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Walking as Creative Fuel: A Splendid 1913 Celebration of How Solitary Walks Enliven “The Country of the Mind”…

From Brain Pickings

“Nature’s particular gift to the walker… is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive.”

“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau wrote in his manifesto for the spirit of sauntering. And who hasn’t walked — in the silence of a winter forest, amid the orchestra of birds and insects in a summer field, across the urban jungle of a bustling city — to conquer some territory of their interior world? Artist Maira Kalman sees walking as indispensable inspiration: “I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.” For Rebecca Solnit, walking “wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.”

Perched midway in time between Thoreau and Solnit is a timeless celebration of the psychological, creative, and spiritual rewards of walking by the Scottish writer Kenneth Grahame (March 8, 1859–July 6, 1932), best known for the 1908 children’s novel The Wind in the Willows — a book beloved by pioneering conservationist and marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose own splendid prose about nature shares a kindred sensibility with Grahame’s.


Five years after publishing The Wind in the Willows, Grahame penned a beautiful short essay for a commemorative issue of his old boarding school magazine. Titled “The Fellow that Goes Alone” and only ever published in Peter Green’s 1959 biography Kenneth Grahame (public library), it serenades “the country of the mind” we visit whenever we take long solitary walks in nature.

With an eye to “all those who of set purpose choose to walk alone, who know the special grace attaching to it,” Grahame writes:

Nature’s particular gift to the walker, through the semi-mechanical act of walking — a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree — is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you whilst you are talking back to it. Then everything gradually seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season, whichever that may be, the friendly old earth that is pushing life forth of every sort under your feet or spell-bound in a death-like winter trance, till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human conversation. Time enough, later, for that…; here and now, the mind has shaken off its harness, is snorting and kicking up heels like a colt in a meadow.

In a sentiment which, today, radiates a gentle admonition against the self-defeating impulse to evacuate the moment in order to capture it — in a status update, in an Instagram photo — Grahame observes:

Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

Nearly a century before Wendell Berry’s poetic insistence that in true solitude “one’s inner voices become audible” and modern psychology’s finding that a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the seat of the imagination, Grahame writes:

This emancipation is only attained in solitude, the solitude which the unseen companions demand before they will come out and talk to you; for, be he who may, if there is another fellow present, your mind has to trot between shafts.

A certain amount of “shafts,” indeed, is helpful, as setting the mind more free; and so the high road, while it should always give way to the field path when choice offers, still has this particular virtue, that it takes charge of you — your body, that is to say. Its hedges hold you in friendly steering-reins, its milestones and finger-posts are always on hand, with information succinct and free from frills; and it always gets somewhere, sooner or later. So you are nursed along your way, and the mind may soar in cloudland and never need to be pulled earthwards by any string. But this is as much company as you ought to require, the comradeship of the road you walk on, the road which will look after you and attend to such facts as must not be overlooked. Of course the best sort of walk is the one on which it doesn’t matter twopence whether you get anywhere at all at any time or not; and the second best is the one on which the hard facts of routes, times, or trains give you nothing to worry about.

In consonance with artist Agnes Martin’s quiet conviction that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” Grahame writes:

As for adventures, if they are the game you hunt, everyone’s experience will remind him that the best adventures of his life were pursued and achieved, or came suddenly to him unsought, when he was alone. For company too often means compromise, discretion, the choice of the sweetly reasonable. It is difficult to be mad in company; yet but a touch of lunacy in action will open magic doors to rare and unforgettable experiences.

But all these are only the by-products, the casual gains, of walking alone. The high converse, the high adventures, will be in the country of the mind.


[Also recommended…ds]


Valerie Tarico: Eight Musings on #MeToo…


I. Bring It On

Like many female authors digging for material in the darker recesses of personal history, I’ve written about my experience of sexual assault.  And that of my sister, meaning actual blood sibling. And that of my sisters through history, starting with the sanctified sexual assault stories I grew up with—those in the Bible where, on God’s command, daughters are sold to older men, virgins are counted as war booty and a rapist can be forced to purchase and keep the woman he has violated.

