Last week saw two cultural markers, widely remarked: Scotty McCreery won American Idol and Oprah Winfrey blew a farewell kiss to her daytime TV talk-show audience.
Scotty's win seemed like a promising sign to a lot of conservatives: a small-town Baptist boy with an honest love for (and a very traditional rendering of) country songs, the most reliably patriotic and religious branch of popular music. He and the equally wholesome Lauren Alaina won a record number of votes in the final balloting, giving Idol's spongy ratings a boost of adrenaline in its 10th season.
Oprah's ratings have been drooping for the last few years, and she knows not to exhaust her welcome. It's been an amazing run, though: from her national debut in 1986 (first show topic: "How to Marry the Man/Woman of Your Choice") she parlayed business savvy and an empathetic, non-threatening personality into an unmatched media empire. Along the way she's gone head-to-skinhead with neo-Nazis; lost and gained literally hundreds of pounds; launched Dr. Phil, new-age guru Eckhart Tolle, Barack Obama, and dozens of best-sellers; brought the cattle industry to its knees; provided a platform for Ellen DeGeneres to come out and Tom Cruise to jump up and down; gave away new Pontiacs; established new charities; and either uplifted or weakened American culture, depending on who you talk to.
Somewhere in the middle of that career the term "Oprahfication of America" was coined by The Wall Street Journal, meaning a softening of principles and standards in favor of misty-eyed, therapeutic acceptance of the latest social aberration. The term isn't quite fair, in the sense that "Oprahfication" predates Oprah. Jonathan Livingston Seagull and I'm OK-You're OK didn't need her book club to become best-sellers, back when she was still a teenager, but they helped shape the hearts and minds (mostly hearts) of Oprah's future audience. Her life up to then would make anybody go misty-eyed: distant mother, absent father, sexual abuse and early pregnancy, etc. This was the Americanization, or rather the sub-Americanization of Oprah, growing up in a culture that allowed no firm footing. It's to her credit that she overcame-and that's an only-in-America story, too-but the worldview she built and the solutions she offered are equally footloose.
America, in some small corner of its spacious heart, has always put out the welcome mat for every eccentric religion and crackpot social theory that ever occurred to humanity's fevered brain. What kept us stable, besides Providence, was the type of small-town, church-centered community that struck Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1840s and nurtured Scotty McCreery in the 20-aughts. There has always been an underclass, but always a chance of escaping it by joining the community and affirming its standards, whether you actually lived by them or not. Oprah represents the underclass, with its anything-goes morality, becoming mainstream. It's not her doing; she rode the current to the right place at the right time. But it's her legacy.
Scotty and Lauren make us feel good, but that's only for this season. Oprah made us feel good about slipping for 25 years, and that current has a way to run before it turns.