Religion & American politics:

The Oprahfication of Obama

posted by Kathryn Lofton

“Obama is the post-polarization candidate and Oprah is a post-polarization celebrity.”
Ross K. Baker, Rutgers University political scientist

“I think Oprah is John the Baptist, leading the way for Obama to win.”
Iowa caucus voter

First, you need a name.  Not just any name.  A weird name: a Biblical misspelling, maybe, or an invocation of some distant land.  No matter what: the name needs an O.  The O will come in handy when you need to summon a common sphere, encourage chanting, or design a gentle logo.  Never deny the utility of its replication, never avoid its allusion, and never miss a moment for its branding.  An O is a space anyone can fill with anything.

Second, you need a life.  Not just any life.  A life that is ready to be a story, prepared for metaphor, assembled in advance by memoir, by professional mode, or by fictional expectation.  If Aaron Sorkin or Alice Walker is not available for its incantation, you must be prepared to tell your story yourself again and again, mentioning its familiar bits like tired ice-breakers to loosen the uncomfortable, the unfamiliar, and the closet racists.  It helps if you can redistribute your tale by media cultures, through websites, television specials, and periodicals.  The more you say it, the more it will become the new normal.  Advertise your chronological or genealogical messiness: the hardscrabble youth, the absent parent, the non-nuclear family, the experiments with drugs, the cultural patois that produced your singular self.  Tell the story like it is utterly improbable that it happened, even as you knew, you knew from the beginning, that you were destined.  Your small, sweeping, rural, urban, abusive, tender, confusing, and familiar tale of ascent is what they have been waiting to hear.  The American Dream is no conjure.  It is you.

Third, you will need a crew.  Not many people, just enough to create a familiar circle of stand-up, saucy influences.  A truth-telling African American female intimate is a must.  So is a tall, experienced white man.  Whereas the white guy can be crass, even obnoxious, the woman must learn when to be silent, to relax her hair, and to look fantastic, always.  Keeping great people nearby is important, because you will often feel alone.  Being alone is strange, since it is your burden to be that which nobody can dislike, which everyone wants to be near.  Rick Warren and Gene Robinson must feel comfortable next to you.  Starlets and statesmen must respect you.  Bill Cosby must like you.  White women need to feel safe with you.  Homosexuals must love you, even as you sometimes co-opt their affections and ignore their causes.  Resist the temptation to call old friends who may infect with toxic associations.  Celebrate mothers but steer clear of feminists.  Mourn the loss of mid-century America even if it was the America that segregated you.  Wax nostalgic about a family life you never had, endorse the nuclear your biography belies.  Eschew any race reification, but embrace black institutions early.  Their loyalty will supersede your betrayals.  Connect personally with Africa.  Connect with Peoria.  Connect with the Bronx.  Vacation on the Pacific Rim.  But live in Chicago.  Be Chicago.  Attend Jeremiah Wright’s church.  Use the music of U2 and Stevie Wonder, and any high-spirited progressive-friendly country you can find.  Get a dog.

Fourth, you will need a style.  This manner will help you endure some hard knocks.  Inevitably, some people will call you the Antichrist.  Others will call you a sellout.  Some will call you a cult leader.  Take these assaults with nonchalance.  Make criticism about you seem petty, cynical, even bigoted.  Through it all, master the encompassing hold, the sense that you are accessible to everyone.  Yet retain an incommensurable mystery.   Keep people guessing.  Does s/he mean it?  What does s/he really believe?  Some will regard this as an admirable capaciousness, while others will see it as a shallow equanimity.  No matter: you will counter those claims with discipline, with consistency, with extraordinary prescience.  You will confound expectations constantly.  Your mistakes will be translated as incidentally brilliant.  You will possess a preternatural ability to give people what they want, to know what they need, to sell what they will buy.  Prepare yourself for this.  You have to get over any anxieties about your own assimilation, incorporation, and amalgamation.  Be the commodity.  Put your O everywhere.  Your iconography is how you brace against the disappointments of your humanity.

Fifth, you will need to be ambivalent.  You have always been neither here nor there, neither us nor them, and neither of or outside.  You have always been able to see from many perspectives, to appeal to many sorts of people, to believe many different things, even as you are fiercely moral, upstanding, near pious.  You are, as everyone knows, a Protestant.  But you dabble in everything, shying not away from the Koran or kabbalah, Jewish professors or Eastern spiritual advisers.  You will entertain anything that might embolden your O.  You are the ambiguity of your epoch, the middle that makes the mass, the crossroads of a country that excited your youth, raped your ancestral continent, and claps now for your children.  You are a global distribution suffused with spiritual truth.  You are motivated with missionary zeal to convert everyone, unrelentingly, to change.  You make them believe their best lives are yet to come.  You make it impossible to look away, to hate, to dissent, or to change the channel.  You make us feel good, finally.  You are our redemption.  You are our favorite smile. And you are our satisfaction at the possibility of a secular that made it all so.

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One Response to “The Oprahfication of Obama”

  1. avatar Steve Sailer says:

    Good essay.

    It would have been impossible for Obama not to have been influenced by Oprah’s success. In the 1990s, there were only two celebrities in Chicago, but they were the biggest celebrities in all of America: Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan.

    Obama is also clearly influenced by Tiger Woods’ image, which, in turn, rests on some powerful advice Jordan gave Woods back in the 1990s on how to manage the media.

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