Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: Bright-Sided

A Fair Trade Book

Book Title: Bright-Sided
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Author’s web page:
Date: 2009
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
ISBN: 978-1-61664-483-3
Length: 206 pages plus endnotes and index
Quote: “Some cultures, like our own, value the positive affect that seems to signal internal happiness; others are more impressed by seriousness, self-sacrifice, or a quiet willingness to cooperate.”
Is Positive Thinking really what caused the economic recession? My father, a math major for whom economics was a hobby, would probably have traced the roots of our current recession back to the mid-century Waste Age; my husband, an economics major, might have blamed the war. Still there’s no getting around the fact that, for some individuals, some of whom were large-scale investors, unrealistic optimism was what led directly to bankruptcy. Nor is there any getting around the fact that the debunking of Positive Thinking is long overdue.
Few writers debunk as deftly as the author of For Her Own Good, The Hearts of Men, and Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich’s name can be taken as a guarantee that a book is going to be solidly researched—although biased—and also laugh-out-loud funny. Bright-Sided shouldn’t disappoint anybody. Ehrenreich skewers the flaw in every argument she debunks, and turns it into a joke.
Fair disclosure: I don’t know Ehrenreich personally. I almost do. I had long-term clients, one of whom became a close friend, in an organization where she was a full-time writer. I never saw Ehrenreich at the office. Socialism was indeed the religion of these people’s childhood; I think Ehrenreich was the first to use that phrase (in a short article for George). The ones I knew practiced their socialist values as earnestly as anyone ever practiced Christian or Jewish values, and better than some. You could trust them with a box of hundred-dollar bills; you could trust them with your children; if it ever became necessary I’m sure they’d give you their shirts. I love these people. I regret that their good faith has been so misplaced.
Bright-Sided is almost a dictionary-perfect example of Socialists'  misplaced good faith. Greedheads have worked so hard to promote schemes that they hoped would lead to their own self-aggrandizement, and twentieth-century people of good will have bought into so many of those schemes, that all the different systems of “statism” can seem like one big conspiracy. They’re not...unless one takes the position, which has been competently argued by various religious writers, that there has to be some sort of spiritual conspiracy guiding all these different people toward the same bad ideas. Twentieth-century Positive Thinkers’ touching efforts to visualize world peace, if associated with any point to the political left of Ronald Reagan, did veer alarmingly into what sounded like “Let’s all pray that God will help us welcome the inevitable ‘Communist’ takeover.” And yet here’s Ehrenreich, a devout lifelong practitioner of Socialism, warning us that Positive Thinking was compulsory in the old Soviet Union...I’m not denying that some sort of spiritual conspiracy of fallen angels may have been involved whenever Christians have embraced Positive Thinking in lieu of our real duty to practice love in an active and radical way. But the human conspiracy...ah...didn’t get the word around very efficiently, did they? Forty lashes for Screwtape! I love the irony of a left-wing writer debunking an Old Soviet ideology.
Ehrenreich begins her study of Positive Thinking with a discussion of pathological pollyannas in breast cancer support groups. Breast cancer tends to be diagnosed only after metastasis; in order to speak of survivors we have to redefine survivors as people who are still alive after five years. Ehrenreich beat the odds by living long enough to write this book. And it’s particularly important to mention Ehrenreich’s remarkable success as a breast cancer survivor because, she reports, although the scientific evidence is flimsy, there’s a belief in the breast cancer community that only Positive Thinkers survive. Ehrenreich was seriously and sincerely told that her salty, snarky, hardheaded realism was going to prevent her from living this long. Well, it didn’t. She’s still writing today.
She goes on to note the popularity of Positive Thinking books and speeches in the corporate world. It’s possible that her Old Left politics have sensitized Ehrenreich to notice more manic panic in the corporate world than other people would notice. The appearance of manic panic in the corporate world is not, in any case, to be denied. Ehrenreich cites white-collar workers who’ve been fired because they didn’t seem “happy enough” or waterboarded in “team-building” meetings: “You saw how hard Chad fought for air...I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.”
