Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Archive for January 2018

Jan/18

20

Oprah: The Queen of Unreason

The Oprah moment may have faded for now, but I have little doubt that it will return, in which case this Slate piece by Kurt Andersen (and, no, I don’t agree with his jibe about Reagan) will be one that it is well worth retrieving when Oprah 2020 picks up again.

An extract:

Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.

I’m no fan of Trump’s conspiracy-mongering, to put it mildly, but we’ll have to see which, over the longer term, proves more dangerous. There’s also, incidentally, an argument to be made that Winfrey’s own, uh, flexible approach to objectivity reality may have done its bit to contribute to the rise of Trump.

Andersen:

Oprah went on the air nationally in the 1980s, just as non-Christian faith healing and channeling the spirits of the dead and “harmonic convergence” and alternative medicine and all the rest of the New Age movement had scaled up. By the 1990s, there was a big, respectable, glamorous New Age counterestablishment. Marianne Williamson, one of the new superstar New Age preachers, popularized a “channeled” book of spiritual revelation, A Course in Miracles: The author, a Columbia University psychology professor who was anonymous until after her death in the 1980s, had claimed that its 1,333 pages were dictated to her by Jesus. Her basic idea was that physical existence is a collective illusion—”the dream.” Endorsed by Williamson, the book became a gigantic best-seller. Deepak Chopra had been a distinguished endocrinologist before he quit regular medicine in his 30s to become the “physician to the gods” in the Transcendental Meditation organization and in 1989 hung out his own shingle as wise man, author, lecturer, and marketer of dietary supplements.

Out of its various threads, the philosophy now had its basic doctrines in place: Rationalism is mostly wrongheaded, mystical feelings should override scientific understandings, reality is an illusion one can remake to suit oneself. The 1960s countercultural relativism out of which all that flowed originated mainly as a means of fighting the Man, unmasking the oppressive charlatans-in-charge. But now they had become mind-blowing ways to make yourself happy and successful by becoming the charlatan-in-charge of your own little piece of the universe. “It’s not just the interpretation of objective reality that is subjective,” according to Chopra. “Objective reality per se is a concept of reality we have created subjectively.”

Exactly how had Chopra and Williamson become so conspicuous and influential? They were anointed in 1992 and 1993 by Oprah Winfrey….

Most of the best-known prophets and denominational leaders in the New Age realm owe their careers to Winfrey…

It’s one thing to try to experience more peace of mind or feel in sync with a divine order. Mixing magical thinking with medical science and physiology, however, can get problematic. A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream. As with so many of the phenomena I discuss in my book Fantasyland, it’s driven by nostalgia and anti-establishment mistrust of experts, has quasi-religious underpinnings, and comes in both happy and unhappy versions.

And has been brought to you by Oprah Winfrey.

In 2004, a very handsome heart surgeon, prominent but not famous, appeared on Oprah to promote a book about alternative medicine. His very name—Dr. Oz!—would be way too over-the-top for a character in a comic novel. After Harvard, Mehmet Oz earned both an M.D. and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, then became a top practitioner and professor of heart surgery at Columbia University and director of its Cardiovascular Institute. Timing is everything—young Dr. Oz arrived at Columbia right after it set up its Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the 1990s.

Soon he was bringing an “energy healer” into his operating room, who placed her hands on patients as he performed surgery, and inviting a reporter to watch. According to Dr. Oz, who is married to a reiki master, such healers have the power to tune in to their scientifically undetectable “energies” and redirect them as necessary while he’s cutting open their hearts. When the New Yorker’s science reporter Michael Specter told Oz he knew of no evidence that reiki works, the doctor agreed—“if you are talking purely about data.” For people in his magical-thinking sphere, purely about data is a phrase like mainstream and establishment and rational and fact, meaning elitist, narrow, and blind to the disruptive truths. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” Oz told Specter, then added a kicker directly from the relativist 1960s: “I have my religion and you have yours.”

After that first appearance on Oprah, he proceeded to come on her show 61 more times, usually wearing surgical scrubs. In 2009, Winfrey’s company launched the daily Dr. Oz show, on which he pushes miracle elixirs, homeopathy, imaginary energies, and psychics who communicate with the dead. He regularly uses the words miracle and magic. A supplement extracted from tamarind “could be the magic ingredient that lets you lose weight without diet and exercise.” Green coffee beans—even though “you may think that magic is make-believe”—are actually a “magic weight-loss cure,” a “miracle pill [that] can burn fat fast. This is very exciting. And it’s breaking news.” For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.

Oz has encouraged viewers to believe that vaccines cause autism and other illnesses—as did Winfrey on her show before him. In 2007, long after the fraudulent 1998 paper that launched the anti-vaccine movement had been discredited, she gave an Oprah episode over to the actress Jenny McCarthy, a public face of the movement. That was where McCarthy gave the perfect defense of her credentials: “The University of Google is where I got my degree from!”

… Discussing my book a couple of months ago on Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up, I was arguing that the realm of Fantasyland is, when it comes to politics, highly asymmetrical—the American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true, a fact of which President Donald Trump is a stark embodiment.

Say what you will about Trump—go for it—count me unconvinced that the “American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true…”

In fact to believe quite that so firmly is to suggest that Andersen may be just a little guilty of what he so eloquently (and rightly) condemns.

