The Nation's Pulse

Declaring a Sense of Independence

Has Chicken Soup for the Soul replaced Common Sense? Why has thinking gone to pasture? Have we lost our minds entirely?

By 2.11.11

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Common sense is 235 years old. Common Sense, that is: The 18th-century pamphlet by the Englishman Thomas Paine that argued beautifully for independence from British rule in just 48 pages.

While this opus is still very much alive in classrooms, websites, and C-Span Television screens across the nation, the other "common sense" is very much dead.

Yup. Gone and buried is that silent little voice that helped us make wise decisions and choices.

Why else do people resort to Chicken Soup for the Soul products to find solutions in other people's "been there done that" serial stories of, say, "energy, endurance and endorphins"? Or stories that inspire you to count your blessings, or how to find silver linings. Mmmm mmmm good!

And why would Chicken soup devotees advertise this to the world by buying the eponymously branded t-shirts, calendars… but wait, there's more!

Why do people consult Oprah Winfrey, a television chat host, for what book to read… and not wonder why the very book soon ends up in the New York Times' best-seller list?

Why do women -- and Eddie Izzard? -- throw out the just-declared-awful pink color just because fashion magazines magically deemed that, by God, red lipstick is now the color? 

Why else would we guzzle Gatorade, with chemicals unknown to earth with "shades" of Lysol? Why not the proven well endowed banana -- with natural molecules, that is.

Why else do my friends now handsomely pay a home organizer to tell them which personal possessions to keep and which to throw out? Can you really not determine whether or not you should hang on to your high school photos?

Why else do mothers-to-be buy dozens of baby magazines and self-help books that prescribe so much advice they end up conflicting themselves? Our mothers never had this and yet they knew the essentials of bringing up baby without dropping it on its head or wondering if there is a diaper that stimulates cognitive development. Don't laugh, undoubtedly instructions for both are in some best-seller with chapters of their own.

And why else would mothers now wonder whether or not they should become Tiger Moms? As opposed to helicopter or soccer moms? Whatever. I just don't know how I -- and thousands of my birth-year cohorts -- were successfully raised by moms without a label. Gee, this must make them heroes. Pardon the label. 

And do we really need Dr. Oz telling us to eat cauliflower and broccoli during the Super Bowl instead of potato chips? Do we really need a doctor in every news channel touting his unique "prescription" like a carnival barker? Don't drink coffee, it causes memory loss… Drink coffee, it's good for your heart… Acai is the new anti-oxidant, guaranteed fountain of youth… No, it's bad for you… Green tea is the new elixir.

And how about foundations to teach American kids to eat right after school?

Why, why, why? I could go on and on.

THINK ABOUT IT. Everything has to be dictated by some book, some gimmick, some product, some organization, or some expert or celebrity whose knowledge is inversely proportional to his or her fame. Some of Paine's common sense to my rescue: "the author of this production is wholly unnecessary to the public."

And just a reminder that with all this peddling comes the proverbial answer to all your problems in the form of some magical short-cut.

It's all well and good to stimulate the economy with publishing and manufacturing but the result is the American public has been corralled like herds of cattle to a trough instead of being allowed to, er, ruminate. To mentally chew the cuds, as it were. Before swallowing the crud.

Sadly, the American consumer has lost his appetite for independent thinking. A little bit of Paine here: "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right."

So why did thinking go to pasture?

Common sense tells me that this seeking of external advice -- this self-help culture -- did not originate in Paine's day not least because American colonists were, ipso facto, the self-reliant sort who thrived on using their thinker to seek solutions.

Wikipedia dates self-help back as far as 700 B.C. with the Greek poet Hesiod's Works and Days dispensing agricultural advice, just as Ben Franklin's (who, coincidentally, was the one who convinced Paine to go to America) farmer's almanac Poor Richard did about 1,000 years later.

But when did the Big Bang of self-help occur? According to Wiki, it started in 1859 with the aptly titled book Self Help instantly donning its author Samuel Smiles with fame and fortune. Then came the still well-known 1936 blockbuster How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Of course we read it. But it wasn't until the final third of the 20th century that self-help really exploded. And at the beginning of the 21st century, says Wiki, the self improvement industry -- books, seminars, coaches, and videos -- rang in $2.48 billion per year. 

So with 152 years of this stuff behind us I'm obliged to inflict some Paine: "Time makes more converts than reason." And with this, and thousands and thousands of individual titles sold, I can't help but observe that the dummification of the American mind is in full swing.

Self help has morphed into self helpless.