I’m a middle-aged woman, a daughter, an aunt, a sibling, a cousin, surrounded by close female friends. If someone of my age and gender wants to write about sexual boundary violations, all she needs to do is close her eyes and shuffle through her internal file of stories—first-hand, second-hand, and those handed down for generations. The first time I opened that folder, I was trying to find some combination of words that might prepare my daughters for the inevitable—or at least inoculate them against the secondary wound carried by so many women for so long—the sense that we bearers of bad memories are damaged goods.

All of which is to say that, to my mind, this #MeToo moment is long overdue. In my mind’s eye, the waves lapping around us are small ripples in a sea of history, and we women stand on the shore of that history, fists clenched, staring at a stone edifice of male sexual entitlement that spans our horizons, with foundations so ancient and deep that only a tsunami of mythic proportions could possibly bring it down.

And despite my lack of belief in gods, I pray for that tsunami to hit.

Sweep it clean! hisses my well of bitterness. And oh, it is a bitter well! Because in my world African girls are still Still STILL traded in marriage by their fathers to disgusting old lechers, and married women in half the world don’t get to have a headache, and the much celebrated Arab Spring meant streets full of angry men demanding rights they don’t actually want for women; and here in America where all men are created equal, black men got the right to vote half a century before black or white women—and still today there are only 30 female CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Sweep it clean! begs my maternal instinct. Because every time my young adult daughter walks home from work at night, possibilities hang over me till I hear the door. And when she tells me that she jogs alone in the dark, I have to quell muffled memories. This week, when I put my other daughter on a plane for a foreign exchange program I wondered—Will she be careful? Does she recognize that it’s harder to read a man’s intent when he’s not of your culture? Does she know what she doesn’t know? And then I get mad that she should even have to, and I think, Bring on a tsunami the size of the world!

II.  Why Now?

The pressures behind #MeToo had been building for decades, maybe centuries when something, finally, broke. Harvey Weinstein’s sexual exploitations tripped the wire, but why were we so ready to go? Was it the outrage of watching a lecherous ignoramus destroy our dreams of a female president after a 200-year run of males? Was it having to explain this to our weeping daughters while we simultaneously prepare them for the touch of unwanted hands or the press of an unwanted penis? Was it witnessing oh-so-righteous preachers in the Evangelical Right so prioritize fetal “personhood” over female personhood, that they could glibly endorse Christian men stalking pubescent teens? Was it our broader sense of abject helplessness as we watch conservative men systematically erase Obama’s legacy—and ours? Yes, I think, and yes. And yes. And yes.

Of Americans who believe in democracy enough to vote, a majority asked to be governed by a woman who was, though far from perfect, one of the most qualified candidates ever to seek the American Presidency. We got, instead, a bloviating narcissist, born with a silver spoon in one of his orifices. We got a man who boasts of his sexual predations, who imagines that his wealth and power make them arousing when in reality few of us could imagine his soft hands sliding across our backs or his ego-swollen belly pinning us against a wall with anything other than sheer revulsion.

It is the juxtaposition of Clinton’s competence and Trump’s ineptitude that makes the gender contrast in the 2017 election so unforgettable. Love Clinton or hate her—and I have friends in both camps—a contest with Trump would have been no contest had their genders been reversed.

In the months since Trump took office, an endless stream of inane tweets and leaked revelations have only underscored the fact that powerful rich men get exempted from normal rules. Let’s just rub that in one more time. Small wonder, then, that the man who tripped the wire was, like Trump himself, a brazen serial predator who believed himself untouchable. Trump couldn’t have laid a better trap for the Weinsteins of the world if he’d tried.

