read: bright-sided

I realized that up until just now I had no category for “read” on this blog, but I want a space to talk about the books I’m not reviewing elsewhere and I’m not reading for work. That has tended to be a rather small category over the last few years, but I’m working to change that. So this is a space to talk about reading for pleasure, at random, for myself. I’m not on Goodreads or any other online book-exploring site, mostly because I’m not sure how it works and whether it’s worth investing the time. Anyone with strong feelings either way, let me know!

Anyway, Barbara Ehrenreich isn’t really a pleasurable read, but she’s bracing, like a stiff wind off the ocean in November. Bright-Sided came out in 2009, and I’ve had the galley for a while (which I love, because it’s emblazoned with the contact info of the publicity person at Holt, who goes by the extraordinary name of Chastity Lovely. I don’t want to Google her, but I do hope she’s out there somewhere doing great things.)

Bright-Sided, subtitled cheerily “How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America” is a disturbing journey, making connections between phenomena that are often decried but not often (at least in my experience) shown to be interdependent: megachurches, corporate downsizing, CEO insanity-pay, “life-coaching” hucksterism, and desperate academic grant-grubbing. These manifestations of recklessness and hypocrisy are also linked with other, more apparently innocuous versions of positive thinking, like cancer support-groups, motivation exercises, and self-help books that try to boost readers’ flagging levels of personal happiness.

The book starts with a chapter that I once taught in a freshman writing class, when it was a slightly longer and more personal essay from Harper’s, “Welcome to Cancerland,” about Ehrenreich’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, and her fury at the unscientific, warm-and-fuzzy insistence that positive thinking could actually improve a patient’s prognosis. A key moment is her test of posting a message titled “Angry” on an online forum, and railing against her diagnosis. Her fellow-sufferers rushed to counsel therapy, rather than admitting that they too had felt that their illness was shocking, unfair, embittering, infuriating. I remember the unruly kid in my class who eventually admitted to me that his mother had breast cancer, and he found the essay personally offensive, attacking a source of real comfort in attacking all the pink-branded, infantilizing byproducts of the breast cancer industry. It was my first year teaching, and I think I fell back, rather lamely, on analysis – this isn’t about hurting your feelings, it’s asking why only certain feelings are allowed (and, furthermore, why cancer research isn’t connected up to environmental activism, given the compelling links between industrial pollution and rising cancer rates.)

From her personal brush with the limiting and controlling industry of positivity in “Cancerland,” Ehrenreich takes her notebook and goes off to ask hard questions of super-rich pastors preaching “the prosperity gospel,” psychology professors abandoning science for corporate cash, and the heroes of the self-serving “coaching” industry (in which success is circular – speaking at conferences and selling motivational DVDs provide evidence of the success which the speaker is trying to promote.) The business world is often the engine driving all this hypocrisy: corporate “change managers” and other euphemistically titled people whose industries of motivation have thrived as companies become unstable and employees are encouraged to blame themselves, or the specter of their “pessimism,” for getting fired, and conditioned to see the loss of their jobs as opportunities for personal growth (never protest, or political activism.)

Ehrenreich makes a compelling case that what looks like liberation – your happiness, your “brand,” and your success are in your own hands! – is just a modern manifestation of old-fashioned Calvinism, the unforgiving doctrine that insisted on constant self-monitoring for signs of sin, at the same time as it preached a message of predestination. You can’t win no matter how hard you try, but you have to try all the same. In the same way, the economic decks are stacked against millions of ordinary American workers, who are encouraged to think that every outcome is their personal decision, and that social forces or structural inequalities have nothing to do with their situation.

The New York Times this weekend ran a long, controversial piece about the economic disparity between a married, college-educated couple with children and the life and expectations of a single mother, the friend and colleague of the married woman, from a similar background, but with worse luck. The first quotation from the single mother exemplifies the dark side of what Ehrenreich is describing: “I’m in this situation because of decisions I made.” Expressing that lurking fear of being branded a “whiner,” this woman whose struggles are insanely magnified by a tattered social safety net has no way of bettering her own situation or that of her children.

Ehrenreich’s book is dedicated to “complainers everywhere” and urges them, “turn up the volume!” The point is not personal expression – complaining to make yourself feel better. Really the point she’s urging is the abandoning of a relentless individualism, which tricks people into thinking they can control the universe and attract material wealth with the “vibrations” of their thoughts (Rhonda Byrne, the author of “The Secret,” comes in for a richly deserved kicking.) Such a narcissistic mindset might be appropriate to toddlers, but not to supposed adults. Sometimes we need a good whipping in the wind.

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