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Jan/18

12

Oprah and McMartin Preschool ‘Retrials’

Cross-posted on the Corner.

In a post yesterday, I mentioned the contribution made by Oprah Winfrey to the ritual satanic abuse witch hunts of the 1980s. One of the most notorious cases of that era was the McMartin preschool trial, and I quoted this from an article last year by Philip Terzian in the Weekly Standard (my emphasis added):

The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

Eventually that case collapsed, but I was unaware of this particular  postscript. Here’s Howard Rosenberg, writing in the LA Times in January 1990 (my emphasis added):

It was a dream.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner did not drop charges against five of seven people accused of molesting children attending the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. There was never a McMartin trial that lasted 2 1/2 years. There was never a McMartin verdict acquitting the remaining two defendants of 52 counts of child molestation.

Yes, it was all a dream. At least that’s the impression you get these days from watching some of television, where former McMartin students and their parents have succeeded at last in doing what they have been unable to do in the courts:

Convict the McMartin defendants…

Even in trying to address child molestation trials as a generic issue, the [Geraldo]  show was overwhelmingly concerned with the ordeal of the children caught up in the McMartin case. No one would reject that as a legitimate concern. But what about the ordeal of the seven original defendants, especially Buckey and his mother, who each spent years in jail?

That question was not addressed on “Geraldo.” Nor was it addressed on two earlier TV retrials of the case, on “Oprah” and “Sally Jessy Raphael.” Compared to them, “Geraldo” was as judicious as the Supreme Court.

A smaller number of former McMartin students and their parents were on stage in Oprah Winfrey’s Chicago studio along with Greg Mooney, the attorney who represents many of the McMartin families, and Colleen Mooney, director of the South Bay Center for Counseling, which treated some of the McMartin children.

Speaking by satellite from Los Angeles–and as electronically disadvantaged as the satellite guests on “Geraldo”–were McMartin Judge William Pounders and Brenda Williams, the most articulate of the McMartin jurors who have gone public after the verdict. The level of fairness here was typified by Winfrey’s admission that she would have made a poor McMartin juror because “I would say, ‘The children said it; all right, you’re right.’ ” The studio audience applauded.

Their truth, presumably.

Rosenberg:

Winfrey’s show is a perfect vehicle for emotions, which she brings out with great sincerity. That’s her strength. Yet her show has difficulty reaching the stories beneath the surface tears, and, like much of TV, it strips away nuances and tailors complexities to its own time constraints.

Winfrey to a former McMartin student: “What did you tell the jury?” That’s right, capsulize 16 days of testimony in a few sentences.

Again to the same student: “How old were you when all of these things allegedly happened?” And now to the student’s mother: “How did you at first find out that something was allegedly going on at the school?”

Using allegedly here was like trying to mend decapitation with a Band-Aid.

Of all of TV’s talk show hosts, Winfrey is perhaps the least inclined to play devil’s advocate. She could have asked Pounders about the propriety of his multiple talk show appearances, but didn’t. She could have demanded evidence when one of her guests accused McMartin defendants of “terrorist tactics,” but didn’t.

It was clear that she, her studio audience and the McMartin kids and their parents were on the same side…

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Jan/18

11

Oprah, Subjective Truth and Salem 2.0

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Over on the homepage Philip Devoe rightly laments Oprah Winfrey’s fondness for pseudoscience and New Age ‘thinking’. It would only be fair to also mention the role she played in the 1980s Satanic ritual abuse panic. Writing in the Houston Press in 2015, Chris Lane recalls the contribution made to this disgrace by the book Michelle Remembers (my emphasis added):

 

Michelle Remembers describes the therapy sessions that a Canadian psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder conducted on a patient. The book is the first written on Satanic ritual abuse, which his patient, Michelle, “remembered” through lengthy hypnosis sessions. It’s one of the first books popularizing the idea of repressed memories of victims of Satanic abuses, and largely influenced the ensuing panic. Michelle Remembers was hugely profitable for both Pazder, who co-authored the book, and Michelle Smith, but the stories of abuse seem to have been largely or entirely false, with many contradictions and factual errors cropping up. Michelle’s recovered memories were horrific, involving rituals she was forced to take part in at the age of five. According to Michelle, these included being locked in a cage, being sexually abused and tortured, and being covered in the blood and body parts of victims who were murdered as part of the rituals conducted by a satanic cult.

The book sold well, and was heavily promoted by the media, including talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, and propelled the idea of widespread Satanic ritual abuse into the mainstream. Michelle Remembers also created a template that many other subsequent cases would use, and was instrumental in shaping how law enforcement agencies responded to allegations of occult crimes. The book’s influence was huge, and it seemed to withstand criticism of its accuracy until it was thoroughly debunked many years later, sadly after much damage was already done.

Indeed it was.

Writing in the Weekly Standard last year, Philip Terzian turned his attention to one of the most notorious cases of that era, the McMartin preschool trial (again, my emphasis added):

The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

A quick glance at some old YouTube footage of Winfrey on that topic (some of it, appallingly, seemingly still being used by conspiracy theorists) will show that her interest in ‘your truth’ rather than the truth is nothing new

It’s worth remembering how that worked out for those imprisoned on what would, in saner times, have been literally incredible grounds.

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