The election may be long over, but we are not over it, because for women who looked at the whole sordid affair through a gendered lens, Donald Trump’s degraded and degrading climb to the White House represented something much bigger. So does his daily invasive presence in our lives.

We can’t take down Trump—yet. But oh look who we can.

Most women have experienced sexual boundary violations, which means closeted offenders are all around us—guys who were inept and pushy in their sexual overtures, handsy bosses who exploited power differentials, cocky frat bros, serial predators like Weinstein and Trump, and rapists. They should be terrified. We are loaded and locked, armed with stories that some of us have been carrying concealed for decades.

 III. Uprising Fast and Slow—The Fast Part

Taking down liberal icons, men whose transgressions are less archetypal and clear than those of Trump and Weinstein and who in other parts of their lives have been champions for gender equality, may not seem like a rational way to solve the problem. But right now, many of us aren’t feeling terribly rational about the whole multi-millennial history of male dominance and the assumption that female bodies—especially our sensual and reproductive capacities—belong to men.

#MeToo is fundamentally not rational; it is a primal scream, and like Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter, even movement leaders don’t really know who’s running the show.

Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel prize for his work on behavioral economics, which laid to waste the idea that we humans are rational actors in the economic sphere—or elsewhere. His book Thinking Fast and Slow, lays out the evidence that human beings have two very different modes for processing information and generating action. One is intuitive and preverbal, optimized for survival in our ancestral environment, designed for making and executing instantaneous decisions. To that end it simplifies complicated information, applies rules of thumb, relies on hard-wired instinct, and generates emotion that produces judgments and behaviors that we rationalize after the fact. It can set our bodies in motion even before we consciously recognize why. The other kind of information processing—thinking slow—makes use of our higher order reasoning skills, the cerebral cortex, which evolved to help us survive in situations where those instincts and rules of thumb don’t work so well.

#MeToo, so far, is fast twitch—an eruption of raw aggregated emotion, with lots of big-brain words on top to make our outrage and punitive impulses sound reasoned. They are not. I’m far from the only woman brimming with bitterness about humanity’s priest-sanctioned history of sexual abuse and exploitation. I’m not the only one whose sense of violation feels raw and primitive, even primate. Little Capuchin monkeys notice when they are getting a raw deal relative to their peers; most women do too.

So, we talk about justice and outing the truth and all those things that our cortexes tell us are necessary to justify this moment and build toward real, durable, social change. But down in the deeper structures of the brain we’re just pissed as hell, and wounded or scared or scarred—and above all, feeling done being done to.

The conscious self is—to borrow a metaphor from another psychologist, Jonathan Haidt—simply a rider on an elephant, and in a collective uprising our conscious minds are riders on elephants that have been triggered into a stampede. We think—we hope—that we are stampeding toward a better future, but we won’t know for sure till the stampede stops and the riders have a little more say. And in the meantime, invariably, a bunch of folks on the ground get trampled.

We care about that, kind of, but not wholeheartedly, because we’re caught up in the fearsome euphoria of the ride, and casualties—whether fair or not—signal that the stampede is big and powerful, that we together may comprise a living tsunami capable of leaving the landscape permanently altered.

IV. On Power

Power is exhilarating, including—perhaps especially—for those among us who have long been denied it.

If #MeToo is upon us because anger and frustration built to the point of eruption, it is also upon us because women, and other victims of systemic oppression, are more powerful now than we have been in recorded history. It is precisely our increased power that has given us the courage to revolt.

How long has it been since goddesses ruled the netherworld of the human imagination and their female proxies ruled society? Since the golden age of Inanna? Since the age of the Amazons? Or are both hazy histories simply figments of female yearning and New Age spiritual dreams?

And yet, the bleeding left edge of American culture is a domain of goddesses. In the new progressive order, status comes from membership in traditionally oppressed tribes: queer dark women on top, drawing standing and power from lived experiences of sexism or racism or poverty or better yet, all of the above. Narrative trumps data; emotion trumps reason; the bonds of solidarity trump the abstract universalism of the Enlightenment; and social sins trump all others.