As if self help books and such weren't enough to aid and abet the insidious disabling of the American mind, the emerging market of the convenience industry in the 1950s was a big help: A post-war steroidal pumping of the economy with hyper-production of products and ads to induce visions of leisure in our head. Ladies and gentlemen: the TV dinner is served. Indeed a handy time-saver for working mothers but this sort of thing, with its concomitant advertising, induces feelings that suppress common sense which would otherwise question, say, the ingredients, for one.

Even TV trays popped up in 1952 to further coach us into consuming more advertising for "tasteless" products we didn't need to, well, consume. Like the proverbial lemmings mindlessly heading for cliffs, we dutifully propped them up in the living room for expediency and, naturally, stopped engaging in dinner conversation so healthy to family life.

Food that looks and smells of styrofoam shouldn't be touched. I don't even need to go back 3.2 million years ago when our ancient Australopethicene ancestor Lucy roamed the Kenyan savannah. So here's my rule of thumb: if Lucy didn't eat it then neither should you. If an ingredient on a label didn't exist -- even 3.2 thousand years ago -- it is likely a molecule concocted by a PhD and not exactly good for human consumption. Our little cells were simply not designed to metabolize Red Dye Number whatever.

If the '50s homemaker really preferred to "cook" instead, she could now open a box of Betty Crocker cake-mix…and just add water. Making soup? Or spaghetti? Just open a can. Or add a can of this to a can of that and, voilá, you have broccoli au gratin.

Even laughter was canned. And since television producers told us what is funny and when to laugh., even laughter lost its independence.

As did our birthday and Christmas greetings. Hallmark came along and left us with a loss for words.

And let's not forget the labeling of human behavior and traits as mental conditions with biological bases in the DSM, the medical profession's diagnostic manual of mental disorders. This, says Dr. Christopher Lane in his book Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, paved the way to positioning the pharmaceutical industry to provide a pill for "every alleged chemical imbalance or biological problem." To wit, the next edition of the DSM, he says, to be completed in 2012, "is likely to establish new categories for apathy, compulsive buying, Internet addiction, binge-eating and compulsive sexual behavior." Even road rage is already labeled under "intermittent explosive disorder."

Some necessary Paine here: "The wise, and the worthy, need not the triumph of a pamphlet."

IS THE AMERICAN populace so lame as to inspire Stanford University School of Medicine researchers to devise computer-generated phone calls to couch potatoes as an "effective, low-cost way to encourage sedentary adults to exercise"? I kid you not, this is an actual scientific study.

Have we lost our minds entirely? We have surrendered thinking in exchange for the path of least resistance that led to instant fixes, from diet pills to "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books and products providing life-improvement fixes for "fill in the blank." And in so doing we've become pawns on profit & loss statements, aligning ourselves with the bottom lines of companies. 

Reminds me of another book. Coincidentally, one that happened to co-celebrate Common Sense and America's bicentennial in 1976. That would be George Orwell's 1984 which eerily described a world in which an oppressive ruling party -- the proverbial Big Brother -- controls everything from language to behavior and watches people everywhere they go via telescreens. And of course independent thinking and individuality were simply forbidden. 

1984 might as well be 2011. With Big Brother Google capturing the details of each and every mouse-click of our online searches and the white lab-coats of neuroscience running PET Scans on research subjects to help the suits of marketing and advertising gain deep entry into our subconscious brain.

Ads today are now more insidious productions with abstract messages serving as external cues that head straight for our limbic system subsuming the brain's use of its internal cognitive cues. You know, those mental cues that naturally surface when it's time to make a decision.

Indeed, a Cornell University study showed that Americans tend to use external cues to stop eating (running out of beer, the TV show has ended) while the French use internal cues (like no longer feeling hungry). They postulate that over-reliance on external cues to stop eating a meal may partly explain why one out of three Americans is obese.

Makes common sense to me.

Like the bookshelves at Barnes & Nobles and Border's, the best-seller list is heavy with these books. If you are still tempted to reach for one, just remember that the likes of Dummies Guides or the Complete Idiot's Guides are calling you an idiot not because you don't know the subject therein but because you're buying these very books.

There's even a book about self-help books! Its jacket extols the book's premise that self-help books are "like fairy tales recasting stories and ideas into essays that people happily read and then set aside when the new embodiment of the genre comes along."

My point exactly.

Sadly, our society has developed a co-dependency with self-help. And as the original purveyor of common sense so wisely noted:

It is an "invisible 'government' we need to declare independence from." A Paineful observation.

But here's a paineless way of putting it. A short-cut, if I may:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCsM35H9TFA

 

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About the Author

Marilia Duffles is a contributor to the Financial Times and the Economist. She has also written for the Globo, Brazil's leading newspaper.