Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich

It has been something of a theme in the last few of Ehrenreich's books that the middle- and lower-classes get to carry the cross. When bad things happen, it's their fault,whether the bad things happen to them or to somebody else. In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich specifically targets the coaches and seminars aimed at newly-unemployed white collar workers, telling them how to change their looks and attitudes, and asks "what's wrong with this picture?"

In Bright-Sided, she takes this theme farther. She investigates the actual positive-thinking industry itself, from its presumed origins to the present day, and points to the links between this near-magical-thinking method and the recent economic disasters. A significant case in point was George W. Bush, who hated to hear anything "negative". If we believe all is right with the world then good things will come to us.

Ehrenreich traces the origins of the positive-thinking movement to a reaction to doomsday Calvinist training back in the early days of this country. She picks out a few examples of preachers of different sorts, most particularly Mary Baker Eddy, who rejected the common fatalistic teachings of the day and proposed that all we need is there for the taking if we simply let it in.

While she makes several references to Harriet Beecher Stowe and two of her siblings, she does not, oddly, mention Henry Ward Beecher, another brother, who essentially led the movement away from Calvinism to an early version of today's feel-good religions. He became what was probably the first religious megastar, even accompanied by the scandals that seem to go along with this position. (Take a look at The Most Famous Man in America - and here I note that I am related to the Beechers, just for disclosure.) Somehow Ehrenreich misses Beecher, but she doesn't miss the bigger picture.

From here she moves into the twentieth century and to such luminaries as Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People). She looks at the new crop, from Martin Seligman to the co-authors of The Secret to many others.

While the now-huge industry of positive thinking, including motivational speakers, seminars and workshops, books, DVDs and more, relies in large part on the contention that positive thinking actually works, Ehrenreich plunges daggers into that balloon. She dissects the claims that the method is backed by science and finds that the emperor has no clothes.

So what? So what if millions spend their money needlessly on shoddy science? It wouldn't be the first time. The reason for Ehrenreich's anger, which starts at the very beginning of the book with anger at the exhortations of others to see her diagnosis of breast cancer as a positive thing and her chances at beating it as dependent on her attitude, is that this focus on wispy, intuitional, ungrounded methods pulls the rug out from under sounder disciplines and actions. Thus the rise of the corporations at the expense of everyone under the top levels. Thus the damage to our economy, to our housing stability, to our position in the world, and to our own ability to do anything about any of it.

Positive thinking, in other words, is a negative thing. We need to stay not in the negative but in the real world. Base our decisions on sound reasoning and experience. See what is happening clearly, take the blinders off. Get angry if it makes sense.

As usual, the book is simply written, easy to read, and contains many pages of notes and references, allowing one to take it further.

I like that Ehrenreich faced this one down directly, but I want more. I may need to dip more into the heavier texts. We'll see. 

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