In this reversal, white males sit at the bottom, their testosterone a liability, their proper role defined by circumstances of birth as it has been down long eons of history for those now on top. Socialized to think of themselves as leaders and initiators—and, often, the smartest guys in the room—they have been stripped of rank. Keep quiet, they are told, be listeners but not too active because that’s mansplaining and don’t ask us to explain our feelings because that’s asking us to do your emotional work, and don’t share yours because we really don’t want to hear them; you can be allies but not leaders, or better yet give us money and go away. Know your place. Brown is the New White and The Future is Female.

And here’s what we really don’t want to hear your feelings about. Male-female stuff. Or what it’s like to be male right now. Or that things aren’t what you were expecting. Or your sense of irrelevance and confusion and worries about what comes next. Or what you think about #MeToo.

My home city, Seattle, even more than most of America, is a place-time juncture where poles have flipped, especially in young and activist circles. Victimhood has become a kind of power that can compete with—and sometimes outcompete—money and brute force, the currencies that have long put men and colonizers on top, letting them take what they can and touch whom they will.

Human beings, as social animals, orient to status and power the way that many animals orient to water. We instinctively know where it lies; we practically smell it. And we instinctively do what we can to get some for ourselves. In our quest for social standing, we play the strongest cards life has dealt us. Some people—like models—lead with beauty; some—like scholars—lead with intelligence or education; some—like neoNazis—lead with whiteness; some—like old Olympians—lead with glory past. But none of us is unidimensional, and when the path to power changes, we reorient, centering on whichever parts of our identity give us the most standing in the new order.

I can think of a half-dozen women of color who, when I first met them five or ten years ago, led with competencies including strategic thinking, management skills, knowledge, education, and raw analytic ability, and who now lead with race and gender, or sexual orientation, or all of the above.

In this new order, each of us becomes both more and less than we are—more, in that we are taken as representatives of our respective tribe—spokespersons for the whole under some circumstances, guilty of the sins of the whole under others. And less, because in the heat of tribalism our individuality, our character or idiosyncrasies, our hard-won knowledge of subjects other than tribal experience (or lack there-of) become invisible.

Tribalism is ascendant on both left and right, the difference being that the right rewards and seeks to protect the old social order while the left seeks to upend it. Either way, the temptation to play the identity card is almost irresistible. I’ve done it myself. In a recent debate against a male opponent, Religion Good and Bad, I barely made it through five minutes before saying, “Look, from my vantage as a woman there’s no way I can imagine that biblical religion has done more good than harm.” . . . Bada boom. I’ve got positionality that you can’t touch. Debate over. After an appropriate pause, the male moderator and my gracious opponent, author Jonathan Tweet, moved on to the next question. Because what could they say? Nothing that wouldn’t get them pegged as mansplaining jerks.

That’s power, Baby.

V. Moral Matrices

#MeToo is a moral movement. Liberals don’t like the word, but dig deep enough into a devoted feminist or anti-racist or environmentalist and the language that emerges is unmistakable. We experience our causes as righteous, even spiritual.

Liberal activists are as driven by moral instincts and emotions as any street preacher, and it is moral emotions that drive how we use the growing power associated with victimhood: Moral indignation, disgust, outrage, vindictiveness, empathic anguish, protective nurturing, love—and, of course the sweet, sweet sensation of righteous superiority; we are only human after all. Each of these gets attached to the causes we fight, and all of them get activated when we talk about sexual harassment, exploitation and assault.

Seven or eight years ago, psychologist Jonathan Haidt briefly starred as the darling of the progressive left. Liberal thought leaders and progressive organizers were struggling to understand the moral (and immoral) priorities of the Right, and Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, offered an analysis that made some sense.

