what i'm reading double-header, part one: bright-sided

I didn't have quite the read-a-palooza I was hoping for this summer, but that was inevitable, as I was juggling many pursuits and my concentration is often very limited. Despite that, I did read a small pile of books. I can probably squeeze in one more before school begins, then my next personal reading will be in December.

Most recently, I read two books that I want to blog about: Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich and This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. I borrowed both from the library, but I plan to buy the paperbacks when they're issued.

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Bright-sided is classic Ehrenreich: easy to read, impeccably researched, grounded in personal experience, and an astute commentary on the US political and social milieu. The author's point of departure is her own experience with cancer, when she found herself bombarded with messages not only counseling, but demanding, positive thinking. She found that there was no space to express very natural, justifiable feelings of fear, worry, exhaustion, frustration and physical pain. Instead, there was an unrelenting and omnipresent drive to shame people into repressing those feelings, and - even worse - to blame persistent illness on the sufferer's "bad attitude". With absolutely no evidence to support it, one belief blankets the culture of cancer in the US: positive thinking will heal you. If your treatment isn't working, you must not be thinking positively enough.

From there Ehrenreich examines a culture that seeks to isolate and individualize every misfortune. And why not? If chronically unemployed and under-employed people look at the system that oppresses them, they might band together and work for change. It's far more expedient to preach that our destiny is in our own hands, and underachievers simply haven't tried hard enough - haven't thought positively enough. This meshes perfectly with the American mythology and the dominant culture in the US, so it's a very easy sell.

Ehrenreich ably relates this concept to religion, especially the Prosperity Gospels ("God Wants You To Be Rich!"), corporate culture and an economy destroyed by people who believe wishing will make it so. Being laid off can be an opportunity, but when a corporation lays off thousands of workers and their families tumble into poverty, it's not because of negative thinking. But a culture of individualized positive thinking is not one of collective action.

When I've mentioned this book, many people have asked, "You mean like The Secret?" The Secret is a book, movie and social phenomenon that preaches "everything one wants and needs may be accomplished by only wishing it". Yes, Ehrenreich does include that, but The Secret is only one recent and very popular manifestation of an aspect of US culture that has existed for more than a century. Ehrenreich dates the trend of relentless optimism to Mary Baker Eddy, credited with founding the Christian Science movement, and Norman Vincent Peale, the first person to stake a career on preaching positive thinking.

I disagreed with Ehrenreich on only one point, which she raises briefly in the introduction. She posits that unrealistically positive thinking contributed to both the invasion of Iraq, because the US believed their soldiers would be welcomed as liberators, and to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, because the US imagined itself as impenetrable. I can't buy this. I would say, instead, that the culture of positive thinking made it much easier for the US government to sell the Iraq War to an ignorant public. And as far as 9/11, I don't see any connection at all. Americans live in a dream world, ignorant of most international affairs, and certainly ignorant of the secret workings or non-workings of their country's intelligence and defense systems.

But this was a minor point, raised only in the introduction. If you're interested in this book, I recommend reading the excellent afterward, called "Postscript on Post-Positive Thinking," ahead of the introduction.

As an aside, I was horrified to learn that Martin Seligman, whose research launched the concept of "learned helplessness," and who teaches at my alma mater, is now a franchise hawking positive-thinking, self-help twaddle. He's founded an entire branch of psychology on positive thinking, and he still teaches at Penn!

Ehrenreich is not trying to sell pessimism. She's calling for us to strive for realism - to do the hard work "of trying to see things they way they are". Those of us who are naturally optimistic will arrive at a slightly different picture than those of us with a naturally pessimistic outlook. But both views will have validity, and neither will be delusional. In her afterward, Ehrenreich writes that "positive thinking has been a tool of repression worldwide" and "the threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world."

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