Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
(Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 235 pages, $23)
Should, god forbid, a close relation ever be diagnosed with cancer, you may find yourself tempted to muster whatever cheerfulness -possible. Your loved one may even insist he desires such tender regard or be himself determined to “think positive.” Resist this pre-Enlightenment urge. Instead, gaze down into those enfeebled eyes and recite the following:
[F]rom an evolutionary perspective, why should the body possess a means of combating cancer, such as a form of ‘natural healing’ that would kick in if only we get past our fears and negative thoughts? Cancer tends to strike older people who have passed the age of reproduction and hence are of little or no evolutionary significance…If you live long enough to get cancer, chances are you will have already accomplished your biological mission and produced a few children of your own.
Please, dear reader, don’t strain to thank me over the wailing of the nearby childless patient. I cribbed the script from Bright-Sided, a rumination, according to its subtitle, on “How the Relent-less Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined Amer-ica.” Curi-osi-ty piqued? In deference to the book’s “Social Science” categorization, let us excavate its root causes: Barbara Ehrenreich is diagnosed with breast cancer; there is a mostly indirect attempt to buoy her spirits via “photocopied bits of cuteness and sentimentality,” pink ribbons, teddy bears manufactured (insult to injury) in China, and tacky knickknacks (“Let me be hacked to death by a madman, was my silent -supplication-anything but suffocation by the pink sticky sentiment”); Ehrenreich discovers fellow cancer sufferers exuding defiantly chipper, insufficiently realist outlooks (“Death is as ‘natural’ as anything gets, and the body has always seemed to me like a retarded Siamese twin dragging along behind me…”); she seeks a propor-tional analogy for her new sunshiny bête noire (“Soviet-style communism exemplified the use of positive thinking as a means of social control”); and at last is inspired to toss the “mass delusion that is positive thinking” into a book-shaped prosecution dock.
And boy, is the indictment long, stretching from jingoism (“…it takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the ‘best’ or the ‘greatest'”), Yanqui imperialist crusades, and corporate downsizing (“America’s white-collar cor-porate workforce…accepted positive thinking as a sub-stitute for their former affluence and secu-rity. They did not take to the streets, shift their political allegiance in large numbers, or show up to work with automatic weapons in hand”) to “How Positive Think-ing Destroyed the Economy” (chapter seven) and even Joe Wurzel-bacher’s verbal assault on poor Barack Obama, which stemmed from the plumber’s unwillingness to accept his societal role as “an unlicensed plumber working in a two-man residential business that was unlikely to ever be vulnerable to the proposed tax increase.”
Hell, the self-professed “dedicated secular humanist” is conscientious enough to fret over evangelical megachurch sermons that are “long on ‘purpose’ and opportunity, short on sin and redemption” and eschew “the threat of Hell and the promise of salvation, along with the grim story of Jesus’ torment on the cross.”
A celestial third party serving scapegoat for individuals’ sins would appear the apogee of the “positive thinking,” yet when proletarian evangelicals embrace “prosperity gospel” rather than Ehren-reich’s preferred, equally naïve left-wing nostrums the atheist suddenly pines for the days of believers fidgeting in their cilices as they commit “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to memory. Odd, no?
Perhaps not. If Puritanism is, as Mencken quipped, the “haunting fear that someone, some-where, may be happy,” Ehrenreich could be the reincarnated Mistress of the Mayflower. Sure, she insists her “utopia”-wait, conceptualizing a utopia isn’t hopelessly Bright-Sided?-includes smiles, hugs, -single-payer health care, parties, and “opportunities for dancing in the streets”-but only under the rigid auspices of Barbara Ehrenreich, Secretary of (Central) Party Planning.
The posi-horror, Ehrenreich warns, is trickling down: Internet daters admonished to “radiate positivity, not mentioning, for example, that their last boyfriend was a jerk or that they’re dissatisfied with their weight.” Hotels “pleasantly touristic, the internal ambience engineered for a maximally positive effect.” Unemployed workers duped into believing “by being positive, a person might not only feel better during his or her job search, but actually bring it to a faster, happier, conclusion.” A father of a soldier missing in action in Iraq appears on television to solicit public goodwill, forcing Ehrenreich to provide a reality check: “Positive thoughts notwithstanding the soldier’s body was found in the Euphrates River one week later.”
The bright side of Bright-Sided, one supposes, is pop sociology has kept Ehrenreich out of psychiatry. Imagine her wards, staying in maximally depressing hotels; grimacing, scoffing, and quoting Noam Chomsky throughout corporate job in-terviews with dreams of registering Democrat and concealing automatic weapons dancing in their heads; truculently slapping cellulite when their blind date loses interest in bastard ex stories.
Ironically, Ehrenreich bemoans America’s “massive empathy deficit” as if she truly believes Bright-Sided doubles as a warm fuzzy blanket of compassion. It does not.