Haidt said that shared community requires “moral capital,” which he defined as “the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.” He defined a moral matrix consisting of six factors:

  • Care/harm
  • Liberty/oppression
  • Fairness/cheating
  • Loyalty/betrayal
  • Authority/subversion
  • Sanctity/degradation

Conservatives place fairly equal value on all six, he said, while liberals build moral community around the first three of these, with a strong emphasis on the first, care/harm. “For American liberals since the 1960s, I believe that the most sacred value is caring for victims of oppression. Anyone who blames such victims for their own problems or who displays or merely excuses prejudice against sacralized victim groups can expect a vehement tribal response.” Sacralized victim groups—that includes #MeToo. It includes me, too.

A decade has passed since Haidt began the inquiry process that led to The Righteous Mind, and in the intervening years, the currents he described have become bifurcated torrents, carving canyons so deep that people on the left and right can’t see each other across the divide.

And yet, in many ways, we are not as different as liberals like to think (nor as conservatives like to fear, but that is another topic).

Liberalism can be understood as liberation, as freedom from old orthodoxies that used to bind thought and speech and the right of individuals to live and die as they see best. Progressivism can be understood as progress, as growth beyond outdated social structures rooted in the Iron Age patriarchy of the Bible, or the class structure of the European monarchies, or the slavery of colonialism, or the wage slavery of the industrial revolution. When liberalism is understood as liberation of individuals and progressivism understood as progress toward a more free, fair and healthy future; then uncoupling morality from authority, loyalty and sanctity seems natural. These three parts of the moral matrix activate people to conserve the status quo and protect insiders.

But I can’t help wondering: In the deep ideological trench we now have dug, has progressivism become a new kind of anti-liberal orthodoxy with a new set of taboos and commands? Trust victims is one of our Ten Commandments, because such trust has so long been in short supply. But we forget sometimes that the experience of oppression or violation confers neither perfect memory nor pure motivation. Victims are ordinary people—complicated and imperfect—not saints. Have we created a new tribe of believers to whom we owe loyalty and a new set of authorities to whom we owe subservience? Maybe those parts of the moral matrix we thought we had left behind were simply dormant, now called back up to protect a new status quo.

At the leading edges of culture—on college campuses, in social media, in the world of celebrity, and in places like Seattle—insiders compete to signal their fidelity and heretics are met with swift reprisal: loss of social standing, derision, name calling, accusations of giving succor to the enemy, shunning, and—for public figures in particular—calls for further punishment.

I can’t help but think of Matt Damon, whose crime against #MeToo was to voice what millions of people, including many liberal women, were thinking. “I do believe there’s a spectrum of behavior. There’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.”

Minnie Driver, who co-starred with Damon in Good Will Hunting, countered in the Guardian with “There is no hierarchy of abuse—that if a woman is raped [it] is much worse than if a woman has a penis exposed to her that she didn’t want or ask for.”

There’s a simple test for the truth of Damon’s statement and the falsehood of Driver’s: Ask yourself which you’d prefer to experience if you had to pick one. But the quest for truth doesn’t neatly fit into Haidt’s moral matrix, and outrage against Damon swept across the internet—including demands that his role in an upcoming movie, Oceans 8, be cut.

VI. Crime and Punishment

Progressives believe in restorative justice—except when we don’t.

When oppressed people do things that hurt themselves or their kids or others, we point to a vast web of systemic and structural factors as contributing causes. No one is an island, we say, and we argue for second chances and the kinds of remedies and services that help people change. But when it comes to bad things done by rich white guys we adopt a different mental model—one that is, in fact, almost identical to the model of justice that conservatives apply to poor brown folk.

Suddenly, we are all rabid believers in free will and personal responsibility, and we want bad behavior punished. We look at a harm-doer, and all we can see is the crime and the victim. Down where our moral emotions swirl, our yearning for justice isn’t social or restorative; it’s retributive. We experience something remarkably like hate. We want them to suffer.

