Norman Solomon’s Column
On the magazine cover, the big headline next to Oprah’s shoulder is as warm and cuddly as the pair of cocker spaniels in her lap. “WE ARE FAMILY,” it says. “Now more than ever: the power and pleasure of feeling connected.”
Inside this new issue of O — “The Oprah Magazine” — the editorial director’s lead-off article offers a profound explanation. “Our vision of family has been expanded,” writes Oprah Winfrey. “From the ashes of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania arose a new spirit of unity. We realize that we are all part of the family of America.”
It’s an appealing concept, especially during these uncertain times. Ever since Sept. 11, countless media outlets have provided similar themes. The December issue of O deftly hits the now-familiar high notes. Three-quarters of the way through the thick, glossy, ad-filled magazine, “We Are Family” reappears in large type, under an American flag and over another message from Oprah. “America is a vast and complicated family,” she declares, “but — as the smoke clears and the dust settles — a family nonetheless.”
Such sentiments are lovely. But what do they really mean? They’re certainly not meant to be taken literally. Oprah isn’t inviting you or me over to her place for the holidays, and we wouldn’t even think of asking her to add us to her family’s topnotch medical coverage.
Likewise, no amount of uplifting rhetoric about the national family can cut much ice when it comes to the cold hard realities of dividing up the national pie. Within a family, it would be unusual for some at the dining room table to feast on one sumptuous meal after another while others can’t put enough food on a plate to meet their minimal caloric needs. It would be odd if some family members got top-of-the-line health care while others got none.
If the United States is one big family, then it’s a remarkably cruel one, with extremes of privilege and deprivation. The recent book “Economic Apartheid in America,” by Chuck Collins and Felice Yeskel, presents sobering statistics. For instance: “In the last 20 years, the overall wealth pie has grown, but virtually all the new growth in wealth has gone to the richest 1 percent of the population.” In the United States, “the top 1 percent of households now has more wealth than the entire bottom 95 percent.”
“We are family”?
Like other magazines owned by corporate giants, O devotes most of its pages to casting a consumer spell. O is a successful Hearst property, stuffed with voluptuous ads for high-priced makeup, clothes, perfumes, cars, alcohol and the like. With a paid circulation of nearly 2.4 million copies, it’s in the business of “selling” its readers to advertisers.
The latest O has some macabre twists. Turn the page after reading Oprah’s little “We Are Family” essay, and a headline appears above a large photo of the first female secretary of state: “Making Sense of the Unimaginable. Oprah talks to Madeleine Albright.”
When Albright was running the State Department, she worked avidly in support of numerous regimes — such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Indonesia — routinely guilty of horrendous human rights abuses. But in the current edition of O, when she discusses Sept. 11, Albright depicts the U.S. government as a heroic defender of decency.
Winfrey: “Is there any way to make sense of this calamity?”
Albright: “The only way to make sense of why this happened is that we are a country that stands up for freedom, democracy and human rights.”
But the magazine’s next spread includes a few paragraphs from novelist Isabel Allende, who recalls the calamity that befell her native land: “I lived in Chile, a country that had one of the oldest democracies in Latin America. We never thought that anything like a military coup could happen to us — those only happened in banana republics! Until one day it did happen — and the brutality lasted for 17 years. The eerie coincidence is that it happened on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 1973. This was a military coup orchestrated by the CIA — a terrorist attack against democracy.”
Speaking as someone who has made her home in the United States for the last 14 years, Allende adds: “We are a society that expects to be happy and entertained all the time. We are also a spoiled society that hasn’t had war in its territory in more than a century. But we contribute to war in other countries all the time. We invaded Grenada and support the worst dictatorships all over the world. And it is we who helped create the Taliban.”
Spinning the USA as a big family is not only deceptive. It also reinforces the notion that Americans are in a superlative class by themselves, distinct from the rest of humanity. In contrast, Allende evokes a global vision: “More than 800 million people in the world are hungry. The distribution of wealth is completely unfair and helps to create conditions for hatred and violence. This can’t continue forever without paying the consequences.”
Touting our country as a family can produce fog that obscures actual national priorities and vast economic inequities. To float off on a comforting media cloud, all we need to do is ignore the real world.