Take her cancer, for instance. No decent person would begrudge Ehrenreich whatever atti-tude enabled her to endure the dual horror of chemo-therapy and mastectomy. Those who fail to share
her “persistent anger,” however, are accused of a “positive embrace of the disease,” of unwitting bedevilment by pseudoscience, of viewing radiation therapy as a “makeover opportunity.” Ehren-reich goes so far as to bait upbeat patrons of an online cancer support group with complaints about insurance companies, environmental carcinogens, and “most daringly,” as she modestly puts it, “sappy pink ribbons,” as an experiment-and then derides them for urging her to seek therapy while she was collecting material for her book on their “mass delusion.”
Sometimes Ehrenreich’s body must feel as if it were dragging around a retarded Siamese twin as well.
Never underestimate leeway available to scolds possessing proper political views. From a recent New York Times profile of Ehrenreich:
“No one can call me a sourpuss,” [Ehrenreich] declared. “I have a big foot in the joy camp.” She is the author of Dancing in the Streets, a history of “collective joy,” she notes, and a lot of fun at parties. So her new book, Bright-Sided, should not be mistaken for a curmudgeonly rant.
Insisting you are “a lot of fun at parties” is a bit like saying, “I’m hilarious when I’m drunk”-i.e., something that really requires independent con-firmation. And penning a fusillade against a “cult
of cheerfulness” places one further outside the joy camp than that irrepressible Pollyanna Frie-drich Nietzsche, who averred in the very first line of Twilight of the Idols, “It requires no little skill to maintain one’s cheerfulness when engaged in a sullen and extremely responsible business; and yet, what is more necessary than cheerfulness?”
Still, Ehrenreich’s negative think is, it’s true, selective and conditional, the love affair with steely-eyed realism cooling substantially whenever she veers within spitting distance of her predictable left-wing hobbyhorses, winsome creatures apparently sustained solely by a steady diet of bromides. Why, Ehrenreich muses, aren’t self-help seminar enthusiasts “working for social changes that would benefit all” (like me!)? Why isn’t this underemployed computer scientist not “joining a social movement working to create an adequate safety net or to bring about more humane corporate polices” (like me!)?
This is, of course, all ludicrously subjective, especially coming from an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. Advocates of positive thinking encourage “deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and ‘negative’ thoughts”? Well, of course. Does Ehrenreich, with her standard-issue petite-bourgeoisie Ethan Allen-armchair soupy radicalism, seriously believe she is engaged in a more intellectually circumspect pursuit?
The iconoclast so contemptuous of admittedly noxious “prosperity gospel” once wrote of Barack Obama, “We, perhaps white people especially, look to him for atonement and redemption.” (Er, what we, kemosabe? Also: Genuflect much?) “In the West…leading proponents of positive thinking are entrepreneurs in their own right, marketing their speeches, books, and DVDs to anyone willing to buy them,” sniffs the positive thinking opponent who…just sold me a book.
“Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible if not ordained.” Endless expansion of government to institutionalize/enforce Ehrenreich’s political manias, though? Eminently reasonable! “[W]hat was market fundamentalism other than runaway positive thinking?” asks the woman who hasn’t met a social or economic problem that won’t be solved by a trade union or a government regulation in the fantastical Thousand Year Ehren Reich.
“My own Calvinist impulses…tell me insistently to get the work done, save the world, and then maybe there’ll be time for celebration,” Ehrenreich writes in Dancing in the Streets.
No starry-eyed delusions there.
“One must have the nerve to assert that, while people are entitled to their illusions, they are not entitled to a limitless enjoyment of them and they are not entitled to impose them upon others,” Christopher Hitchens posits in Letters to a Young Contrarian. It isn’t as simple as Ehrenreich believes. She puffs herself up in Bright-Sided as a wily chimera slayer, but her enthusiasm for her own illusions and unwillingness to challenge the sensitive sensibilities of her upper-middle-class white liberal clientele casts doubt on her motivation for deconstructing of others. As Lenin said, “Who — whom?”
Bright-Sided is best contextualized as an ahistorical luxury. Ehrenreich lounges in her cozy First World abode, snarking Who Moved My Cheese? is “a classic of downsizing propaganda.” I recall well a long chat with a young Kenyan man on the outskirts of Nairobi, an escapee from primeval poverty who now distributed that book, along with other business and inspirational texts, to villages and slums as part of a program to raise the entrepreneurial IQ and life expectations of poor Kenyans.
None of Ehrenreich’s self-aggrandizing, you-be-a-victim-so-I-can-feed-my-messiah-complex tomes made it into his distribution sack. I suppose when “downsizing” manifests itself beneath your ribcage, navel-gazing about the horrors of a cult of cheerfulness isn’t much of a priority.