One of the universal strategies of a dictatorship is a tight control of information disseminated to its citizens. By blocking the flow of any outside information and dominating the media, an authoritarian state can create an alternative reality for its subjects in which the dictator and its cronies are portrayed as benevolent leaders. The transformation of the mind of the citizenry into a robotic acceptance of the “alternative facts” of the prevailing order is called brainwashing.
Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” in the news did not pop up into our political consciousness out of thin air. First, our social consciousness had to be molded into accepting other forms of alternative facts, aka pseudoscience. A prerequisite for this acceptance was the dissemination of unfounded information by individuals in whom the public had unquestionable trust.
The Oprah Effect refers to the impact that an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, or an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey, can have on a business. Those who follow pop culture have watched Oprah’s turn-to-gold touch for decades — on books and magazines, movies and television, fashion and lifestyle products, politics and political causes, and making stars out of nobodies she has embraced. Where would psychologist Dr. Phil and health-expert Dr. Oz be if Oprah hadn’t reached out and touched them? Mind-body guru Deepak Chopra, financial adviser Suze Orman, and lifestyle designer Nate Berkus are all celebrities because of their appearances on Oprah. Not to mention Barack Obama: where would he be had Oprah not helped elect him president?
But there is a darker side to The Oprah Effect.
After being featured in the book and movie of The Secret (TS) in 2006, James Arthur Ray was propelled onto the national stage. At the time, he was touted as the latest in a long line of prominent self-help gurus who claimed to hold the keys to living a happy and successful life.
In early 2007, Ray took over Oprah’s couch for two highly-rated shows devoted to TS. “[Quack] science tells us that everything is energy, and so your thoughts are energy,” Ray told Oprah’s vast audience. “Your body, your cash, your car — everything you think is solid, if you put it under a high-powered [quack] microscope, it’s just a field of [quack] energy and a rate of vibration. And so are we.”[my additions] A year later his book became a New York Times best seller. The price of joining Ray’s World Wealth Society — a program of one-to-one mentoring — peaked at $90,000, and he bought a luxurious home in Beverly Hills.
Then, in October of 2009, three of Ray’s followers died.
In Sedona, Ariz., as many as 75 men and women who had paid $10,000 each for one of Ray’s week long programs participated in a sweat lodge ceremony inside hut draped with tarps and blankets and heated by scalding rocks. As temperatures soared to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, several people inside started passing out. Kirby Brown, 37, and James Shore, 40, died of heatstroke that night. Eighteen others were hospitalized for everything from burns to kidney failure. Nine days later, Liz Newman, 49, died of organ failure. In November 2011, Ray was sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide.
Three months before her death, Kirby Brown was at her parents’ house for the wedding of her sister Jean. Jean recalls that it was after seeing James Ray on Oprah’s show that her sister read “The Secret” and became a fan of Ray. She remembers Kirby telling her to read the book, how amazing it was, and how amazing James Ray was; that he’d been on Oprah, and that she was looking forward to the Ray event she would be attending a few months later.
In an open letter to Oprah dated May 27, 2014, Jean writes “But here’s the thing, Oprah. You have a voice. One that is respected, one that is listened to, one that is heard. I can sort of understand why you’d hide after what happened — for legal reasons, your reputation, etc. But now that James Ray is ‘working’ again, I implore you: challenge James Ray with the truth. Ask my mother about her truth. About Kirby’s truth.”
This is five years after the tragedy! Jean is very generous and does not blame Oprah for Kirby’s death, noting that Oprah was herself “probably duped” by James Ray. Oprah’s viewers practically worship her like an Oracle and her words are edicts on which they build their lives. And Oprah knows this. It was The Oprah Effect that catapulted James Ray into stardom. If Oprah had not sponsored Ray, he would not have been so successful and Kirby Brown, James Shore, and Liz Newman would not have paid him $10,000 for a fatal sweat lodge retreat. Who is responsible for Kirby’s death?
The darkest side of The Oprah Effect is something that is not visible. It is the effect it has on the mind of the public. It is an Orwellian “Thought Police” with a democratic twist and a voluntary acceptance of ideas. It is the public being brainwashed — yes, brainwashed — into welcoming alternative facts. Think of a mile long queue of people at a bookstore in Pyongyang waiting to buy a book “recommended” by Kim Jong-un. Now think of the Barnes & Noble in Northern California where Tim Watkin — who wrote a Washington Post oped piece about “The Secret” — worked for several months. “Three times in less than two weeks, the store sold out of ‘The Secret.’ Time and again, the customers coming to the counter were working-class people, spending their hard-earned money on this piffle — $16.76 for the book and $34.99 for the DVD,” Watkin wrote. “When I started asking why, they said they’d seen ‘The Secret’ on Oprah.”
We normally don’t pay attention to the pernicious effect pseudo-scientific ideas have on the mind, unless they cause physical harm. The Sedona, Ariz. incident is just one example. There are many more, hundreds of thousands more. When Oprah publicizes alternative medicine and New Age spirituality, she is brainwashing her 40 million plus followers. The direct effect of this brainwashing is the spike in the sale of the facial cream or the weight-loss drug she recommends, or the book she lists in her book club. But the more subtle and more dangerous indirect effect is that her followers lose the ability to think critically. They turn against rationality and science, because Oprah has a word or two for conventional doctors who criticize Suzanne Somers and her medical advice!
A public brainwashed by the Oracle embraces her “apostles” with open arms. But to be an apostle, you have to have certain qualifications. Suppose you are a doctor and a professor of surgery at Columbia University, and you write to Oprah about your interest in educating the public about their health and how scientific medicine can help them. You’ll never hear back from Oprah! Now suppose you are a doctor and a professor of surgery at Columbia University, and you write to Oprah about your interest in educating the public about their health. You also indicate that your wife — a Reiki Master — introduced you to the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish Protestant fundamentalist who, late in life, became a spiritualist and Sweden’s most famous trance medium, and that you have subsequently been profoundly influenced by him. You tell Oprah, “When Lisa and I got married, there was no ’til death do us part in the ceremony,” because Swedenborg had convinced you and Lisa that marriages are intended to last forever in paradise. Now you have Oprah’s ears.
The Dr. Oz Show has an estimated audience of 2 million. He shares his “miracle” diet products with the vigor of Oprah sharing her new favorite novel. And not unlike Oprah, Oz’s words carry a lot of weight with his viewers. Americans spend an estimated $40 billion a year on weight-loss products. Almost every time Oz peddles one, sales spike. This phenomenon even has a name: “The Dr. Oz effect.”
Under pressure from Congress, Dr. Oz appeared before the Senate’s consumer protection panel and was scolded by Chairman Claire McCaskill for claims he made about weight-loss aids on his TV show. “The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called ‘miracles,’ ” McCaskill said. “When you call a product a miracle, and it’s something you can buy, and it’s something that gives people false hope, I don’t understand why you need to go there.” The Congressional hearing changed neither the content nor the popularity of The Dr. Oz Show. “The Dr. Oz effect,” like the effect of his mentor, prevailed!
When the mind is trained to accept alternative medicine and pseudo-scientific spirituality, it becomes prone to all forms of irrationality. The surge in the belief in conspiracy theories and the ratings of media outlets that promote these theories is, if not directly the outcome of more than thirty years of listening, hearing, and reading Oprah, then at least assisted by her.
When a man loses his mind, he may harm one or two or several people around him. When the public loses its mind, it harms hundreds of millions of people who are — and will be — affected by the irrationality that hinders the scientific and technological development that could otherwise be encouraged by a public with a sound mind. Wouldn’t the $40 billion wasted annually on weight-loss products be better spent on cancer research?