Oprah’s # 2 thing that she knows for sure: You define your own life, don’t let other people write your script. I used to think that this idea was existentialist, and at it’s face (excuse me, prima facie) it appears to be so. Telling a person to “define your own life” is straight out of the existentialist handbook. (By the way, there actually is one: The Ultimate Guide To Navelgazing and Self-Overexamination. I think it’s available on Amazon or something like that. Maybe not). Existentialist philosophy says that the meaning and purpose of life is defined by the individual. We have no innate nature that determines what or perhaps more importantly, who we become- which fits perfectly with the last half of the statement, ” don’t let other people write your script”. Existentialism, like Oprah, is all about how we relate to the world. Oprah’s #1 thing she knows for sure ” what you put out comes back all the time, no matter what”, certainly addresses the fact that we operate in a world with others, for and with whom our actions will be held in to account. And, like Heidegger, Oprah believes that the way that we live authentically is manifested in the way that we deal with the situations that we are “thrown” ( to use Heidegger’s term) into. The way that we act in a given situation, both believe, is reflective of who we truly are. So far, the philosophy of Ms. Winfrey seems to tell us nothing that we haven’t heard before. It may come out of the mouth of Deepak Chopra or Dr. Phil ( and you can absolutely trust that either of them has read Heidegger or Sartre, among others), but on it’s face, Oprah is giving us early 20th century French philosophy.And this totally falls in line with any other talk/advice show host that has taken a whack at the self-improvement tree of knowledge. And that’s what I thought while I started watching Oprah’s “best life ever”. I thought that she was purely, albeit a little mixed up, chatting the existentialist rag — until I thought a little harder about what she was saying. The first lightbulb ( I suppose Oprah would call it an “a-ha” moment) went off while I was watching Oprah’s show about weight. All the time she was speaking, she was singularly focused on herself. Nothing new, afterall it was Oprah. I know that existentialism, by its design, focuses attention, perhaps too much attention, on the self. After all, it’s all about figuring out how you, the individual, relates to the world. But then, I really started to pay attention: it wasn’t just ordinary self-centeredness; there was something else at work in what she was saying. The something else was revealed when Oprah said that we need to put ourselves back on out to-do list. It seems that we haven’t been self-centered enough. we’ve been spending too much time doing nice things for other people, and that is wrong. We need to reclaim the focus of our attention. We need to be at the top of the list. So, I thought, I’m at the center of the universe, and no one is going to define my life for me. I thought that defining something, especially when one is defining a life, is an act of invention or creation. It clicked: I create my life. I CREATE MY LIFE. It was if there were a flash of light and the sky suddenly parted. All my definitions are self-created. And, it seems, no one else can write the definitions for me. I am more than mastering my own life, if I follow Oprah, I am creating my own reality. I thought, this is amazing. Oprah is saying so much more to us than pop-psych clap trap that you can get any afternoon listening to Dr. Laura. Oprah is laying down some serious metaphysics. So, once more I thought about Oprah’s #2 thing she knows for sure: “You define your own life, don’t let other people write your script” I thought, that I would, break the statement in half and look at the two parts of Oprah’s #2 statement separately. I thought, what if the second half of the statement ” don’t let other people write your script” wasn’t just encouraging existentialist authenticity, but instead a statement about the states of other people’s minds? What do I know about other people’s minds, I thought. The answer: nothing. I can’t even be sure if other minds exist. Maybe this is what is motivating what Oprah is saying to us, I thought. I don’t know what intentions others have for me, so I cannot allow them to set my agenda. And if I cannot be sure of the existence of other minds, I surely cannot allow them to determine what is the best course for my life. I must be in control of what goes on in my own life because I only know what I think is good for myself. Likewise, I must be in control because I can only know myself so far as I know that I exist. So then, I looked at the first half: ” You define your own life”. I was reminded of something that I had heard that drifted along the same lines. Not to long ago, a Bush Administration staffer announced that the Bush Administration created it’s own reality. Meaning, that if the president said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, then by golly, they did, even if your “reality” contradicted theirs. (this may be a slight distortion of the real meaning of that statement, but this distortion fits the point that I am