everything will be fine. On the other hand, Leo Rosten was quite correct when he said, “Money can’t buy happiness, but neither can poverty.” So again, I’m not disputing whether a certain level of material comfort is good or bad. It’s definitely good.
But shows like Sweet Sixteen tick me off because they illustrate another example of how the sweat and toil of the laboring classes filter up the pyramid to the richest of the rich. When a son of a producer can be bestowed with a jewel-encrusted jacket and get a new Bemer and that $4,000 specialty off-roading bike that he absolutely must get to know his parents love him (and, of course, have P Diddy do a private performance at the party), you have to recognize the essential Ponzi Scheme nature of market capitalism.
There is a mythology at work here. One that seduces people into thinking that the super rich create all the wealth we enjoy. They don’t. To understand this, I’d have to go into an analysis of what really allows our civilization to thrive. Put succinctly, it’s surplus food. This allows specialized labor that produces goods. Viewed this way, you see the success of our modern life is built from the ground up. But, yes, you do need venture capital to build a factory. But you’re better off building a factory in Latin America because American workers cost too much. You can even shut-down an American plant that is still making profits for your corporation (because, hey, you could make more profits somewhere else).
OK, so back from my digression. Why is Oprah’s show disturbing? I admit, it was rather touching when she gave cars to all those people who were struggling to get to work and live life without transportation. That’s all very nice.
But look at things the way Helen Keller would have (the damned socialist); she looked to root causes of social ills rather than slapping a band-aid over a mangled limb and doing high-fives.
Side note here: we all know that Helen Keller was deaf and blind and that she learned to read, write, and communicate because of the extraordinary efforts of a teacher. Teachers love to tell us the story of the water-pump, and how—if Helen Keller could overcome adversity—gosh darn it, we can too. Then they move onto the next subject without talking about the sordid details of what Helen Keller did when she grew up: she became a socialist. The admiring public turned against her and decided that she was being manipulated by her “handlers”.
You know an event that led Helen Keller to socialism? She grew up to advocate for proper education of the blind, and she discovered that blindness disproportionately affected poor people. This had to do with the fact that if you were poor you were more likely to be born of a Syphilitic mother. That’s when she recognized that being poor kinda sucked and became a Socialist. Remember, root causes.
So when Oprah gives shit away and the crowd goes wild and the viewers shed that single conceited tear, realize that Oprah is just slapping a band-aid on a festering wound and basking in the warm glow of a proper do-gooder. She doesn’t use her considerable influence to highlight why people need cars so badly to get to work and can’t afford them. She doesn’t deal with root causes, but she’s busy doing the Mexican hat-dance when she gives out iPads like she just solved every problem in the universe; as if life will somehow get better because they can go home with another expensive toy.
Bill Maher caught on to this; and I, for one, think he’s right.
© David Metcalf