#MeToo didn’t start as mob justice. It started as an outcry of anger and anguish. But retributive justice swiftly followed, with members of the woman’s social network, large or small, real-world or virtual, acting as judge and jury. At the primal level where we are driven by frustration and empathic pain, all violations are equal because they represent all others, and each violator represents every man who has ever left a woman feeling soiled or crushed. Matt Damon or Al Franken or Charlie Rose or Garrison Keillor . . . we don’t really know how guilty they are and we don’t really care because they are Man.

We—offspring of a Christianized culture—believe in the power of substitutionary atonement. Christianity’s core story is that one person can suffer for another, the innocent for the guilty, an this can somehow set the world right. Guilty or scapegoat or something in between? It’s all ok—as long as someone pays. For without the shedding of blood is no remission of sin, says the Iron Age text.

And if we can dole out punishment ourselves, following trial by Twitter or a Facebook feeding frenzy, we are more than glad to do so. “Due process is for legal crimes,” commented one progressive lawyer on my Facebook. “These are social crimes and social consequences; they don’t require due process.”

Don’t they? Is our criminal justice system not a formalized extension of social consequences for social crimes? Have we not spent millennia formalizing process and proportionality precisely because we humans are so prone to acts of reactive retribution that we subsequently recognize as unjust? Is it any less grave a matter to end a person’s career, strip his art from public fora, shatter his reputation, or break his marriage than to lock him up?

VII. Silent No More

Pain is a mammal’s most powerful motivator; anger our most powerful activating emotion; and the two often go hand in hand. Pain and anger drive us to do what it takes to stop whatever is harming or threatening us. Most people have heard that animals, when threatened, tend to respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. For eons most women have responded to sexual violations by freezing or fleeing, adopting the posture safest for the weaker creature, suppressing the anger that urged them to fight back.

But strong emotions, especially when they have built up over decades or lifetimes, can be contained only at a cost. Even if we try to keep them walled in, maintaining the dikes takes energy. The energy required to contain trauma or anger or fear diminishes what we have left over for growth and discovery, curiosity and creativity, longsuffering and love. And because we are social creatures, intimately bound to each other, it necessarily diminishes those around us.

Harm is harm is harm, and those in power who think they get away with it are mistaken. The deeper an injustice, the more energy required to perpetuate it, and the more it defines both perpetrators and victims—and the communities in which they live. Years back, our family visited a South Africa still reeling from the anger and anguish of apartheid. One of my most enduring images of Johannesburg is of the razor wire that surrounded shopping malls and posh developments—and ordinary middle-class homes and schools. And the armed guards. And the metal detectors that American schools and public buildings now share. Maintaining injustice has costs that those in power don’t recognize until they are forced to let go.

I used the word forced deliberately, because that is what  #MeToo is—a show of force. This messy stampede of disclosures and accusations and demands and recriminations may leave us all a bit shaken, but we need to move forward through it, not retreat. The voices of the wounded must be heard.

A dam has broken, and dark waters are draining out. They have been slow in building; they may be slow to empty. It may be a while before the flood shrinks to a trickle, and we can ask ourselves—if we dare—what kind of social structure we might want to build to together to replace the old. What is the form of the “Peaceable Kingdom” if it isn’t a kingdom—if power and status aren’t accidents of birth and nobody holds rights to any body but their own?

VIII. Uprising Fast and Slow—The Slow Part

The old hippy bumper sticker said If you want peace, work for justice. It wasn’t just a nice sentiment, some at-a-safe-distance allusion to revolutions in Central America or central Africa, or suffragettes or labor movements past. If you want peace in the home or workplace, work for justice. If you want peace in the streets, work for justice. If you want peace in Hollywood, work for justice.

That is more complicated than it might sound.

The first mass reactions against injustice are rarely just, because when pain and anger burst forth, they rarely are well-targeted. In this #MeToo moment, culture is in motion and sexual rules are changing, and some broadly decent–but handsy or clumsy or boundary-pushing or simply unlucky men–are going to end up as collateral damage, along with those who love them. Some already have, just as surely as some women have begun, finally, to heal.