trying to make, so bear with me). Well, I think that I wouldn’t be wrong if I assumed that, as far as Ms. Oprah defines it, that “define” and “create” are similar in this context. I define who and what I am. If everyone else thinks that I am a dork, so long as I do not share the same sentiment, I am not. I must remember that I refuse to let anyone else define my life — all evidence to the contrary. If I take Oprah’s advice (to the extreme), so long as my “life” is defined by me, then that life — at least my sentiments and beliefs about that life — is true, meaning that life is my authentic or “real” life. And, being the empiricist that I am, my beliefs about the world are my basis for what I hold is true about the world. If I see the bullet to the heart kill the fisherman, than I believe that the bullet to the heart killed the fisherman. And it is true, because I cannot let others define it for me, because I cannot be sure of their intentions for me. I am the only mind that I can know, or at the very least, I am the only mind that I can trust. So, if my mind is the only mind that I can trust, and that mind is the mind that defines, or creates my life , and my life (or beliefs about) is a reflection of an overall “reality”, then I define reality. Wow. But it’s not just that, it goes further. If everyone who follows Oprah’s advise will also define their own lives, the result is the creation millions of separate “realities” — each for every Oprah viewer. If this is the case, then Oprah isn’t advocating existentialism, but group solipsism! Each of us exists in a self-defined universe of one. As crazy as it may seem, I believe that this is what Oprah is truly getting to. We not only create our own perspective on what we believe is real or true, we create our own universe — a separate entity wherein we reside, creating and changing its own separate reality as we see fit. ( so, if I say that someone is on a different world than I am, this statement may be more than mere metaphor, but a statement of fact. Stew on that for awhile). I know that there are some non-adventurous philosophers who would say that Oprah and her ilk are damaging the philosophic enterprise by allowing people like me to take what she says and distort the bejeezus out of it. I will not disagree. On the othre hand, I would also assume that there is some posmodernist who welcomes the destroyers and distorters of philosophy and welcome the opportunity of finding a new way of beating a dead horse. As disfond as I am about fence-riding, I think that there is room here to split the difference. I think that it is, at least, worth the effort to look at what our popular culture is doing to the theories that philosophers hold so near and dear to their hearts. We must remember that philosophic ideas are out there, and that it would do philosophers a little good to roll around with those who may be more clever at peddling distorted philosophical theories than they are at peddling the correct ones. But for now it seems, the media reigns, Oprah is more popular than Swinburne, and so we stand on the precipice of a new view: Oprarian philosophy. I’m not sure where Oprarian philosophy will get us, but I’m sure if it gets us to somewhere where we don’t want to go, we can simply choose to redefine it, our lives and the whole universe, and start over again. Maybe by then, some talk show host will have succesfully distorted Kant.
I usually try to stay away from political discussions. That’s an odd thing, considering that I not only have a degree in political science (which, does not in any way qualify me to speak with authority about anything), but I truly get off watching politics and the political process. As a matter of fact, I’ve made it my habit to avoid any serious discussion about anything that I love or enjoy doing. I suppose there’s some head shrinker’s couch waiting for me somewhere. But what’s got me, is the fact that everyone else seems to have an opinion about what’s going on out there in Washington, and are freely expressing themselves — for better or for worse — all over talk radio, web logs, and at bus stops. I’m the weirdo who dodges political conversations (for god knows what real reason). Which , by the way, is why I haven’t really said anything about our new Commander-in-Chief. If asked my opinion, I give my standard agnostic “we’ll have to see”. Meanwhile, I’m screaming a mile a minute inside my head all sorts of madness about Right-wing conspiracies, failed economic policies, and whether Plato had the right idea when he said that the rulers should lie to the public. As so many of my thoughts are motivated by conversations, I was thinking about how I felt — not about whether I think that Obama will solve our economic troubles ( it sounds so trivial to call an impending global depression “troubles”), but about the man himself. A few days ago, I was watching “the View”. Ann Coulter was on (god knows why) expressing her confusion over half-black notables who, despite being abandoned by their black fathers, seem to claim their black heritage while also abandoning their white parentage. I’m not going to say anything about Ann Coulter here, as there are lany people who rattle on