Sometimes Oprah is too much even for Oprah America. That's the encouraging sign evident in two essays -- one in Newsweek, the other in Salon -- that take apart her enthusiasm for The Secret, the latest bestselling book (and companion DVD) that champions prosperity theology. Newsweek's essay, written by Jerry Adler and supported by a team of other reporters, is more satisfying because it is more restrained in its criticism. When a writer deals with prosperity theology of any theological flavor, the best thing to do is just get out of the way and let the absurdity speak for itself.
Adler does this well:
In a dramatized interlude in the film, a young woman ogles a necklace in a window, and the next thing you know, it's around her neck. A child imagines himself with a new bike, and it appears outside his door. No need to do a lot of boring chores or get a newspaper route: the universe provides. Contrariwise, a worrywart who obsessively checks the locks on his bicycle returns to find it stolen; the law of attraction has called down on him just the predicament he hoped to avoid. A financial consultant reliably finds parking, just by visualizing an empty spot -- which implies, by another law of the universe, the one about two objects occupying the same space, that he believes his thoughts can induce someone else to leave. Is this someone you'd trust with your investments?
Peter Birkenhead's essay in Salon has its satisfying moments, but his consistent mistake is to drag George W. Bush into the argument, as if the president is somehow responsible even for Oprah being Oprah:
I'm already sickened by an American culture that teaches people, as "The Secret" does, that they "create the circumstances of their lives with the choices they make every day," a culture that elected a president who cried tears of self-congratulation at his inauguration, rejects intellectualism, and believes he can intuit the trustworthiness of world leaders by looking into their eyes. I'm sickened by a culture in which the tenets of the Oprah philosophy have become conventional wisdom, in which genuine self-actualization has been confused with self-aggrandizement, reality is whatever you want it to be, and mammon is queen.
Birkenhead even manages to equate The Secret with Intelligent Design. It's an argument of guilt by association, except that the only association is in the author's imagination:
These believers may believe in the healing power of homeopathy, or Scripture or organizational skills -- in intelligent design, astrology or privatization. They all trust that their devotion will be rewarded with money and boyfriends and job promotions, with hockey championships and apartments. And most of all they believe -- they really, really believe -- in themselves.
Newsweek provides the public service of tying The Secret to its true soulmates, including Emile Coué, Charles Filmore, Deepak Chopra and Norman Vincent Peale. Birkenhead is on the track in seeing the interfaith nature of prosperity theology. But he draws the circle more broadly still, turning what could be a sublime takedown into just another screed.