I rarely comment on politics, but last weekend’s rallies with Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey stirred something in me: a concern for the future of our country and the democracy we value. I didn’t like what I saw and it had not a thing to do with Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, red state or blue, or even the specifics of Obama’s positions on the war, the economy, Iran or anything else.
Two things concerned me:
First, this is just the latest example of the continuing escalation of the intersection between celebrity culture and politics in our nation. For some time (at least since the ‘We Are the World” song addressed African famine), celebrities have used the power of name recognition to address everything from famine, global warming and Darfur to nuclear weapons, whaling and abortion to stem cells, reading and diets, as well as expressing support for various political candidates. They use (and are used by) their own notoriety.
Now, these celebrities certainly have the right, like every citizen, to express their opinion on any issue. That is our constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech. But what has changed over the past decade or so has been the air of authority and expertise we automatically assign to celebrities. How did George Clooney get to be an expert on Darfur? Or Angelina Jolie on refugees? Or Princess Diana on unmarked bomb fields? Sure, these are sharp people who can study on their own. Maybe they get special briefings. But we just seem to listen more when it’s a celebrity actor or singer than an unnamed academic who has been immersed in the subject for years.
Part of this is smart public relations. A lot of it is simple politics-swaying people to your position. But here’s the troubling part of this: we have too often begun to abdicate our own thoughtfulness for the word of a celebrity / expert. In other words, I have my serious doubts about how many of the thousands who overflowed the Obama rallies in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have personally considered the details of his position on any issue. They were there because it was an event, and because Oprah was there.
Oprah’s involvement seems to take this to a whole new level. She is phenomenally popular, with a stunningly loyal fan base. Her daily show makes her feel like a part of the family to millions, and an appearance there is a must for anyone promoting a book, movie, movement or product. A mere mention of a product by Oprah guarantees a rise in sales. In addition to the show, her media empire also includes publishing, movies, the book club, and more. Oprah has a reputation for philanthropic involvement. People like her-a lot.
So you have to wonder if people will consider or maybe even vote for Obama just because Oprah said so. Will they abdicate their own responsibility to think for themselves before casting their vote? And if people either become too lazy, apathetic or busy to participate in our democracy by voting thoughtfully-is democracy itself in trouble? How close are we to being swayed towards our future by a public relations campaign-rather than “government of the people, by the people and for the people”? That concerns me.
The second concern from these events is more picky, but troubling nonetheless. I was stunned by how much national coverage of these rallies was couched in Messanic language, with Obama playing the Jesus role. Seriously.
From Time: “When her speech reached its climax, the touchstone was not the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (though he was mentioned), but a novel: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The slave Jane Pittman, Oprah said, looks for the one who might free her for years, asking, “are you the one?” Oprah then told the crowd, “He is the one.” The frenzy that then greeted Obama, nearly four hours after the crowd had lined up outside the arena, was full of awe and hysteria. A lot people get excited to shake a politician’s hand; not so many greet one as though he were about to heal them by laying his on them.
From CNN: Obama’s wife, Michelle, opened the rally with a description of her husband that could, at moments, have been a description of Jesus Christ. “We need a leader who’s going to touch our souls. Who’s going to make us feel differently about one another. Who’s going to remind us that we are one another’s keepers. That we are only as strong as the weakest among us,” she said, echoing biblical passages.
From the NY Times: “I think Oprah is John the Baptist, leading the way for Obama to win,” said Dale Cobb, 40, of Des Moines, who has never participated in the Iowa caucuses before.”
Yikes! This is heresy and politics all rolled into one. That concerns me. (And quite honestly, there are some people on the edge of that same sort of language about Mike Huckabee, too.)
I know we are hungry for a hero. Maybe this is a sign of how desperate people really are for someone to identify with them, care about them, and lead them through life. But that’s a post for another day.