In her latest book, Barbara Ehrenreich explains how that motivational poster in your office can lead to detachment from reality, victim blaming, and complete economic collapse.
First, may I just say how much I love smart sarcastic liberal women. I wish they had their own baseball cards so that I could collect them all and trade them with my friends. Which, come on guys: totally marketable idea.
Ehrenreich is the author of Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. (Here she is discussing the book on The Daily Show.) This is the first book of hers that I’ve read and it made for a good introduction. I hear from some guy on the bus that Nickel & Dimed is worth a look too.
Bright-Sided is a breath of fresh air after all the political and economic nonsense that’s been going on lately. In a tone that is a combination of seasoned journalist and trusted friend talking for hours over coffee, Ehrenreich tackles the obsessive “positive thinking” culture that often blinds us to our problems instead of helping us fix them.
All of the big names of this culture get the once-over – The Secret, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Oprah, the Christian Science movement, Who Moved My Cheese?, that wacky What the Bleep Do We Know? movie, evangelist Joel “God Wants To Make You Rich” Osteen and his flight-attendant-attacking wife Victoria, yet more Oprah.
(Those interested in the recent Proposition 8 battle will enjoy the cameo from Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. Who is Rupert Murdoch’s pastor, by the way! Didn’t see that one coming.)
Ehrenreich takes issue with the idea that you can conjure up anything you want – the perfect job, the perfect mate, perfect health – if you just think happy thoughts and banish all negativity from your life. And if that includes ignoring the bad news in the newspaper or firing any employee who isn’t 100% optimistic about your business strategy, then so be it.
The obvious conclusion here is that if you do get fired, divorced or sick, then you must have brought it on yourself. She writes about her experience as a breast cancer survivor and lands some heavy blows on the pseudoscience and rigidly cheerful “pink teddy bear” culture that surrounded her. While her perspective on the disease might come across as harsh, I think she shows a kind of tough compassion by insisting that cancer patients are allowed to be sad or frightened – even angry – without being accused of calling death down on their own heads.
With the recession going on, her chapters on corporate culture and the economy are particularly relevant. I was a lot more grumpy about being required to read Who Moved My Cheese? in college after Ehrenreich pointed out that the book scolds employees for being upset when their bosses lay them off. Because if you worry about being unemployed – to say nothing of complaining – then you’re not going to attract that awesome new career opportunity, now are you?
Along with her satisfying takedown of absurdly-rich CEOs, Enrenreich frowns on everyday consumers who buy into the “I can have whatever I want” attitude and assume that God will handle the bills. “See the beautiful bag I manifested for myself?” one woman says, after charging an expensive leather satchel to her AmEx card.
The only thing I would add to this book is that positive thinking is not an exclusively right-wing, white-collar evangelical attitude. I know a few lentil-eating hippies who talk about manifesting their realities all the time, and I’m often surprised at how similar those two mindsets are.
If nothing else, Ehrenreich makes me feel proud of all the griping I do on a daily basis. What she’s advocating is not pessimism or despair, but the clear-eyed hope and determination we need to really turn things around. “The threats we face are real,” she says, “and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.”