Another instance of the gruel that passes for culture in the United States was Oprah’s fiftieth birthday celebration, an orgy of conspicuous consumption, unbridled greed, and insatiable hunger. It’s been almost a week now that I saw it and I still can’t get it out of my mind, nor get away from the nausea it engenders. Just as the crony capitalists probably write off on their taxes the bribes they pay to our politicians as charitable contributions, the birthday bash is probably also a tax deduction.
The party resulted in two one-hour shows. The first was before a live studio audience. The second was a weekend-long, behind the scenes look at a post-taping party, dinner for 50 close friends atop the Sears Tower, and a weekend gala at an estate in Santa Barbara.
The primary hosts were her friend, Gayle, at her sycophantic and saccharine best, and John Travolta, of Scientology fame. That religion’s only apparent functions are to take psychological profiles of random passers-by on the streets, and sponsor $5000, one-night luxury cruises, probably also another tax dodge. Travolta opened the ceremony with a toast worthy of Shakespeare. Oprah hung on every word, teary-eyed and trembling, and softly moaned Travolta’s first name.
Entertainment ought to be put in its compartment next to others in a rich cultural life. Being engaged in the political process as a handful of thieves and crooks loot the country, and the world teeters on the brink of apocalypse comes to mind. Instead, ours has become a society that reveres entertainers and celebrities above and to the exclusion of all else.
I kept my eyes peeled for the celebs there to beware a future emotional investment in their art or craft, such as they are. It was a disgusting display of avarice and cupidity. It’s not worth naming them all, but special mention ought to go to Diane Sawyer, “Di” to Oprah, former Nixon speechwriter and Henry Kissinger consort, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, and Toni Morrison
If it was just an excuse, I give props to Maya Angelou for begging off sick. She did however send a poem, which was read aloud by a succession of the hoity-toity. The whole thing was not read on the air, unfortunately, so it was difficult to ascertain the context of the line that essentially extolled Oprah as being “able to swim effortlessly in an ocean of substance.” Jay Leno arrived in a stretch-limo. Celine Dion sang in Santa Barbara, as did Tina Turner in Chicago. Since the broadcast I have heard that Oprah gave Stevie Wonder a $400,000 Rolls Royce for attending.
The amenities and party favors were worthy of Dennis Kozlowski. Ten thousand flowers were flown in, from all over the world. A four hundred-pound cake was flown in from California. Invitations were made of handmade imported silk, with individually inscribed calligraphy, and stuffed with “historic” photos of Oprah. With not a trace of narcissism, when Oprah received hers, she ordered one hundred more for family and fiends.
Wolfgang Puck too arrived by airplane to cater a dinner from a kitchen built especially for the occasion in the building that houses Oprah’s studio. Thirty more chefs were also employed. More guests and trinkets also arrived by airplane, including lobsters straight from the ocean the day before.
I didn’t know there were other kinds, but a master party planner saw to every last detail, scurrying around like a construction foreman, and when she was around, attending to Oprah like a drone to a queen bee. He oversaw party preparations, left fist tucked against the back of his left hip, right hand in the air, with pinkie protruding as if a fish caught on a hook. Among other fabulous perks was a rare, satin table skirt, festooned with a cover made of silk, hand-adorned with 100,000 beads, imported from India. Dinner menus were hand inscribed with calligraphy.
A construction crew of 400 “bettered” an already opulent Santa Barbara estate for the party, themed “gold, gold, gold.” Chandeliers were imported from Europe. More flowers were imported from Holland, Ecuador, and Hawaii. The walls were decorated with TVs made to appear as rare paintings. Upon seeing the dinner table, Oprah exclaimed, “it looks like it was set for Louis XIV himself.” In a toast to her Santa Barbara hosts over her birthday cake, Oprah lauded them as deep, wise, and strong, apparently three synonyms for fantastically wealthy.
The coup d’gras was a club assembled, please God tell me this isn’t true, over a huge swimming pool. Apparently so big they didn’t want to drain it, scuba divers were deployed to cobble and weld together a foundation of girders, posts, and poles for a dance floor, finished with laminate flooring. My guess is that the floor was in the garbage within a week.
Perhaps you could ignore this gluttony in a more perfect world. But half the world’s population, three billion people, exists on two dollars a day. Twenty-five thousand children die daily of hunger and related easily preventable causes. There’s plenty of food to feed earth’s six billion inhabitants, it is rather a problem of distribution, and an unequal distribution of the world’s wealth and resources. It is precisely that some have way too much, and most way too little, that is most responsible for engendering wars, strife, and bloodshed. In light of the unimaginable destructiveness of modern weaponry, the earth can simply not tolerate war anywhere.
These parties occurred simultaneously as the United States is waging and funding wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, the Occupied Territories of Palestine, and who knows where all else. Not one word, not even a gesture of acknowledgement of these crises was uttered, as is typical of Oprah’s shows.
About a month earlier, Oprah had taken her entourage to South Africa to bestow on some of its destitute, shoes, clothes and other Christmas gifts. I was very moved by the show and thought that shows like that could redeem the soap operas, the home remodelings, the particulars of cosmetic surgery, in a word, the distraction that is typically the moral, spiritual, and cultural heft of her show. Now I know that the South Africa show was about Oprah, and not the desperate in South Africa. Oprah thinks she does well to occasionally condescend to the wretched in charity. She would do well better by exercising justice and divest and strip herself of ninety percent of her wealth.
This then is the state of American democracy–ever vigilant, with perfect equality, justice, and peace for all.
TRACY MCLELLAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org