On the special, Oprah talked far more about what the school would do for the girls' self-esteem and material lives than what it would do for their intellects -- sometimes sounding as if she was reading directly from "The Secret." And in discussing what she was looking for in prospective students, she didn't talk about finding the next Eleanor Roosevelt or Sally Ride or Jane Smiley. Instead she used "Entertainment Tonight" language like "It Girl" to describe her ideal candidate. She praised the girls for their spirit, for how much they "shined" and "glowed," but never for their ideas or insights. Oprah puts a lot of energy and money into aesthetics -- on her show, in her magazine, at her school. The publishers of "The Secret" have learned well from their sponsor and are just as visually savvy.
Shouldn't we be grateful that Oprah is doing good, one might retort, what does it matter how she chooses to do it? The problem with Oprah's brand of altruism is two-pronged: it's fundamentally narcissitic, and it knows only lavishness--it is never applied in moderation. Oprah's shows are all about Oprah and her reactions. We need to find her jokes hilarious, think her life story a model, and sit in wait until she reveals who she's supporting for president. We need to awe at her beneficence as she showers her audience with big ticket gifts like cars and homes. I am compelled at this point to think of the Jewish scholar Maimonedes' eight levels of tzedakah, of giving, where the lowest levels are those where the recipient and giver both know each other's identities. Oprah never rises above the lowest levels. She requires that her beneficence be broadcast, that her identity be known to the beneficiary, that her imprint of luxury be made upon all that she gives.
As Birkenhead points out, her philantrhopy is unfailingly television-savvy:
Oprah's TV special about the Leadership Academy, essentially an hour long infomercial, was just as well-coiffed and "visuals"-heavy. In fact, when Oprah was choosing her students, her important criteria must have included their television interview skills. On-camera interviews with the girls were the centerpiece of the special, but as one spunky, telegenic candidate after another
beamed her smile at the camera, I couldn't help wondering how Joyce Carol Oates or Gertrude Stein or Madame Curie would have fared -- would they have "shined"
and "glowed," or more likely talked in non-sound-bite-friendly paragraphs and maybe even, God forbid, the sometimes "dark" tones of authentic people, and been
rejected. Sadly, the girls themselves (and who can blame them, desperate 12-year-olds trying to flatter their potential benefactor) parroted banal Oprah-isms, like "I want to be the best me I can be," and "Be a leader not a follower" and "Don't blend in, blend out," with smiley gusto.
This form of beneficence, in which the benefactor TV personality acts as savior to the destitute is lottery-style philanthropy. One must hope to win the attention of an Oprah to have his story aired on television and his life changed by a TV crew. "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," hosted by Trading Spaces' Ty Pennington is another television show that promotes the hosts' altruism and a win-the-lottery approach to life by lavishing a Sharper Image store's worth of the newest in home entertainment upon the homeowner. It seems that Oprah and Ty Pennington cannot bestow anything less than the best (or biggest) upon their beneficiary. As Birkenhead puts it:
One of Oprah's signature gimmicks has been giving stuff away to her audience ("giving" here means announcing the passing of stuff from corporate sponsors to audience members), most notably in a popular segment called "My Favorite Things." These bits have revealed an Oprah who truly revels in consumer culture, and who can seem astonishingly oblivious to the way most people live and what they can afford. She seems to celebrate every event and milestone with extravagant stuff, indeed to not know how to celebrate without it.While one person or 350 young woman have won the lottery by winning Ty's or Oprah's fleeting interest, one wonders whether such abundance of resources could be spread out more evenly. While it's better that "Extreme Makeover" focus its energies on refurbishing a park hit by Hurricane Katrina and a soup kitchen hit by Hurricane Wilma than on revamping the home of a well-healed yuppy, it is worrisome that one has to hope for the attentions of a television show or else remain forgotten. After all, "Extreme Makeover"'s crew cannot possibly rehab all of the destitute areas of the country, every New Orleans or Appalachia or South Bronx, especially if it feels the need to include plasma televisions and Sub-zero refrigerators in each home. Nor can Oprah be expected to educate millions of children in Africa. In a society where people look to "Extreme Makeover" to do what this government cannot do, one has to hope to be one of the chosen few.