about her in a negative manner. But, she did give a little food for thought. The food for me, it seems, wasn’t why halfsies only claim one side, but the idea of half-whatevers at all. I thought of an email I sent to a friend not too long ago that brought up the topic of race mixing. Let me say now that I’m not against the mixing of races. I don’t care who anyone marries as long as they are past the age of consent and the marriage wasn’t some sort of forced marriage deal. That said, there are times when the well-intentioned can say things that… well, make you stop wondering why there are Ann Coulter’s out there. A few months back, when the primaries were going on, I had a discussion with two other people about, which was at that time, the Obama candidacy. Ever the pessimist, I said that I was worried that some yahoo out there might want or attempt to do “something” to prevent Obama from taking the presidency. My conversation mates and I lamented the fact the the thought that someone may be so disturbed by having a black president to take up violent action had crossed each of our minds — a sign that we are not as far from racism as we may like to think that we are. Somewhere, and I forget who, someone mentioned something about Obama’s half white parentage. Now that I think about it, I think I mentioned the fact that hating Obama because he is black is sort of stupid because he isn’t a fully black person. (I know, liberal drivel about we’re all mixed anyway, blah, blah, blah…). I mentioned that I have several “goobacks” in my own family. (“gooback” is a term from the show South Park. It was used to describe people from the future who had interbred racially to the point that everyone had a tannish hue to their skin). Now, I consider myself a liberal. I’m into acceptance, not tolerance. I have no problem with the fact that my brother has chosen to create his own colony of goobacks, and as an American keenly aware of our past, I know that my own bloodline isn’t “pure”. But, there’s a sentiment that I just cannot stand, and I heard it out of the mouth of one of my conversation mates. It’s this: WE SHOULD ALL INTERBREED SO THAT WE GET SO MIXED UP RACIALLY THAT THERE WOULD BE NO WAY TO DISTINGUISH ONE RACE FROM ANOTHER AND SO WE’D END RACISM. Huh? You know, I’ve only heard this sentiment from the mouths of people who, although they express this truly endearing sentiment, never seem to live by the statement themselves.Or, worse yet, are the most racially isolated people that one would find. Now, I’m not saying that my conversation mate fits into either one of these categories, but from what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they did. It’s not even that the idea is wrong-headded or immoral. It’s a perfectly good solution for a problem. In the absence of specific breeds, we can’t discriminate against something that does not exist. I wanted, at that time, to ask that person who suggested that we all interbreed ( as that individual was a different race than I) if that person wanted to get down an start muddying up our gene pools right then and there. But, what overrode my sense of taking that person seriously was my disgust at what they had said. Sure, the sentiment seems like it’s from someone who is anti-racist. But that’s just it — it’s a sentimental, but ultimately meaningless statement. It’s empty in the face that it’s just not practicable. Unless you have some sort of forced reproduction program, my email friend wrote to me, people won’t voluntarily interbreed with anyone. What about those who are “pure” ? Will they become some sort of social outcasts? Will they be illegal? There’s this Dr. Seuss story called “the Sneetches”. There are two groups of sneetches, one who have stars on their stomachs, and those who do not. The ones with “stars on thars” are the superior sneetches and those who do not are inferior. As with life, those who do not have want, and those who do have don’t want the have-nots to have what they have. It all goes to shit when this dude comes around with a machine that can put stars on the non-starred sneetches. Pretty soon, no one can tell who is who. In the end, they realize that the stars don’t matter. Unfortunately, people don’t learn like Dr. Seuss characters do. Given a world of sameness, the inventive human will always find something. If not your race, then it’s your height, or weight, or you’re too cute, or not cute enough — always something. That’s why I found my conversation mate’s remark so offputting. It’s a cya thing to say. The worst of political correctness. Saying that we should breed out race sounds like you’re one of the ones who isn’t secretly carrying a confederate flag in his pocket, but, in turn, it reeks of the worst ersatz naivete well-meaning liberals often express. The kind that solves the problem by ignoring the problem. Instead of really confronting the reason behind something like racism, the response is to pretty up the situation by suggesting some kind of well-meaning, but unobtainable solution, that could happen, if people would only enlighten themselves or, more to the point, reject conservativism and become pacifica-listening progressives. I think I’m done with this one.