Movements, as I said, are messy. Angry people shoot buckshot. Opportunists play opportunities. Decent people lose their way while trying to navigate uncharted territory.  #MeToo is no exception, and some recent excesses are ugly to the point that they threaten the movement. (What greater threat to a movement banking on the power of sympathy than excesses which diminish that sympathy before the stories of the wounded have been fully told and heard?)

To make matters even more complicated, we actually do need to reach a point that we can care about those accused of doing harm as well as their accusers—not because we have toggled away from caring for victims or have trivialized their injuries, but because our circle of compassion is big enough to include both.

After the reactive “thinking-fast” part of the movement comes the part where we breathe deep, look around, figure out where we are and—most importantly—remember who we are. For liberals and progressives, the most fundamental element of our shared worldview is a sense that we’re all tangled in this beautiful, painful web of life together, that nobody—even a bloviating pig—is a self-made man. And some of our most significant corollaries are these: Whether we have been victimized or victimizers each of us is more than the sum our worst moments; and there is beauty and value in the most broken among us, right here on earth, no blood atonement needed. No exceptions for skin color or gender.

I’m not there yet.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at

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Oprah Winfrey Helped Create Our American Fantasyland…


From Slate

Oprah Winfrey gave national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking. Any assessment of her possible presidential bid should consider the irrational, pseudoscientific free for all she helped create…


Forty-eight hours ago, after watching Oprah Winfrey give a terrific, rousing feminist speech on an awards show, millions of Americans instantly, giddily decided that the ideal 2020 Democratic nominee had appeared. An extremely rich and famous and exciting star and impresario—but one who seems intelligent and wise and kind, the non–Bizarro World version of the sitting president.

Some wet-blanketing followed immediately, among the best from the New York Times Magazine writer Thomas Chatterton Williams in an op-ed headlined “Oprah, Don’t Do It.” “It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr. Trump’s hallucinatory circus act,” he wrote. “Indeed, the magical thinking fueling the idea of Oprah in 2020 is a worrisome sign about the state of the Democratic Party.”

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.

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.

As I say, she is an ecumenical promoter of fantasies. Remember the satanic panic, the mass hysteria during the 1980s and early ’90s about satanists abusing and murdering children that resulted in the wrongful convictions of dozens of people who collectively spent hundreds of years incarcerated? Multiple Oprah episodes featured the celebrity “victims” who got that fantasy going. When a Christian questioner in her audience once described her as New Age, Winfrey was pissed. “I am not ‘New Age’ anything,” she said, “and I resent being called that. I don’t see spirits in the trees, and I don’t sit in the room with crystals.” Maybe not those two things specifically; she’s the respectable promoter of New Age belief and practice and nostrums, a member of the elite and friend to presidents, five of whom have appeared on her shows. New Age, Oprah-style, shares with American Christianities their special mixtures of superstition, selfishness, and a refusal to believe in the random. “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she has said. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck.”

New Age, because it’s so American, so utterly democratic and decentralized, has multiple sacred texts. One of the most widely read and influential is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, emphatically placed in the canon by Winfrey as soon as it was published a decade ago. “I’ve been talking about this for years on my show,” Winfrey said during one of the author’s multiple appearances on Oprah. “I just never called it The Secret.”

A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream.

The Secret takes the American fundamentals, individualism and supernaturalism and belief in belief, and strips away the middlemen and most of the pious packaging—God, Jesus, virtue, hard work rewarded, perfect bliss only in the afterlife. What’s left is a “law of attraction,” and if you just crave anything hard enough, it will become yours. Belief is all. The Secret’s extreme version of magical thinking goes far beyond its predecessors’. It is staggering. A parody would be almost impossible. It was No. 1 on the Times’s nonfiction list for three years and sold about 20 million copies.