If there’s something not to love about Bright-Sided, it’s Ehrenreich’s neglect of the early nineteenth century’s “positivist,” socialist, global-dictatorship philosophy. This was the brainchild of a sensitive, French child prodigy called Auguste Comte, who began his literary career with a bang by writing an encyclopedia, then teamed up with Saint-Simon to invent Socialism, in his twenties. In his thirties Comte quarrelled with Saint-Simon and went into a mourning period, which  his best friends charitably described as his “dotage,” during which he worked out a formal liturgy for a Humanist religious cult to be practiced in a global Socialist system. Around age forty Comte attempted suicide in despair over his inability to seduce a married lady with his then innovative notion of women being full-time housewives. It is perhaps understandable that Humanists, Socialists, “Transcendentalists,” and other believers in the perfectibility of humanity seldom acknowledge this poor fellow as the founding father of positive thinking. Still, although his “Positive Politics” was so unpopular in the United States that I had to go to the Library of Congress to read it in French, by dissociating the ideas from Comte personally his readers were able to give positivism a considerable influence on Americarn thought.
Of course, Comte’s “Positive Philosophy” and “Positive Politics” were based on a genuine (and doomed) optimism rather than a manic panic. By “positive” Comte meant “concerned with the real and present positive existence of objective facts, rather than the hypothetical or ‘negative’ existence of ideas such as God, ghosts, angels, or absolute perfection.”  He thought the “negative existence” of the dead deserved celebration too, although this celebration could be left to priests and women. It remained for the next generation to confuse “positive” with “nice” or even “good,” as it remained for them to adopt the idea that a family life like Beaver Cleaver’s was ever “traditional” in any culture.
Ehrenreich chooses to omit all this and begin at a point closer to modern Positive Thinking, with the magical thinking of Mary Baker Eddy, as it was semi-legitimized by the psychological studies of William James, and finally reintroduced into the Christian culture by Norman Vincent Peale. People can in fact work ourselves into or out of emotional moods by focussing our attention on things that evoke the target mood. People can even kick-start hormone cycles, perhaps boosting the production of endorphins to control pain, by repeating the voluntary behavior component of the hormone cycle; the body produces endorphins during aerobic exercise; if not able to do aerobic exercise, you can boost your endorphin levels by breathing as if you had been doing aerobic exercise. Can we kick-start cycles beyond our own bodies by exploiting a “law of attraction” to attract friends, lovers, money? At least, wouldn’t it be grand if we could, and can there be any harm in trying?
Well, yes, Ehrenreich finds, there can be harm in trying to attract wealth by spending money foolishly. People can go bankrupt that way. But geewhillikers, isn’t trying to attract things fun? If hanging clothing of the appropriate size in your room doesn’t mysteriously attract a mate of the desired shape, isn’t it at least good for some pleasant dreams? Can’t we at least be like the protagonist of the late-twentieth-century teaching story, who bought a model car and built a model road system and had all the kids in the neighborhood helping him visualize “having fun with my little car,” and finally realized that, although he was no closer to owning a real sports car than he’d been at the beginning, at least all the boys in the neighborhood were having fun with his little car. Maybe, for those who can keep it under control and not feel a need to attack people who don’t seem “happy enough,” a Positive Thinking fantasy is not all bad.
But when your family, or corporation, or community are depending on you to make sensible financial decisions, and you throw their money away in the hope of somehow mysteriously attracting wealth...or, worse yet, you ignore real information and alienate realistic people in an attempt to surround yourself with unrealistic optimistic thoughts...Ehrenreich concludes that “the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America.”
She concludes that working toward a better world is more satisfactory, as a way of maximizing her own personal feeling of happiness, than Positive Thinking. She is right on. Fix Facts First, Feelings, wait, that’s the working title of my book.
All Americans should read this book. Foreign readers are likely to miss the jokes, but anyone can benefit from this affirmation of the positively healing and liberating powers of kvetching.

"Fair Trade Book" means online readers pay $5 for the book, plus $5 for shipping, to buy it from me, and out of this Ehrenreich or a charity of her choice gets $1. (If you can find a new copy in a new-books store, this web site trusts you to buy the new copy...we should always encourage cancer survivors.) Shipping charges can be consolidated on as many items as I can consolidate into one package.