I’ve heard it attached to books. I’ve heard it attached to products and upcoming television programs. But last week for the first time I heard it linked to a political candidate: The Oprah Factor.
That Oprah Winfrey decided to sprinkle her magic dust on Barack Obama is her business and I’m not going to address the issue of show business types mistaking their success in the entertainment field for wisdom about how the entire world should be run. Obama may or may not be good for America, but you certainly can’t deny he lucked out in the endorsement department.
No. What alarms me is the existence of conditions like “The Oprah Factor,” where one person or entity has total control over the opinion of a huge – sometimes complete – segment of the population.
I used to think Disney was the only entity that had that much power. Disney has monopolized our culture for over 20 years. There isn’t a childhood fairytale that it hasn’t absorbed and its interpretations of classic literature and history, while laughingly simplistic or downright wrong, have become the only version most people know. Disney is also the cause of the total lack of creative vacation planning on behalf of any family with kids under 16 years old.
Wal-Mart is another entity wielding a whole lot of power, this time over how much we spend; or, as I see it, Wal-Mart determines the price of our conscience. We’re all aware of what a lousy employer it is; that its prices are kept low by shipping jobs to other countries and exploiting unfair labor practices there; that even its suppliers are subjected to extortion measures that would make Don Corleone proud; that the inferior products made, by the low price, so easily available clutter up the landfills with cast-off electronics. But its prices are so cheap, we tell ourselves, we can’t afford not to shop there.*
Then there’s Martha Stewart and her control over all things domestic, a domain I will not give up to her easily because I am certain my family would spontaneously combust if I ever enacted any of her obsessive compulsive traditions around here. Give my family five minutes with one of her table settings and she’d come back to place cards with rude things written on them and napkins folded into obscene shapes. But I’m most certainly in the minority. A quick thumb through her Homekeeping Handbook revealed absolutely nothing new and certainly nothing not freely available elsewhere. But it’s from Martha, and you can just hear that one-of-a-kind accent (which came from where? She’s from Nutley, NJ. No one from New Jersey talks like that) enjoining you to “store your most frequently used items in the most accessible places.” Yup, thirty bucks buys you that kind of wisdom.
There’s a whole gang of entities that are positioning themselves to become the single voice in their field.
Apple just has to put a lowercase “i” in front of a random noun, slap a several hundred dollar price tag on it and claim it’s in short supply and every geek in the country will call in sick Monday to stand in line for a week.
This week Google, who already determines what website most of us visit first, announced that it’s Knol will offer an “alternative” to Wikipedia, which is currently the website we’re sent to first when using Google. I’m rather uncomfortable with one company controlling the windmills of my mind.
Through all this, I don’t blame Oprah, Disney, Wal-Mart, Martha, Apple or Google. They are just doing what they are allowed to do under the system and you can’t blame them for doing the most they can to get the most they can. They’ve played the odds that the public is just lazy enough that they can capitalize on it and they’ve won. And they’ve used the power from that success to convince us that, in spite of their flaws, there is no other choice.
On the other side of the system, though, is. . . well . . . us. You. Me. We’ve forgotten that we are perfectly capable of researching and making our political choices without someone else’s personal biases. We’ve forgotten that, while it’s easy to plunk our four-year-old in front of a DVD of Pinocchio, there is an infinitely more imaginative book you can read to him chapter by chapter each night. We’ve forgotten that in addition to good products and service, we’re also entitled to demand integrity and ethical behavior of the people we do business with. We’ve forgotten the basic rule of homemaking is not to waste money on what you already have.
The mega-powers make it soothingly easy to stay forgetful and lazy. There is the comfort of the crowd and the ease of getting everything you need – information, groceries, entertainment, lawn manure – in one place. And financially it may even cost less.
In terms of personal power, though, we may find the price too high.
* Six years ago I stopped going to Wal-Mart completely. Trust me. It’s possible to raise a family without it.