“There isn’t a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge,” the book promises. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want.” Because it’s a scientific fact.

The law of attraction is a law of nature. It is as impartial as the law of gravity. Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts. … In the moment you ask, and believe, and know you already have it in the unseen, the entire universe shifts to bring it into the scene. You must act, speak, and think, as though you are receiving it now. Why? The universe is a mirror, and the law of attraction is mirroring back to your dominant thoughts. … It takes no time for the universe to manifest what you want. Any time delay you experience is due to your delay in getting to the place of believing.

To be clear, Byrne’s talking mainly not about spiritual contentment but things, objects, lovers, cash. “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts. … It is not your job to work out ‘how’ the money will come to you. It is your job to ask. … Leave the details to the Universe on how it will bring it about.” She warns that rationalism can neutralize the magic—in fact, awareness of the real world beyond one’s individual orbit can be problematic. “When I discovered The Secret, I made a decision that I would not watch the news or read newspapers anymore, because it did not make me feel good.”

Right around the time The Secret came out, habitués of its general vicinity started buzzing about the year 2012. Ancient Mesoamericans, people were saying, had predicted that in 2012—specifically, Dec. 21—humankind’s present existence would … transition, when the current 5,125-year-long period ends. New Age religion-makers, like American Protestants, now had their own ancient prophecy for their own dreams of something like a near-future Armageddon and supernaturally wonderful aftermath.

Winfrey ended the daily Oprah broadcasts in 2011, and a month before the final episode, she interviewed Shirley MacLaine for the millionth time and asked about 2012: “What’s gonna happen to us as a species?”

“We’re coming into an alignment,” MacLaine explained. “It is the first time in 26,000 years—36,000 years—26,000 years, I’m sorry, that this has occurred. … You have an alignment where this solar system is on direct alignment with the center of the galaxy. That carries with it a very profound electromagnetic frequency—”

“Vibration,” Winfrey interjected.

“… vibration,” MacLaine agreed, “and gravitational pull. Hence the weather. What does that do to consciousness? What does that do to our sense of reality?” It’s why people feel rushed and stressed, she said.

Winfrey asked her audience for an amen: “Are you all feeling that?” They were.

“So my stuff isn’t really that far out. But what’s actually happening, Oprah,” MacLaine continued, explaining how the relevant astrology proved the supernatural inflection point was exactly 620 days away. “It’s the end of that 26,000-year procession of the equinox” and “the threshold of a new beginning. And I think what this pressure, this kind of psychic, spiritual pressure we’re all feeling is about, is that your internal soul is telling you ‘Get your act together.’”

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!”

If Ronald Reagan became the first king of his magical-thinking realm in the 1980s, Oprah Winfrey became the first queen of hers in the following decade. Like Reagan, I believe she’s both sincere and a brilliant Barnumesque promoter of a dream world.

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.

“Who would be, and could there be,” I asked Harris, “a Trump of the left that people on the left would, against their better judgment say ‘She’s a kook, and she’s terrible in this way, but she believes in socialized medicine, and this, and that—I’m going with her.’ To what degree and under what circumstances could that happen? It’s hard to imagine the equivalent, but I’m willing to accept that we might have to make those choices eventually.”

Such as who, Harris asked. Well, I replied, “people talk very seriously about Oprah Winfrey being a potential Democratic nominee for president. Is that my Trump moment, [like] what honest Republicans had to do with Donald Trump, and decide ‘No, I can’t abide this’ and became Never Trumpers? Would I be a Never Oprah person? That will be a test for me.”

I’ve been encouraged these past three days by the “whoa, Oprah” reactions among some liberals—as I was by the Republican resistance to Trump during the first six or nine months of his candidacy. When she starts polling ahead of all the mere politicians seeking the Democratic nomination, let alone winning primaries, we’ll see how stalwart the reality-based, anti-celebrity, naysaying faction remains.