Friday, June 26, 2009
America's Oprah Moment
(Note: A version of this was originally published on Feb. 2, 2009)
Our country is having an Oprah moment. How else to describe the inauguration coverage of Barack Obama? Watching celebrities flock to Washington, D.C. to frolic in his presence, some even daring to skip Sundance, the four day festival of coverage felt like a made-for-TV event that only Hollywood could produce. And in case you doubted it, there was Oprah Winfrey hosting her show from the nation's capital and toasting Barack Obama in private dinners at the White House. "The light of the new age is here", she professed. Then she cried, as so many other celebrities and debutantes did. To see how much the pampered elites of high society approved, one need only count the private jets parked on D.C. runways. And if the ruling class approves it must be good for the commoners, right?
We can thank the queen of daytime TV for creating the atmosphere that got our new king elected and has half the nation walking around in a stupor that even embarrasses born-again Christians who pass out at Faith Rally weekends. Oprah helped launch Obama's presidential campaign on her show. She endorsed him publicly. She sold him to every American household the same way she peddled her dime store psychology and influential book club. Now one wonders, given her track record, if Obama's story will also turn out to be a fake. Or maybe just not up to the happy, messianic ending.
Was Obama's big day historic? Yes. Should we take pride regardless of political affiliation knowing how well our democracy works, that the son of an immigrant can rise to such great heights in just one generation? Of course we should. Whether you voted for him or not, we can all be proud as Americans of how far our country has come since MLK's "I have a dream" speech. But shouldn't an election be about more than feelings? What happens when all the gooey emotions go away and President Obama has to make the first executive decisions of his lifetime?
We're already finding out. In his first week of office, President Obama closed Guantanamo Bay without closing it. Change! But not really. Or at least not for a year or until we can come up with a plan. President Bush was criticized for going to war in Iraq without an exit plan, but our newly elected executive will receive no such nitpicking from the spellbound media.
How appropriate that President Obama, whose election has been one feel-good, symbolic moment after another, picked as his first order of business a feel-good, symbolic gesture. Closing a prison is in and of itself insignificant. It's what you do with the prisoners that has consequences. Obama hasn't made a decision on the latter, so why announce the former? For those who thought Bill Clinton was unusually adept at speaking out of both sides of his mouth, we are now beginning to realize how much he underachieved. Barack Hussein Obama is after all, a Kenyan from Kansas, an antiwar war president, a post-partisan partisan, a free-trade protectionist, a non-smoking smoker, and a non-Muslim with a Muslim name.
If the light of the new age is here, it's certainly not the beacon of freedom and liberty that Ronald Reagan talked about. No, this is an age marked by moral relativism. Better to drive a hybrid than condemn terror. To prove as much, President Obama gave his first formal interview to Arab TV apologizing to jihadists and dictators for America's recent actions in the Middle East. If apologizing for intolerance to countries that prohibit religious freedom, kill homosexuals, and jail women for being raped is progress, the new administration's idea of diplomacy is even more naive than I imagined.
Do you feel good, America? Let's hope so. If you're going to elect someone with this little experience and humility, better hope the euphoria lasts. The pressure is off the Arab world, it seems, to move in the direction of human rights and equality. Whew, Gaddafi and Ahmadinejad must be relieved. Meanwhile here at home, we are now encouraged to soften our stance on terror out of decency, to love every jihadist as much as an unborn child - wait, scratch that. Love every terrorist more than an unborn child, because President Obama also signed an executive order sending our tax dollars to fund foreign "family planning" groups that promote and/or perform abortions. Hope! Unless you're an unborn Chinese girl about to be eliminated.
The dime store psychology, self-esteem crowd has determined Obama's greatness based simply on his puffery and cool demeanor. If they have given up on the grand idea of American exceptionalism, they certainly believe in Obama exceptionalism. They tirelessly try to convince us that catchphrase speeches will lead to great achievements, that only wonderful things can come from having such a high opinion of oneself. But if that were the case, Paris Hilton would have already won an Oscar.
The meteoric rise of Barack Obama is certainly worthy of praise, but this is full-fledged celebrity worship. The reaction our new Commander in Chief garners from Oprah and pals is no different than the one that greets Sonjaya on American Idol by shrieking 12 year old girls. Reading the mainstream media is starting to feel like reading Tiger Beat. Does free speech even matter when newspapers and magazines are more obsessed with Obama's pectorals than his policies? Sure, they'll cover his talking points, but they don't want to dissect the details. Some dictators don't have it this good.
No wonder when teenagers are asked to list their goals in life, more than half say "being famous." To quote Family Feud, it's the number one answer on the board, easily outpacing "being rich" or "being good at something." And in today's climate of reality TV, youtube, twitter, and myspace, actually achieving something of significance to gain such fame no longer matters. To ask how a celebrity politician like Obama won an overwhelming majority of the millennial generation's vote despite any noteworthy legislative accomplishments is redundant. He is our American Idol President.
While many try to paint this as a post-partisan era of new politics, it's important to realize that celebrity worship can never be partisan in the first place. Whatever Obama wants, they want. Which is why when surveyed, almost half of the people who voted for Obama couldn't correctly identify the Democrats as the party that controlled Congress for the past two years. There's even a video making the rounds that shows Obama supporters praising him when his policy positions are presented as the exact opposite. I'd laugh if I didn't find the whole thing disturbing and dangerous.
Fortunately (or unfortunately for Obama) such an image of hipness is unsustainable. Executive decisions have consequences. Although it may take years, eventually people come out of the haze. Maybe even journalists. I know many people have looked back at what was once popular only to realize that some of their favorite bands and TV shows were really quite terrible. And how did Dances with Wolves ever win best picture? Over Goodfellas?!
The question remains with Obama, when the honeymoon's over and the money's all been spent, will there be anything to show for it? Will the country be safe? And if the answer is no, will those who held him to such unfair heights be able to turn off the TV, ignore Oprah, and hold him accountable?