Dec 9, 2013
Carol Tavris on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Crusade
Posted on Jun 4, 2010
By Carol Tavris
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay about her experience of breast cancer, published in Harper’s in 2007, was like a bracing blast of clean, cool air in a musty room. Her article was not about her medical treatment but about the infantilizing breast-cancer-survivor industry, with its pink ribbons, teddy bears and relentless cheerfulness. You may not call yourself a victim or a patient; you must see yourself as a “survivor”. You must not be angry or raise political questions about the dismal state of health care in America, or the possible environmental causes of cancer. You must not whine or cry, because negative emotions and attitudes are not only a sign of psychological defeat, but also a sure way to make the cancer return or grow faster. If it does return, it is your fault for not being positive enough and thinking the right thoughts. Ehrenreich is furious at the burden that this erroneous belief places on patients, and quotes one woman’s statement: “I know that if I get sad, scared or upset, I am making my tumor grow faster and I will have shortened my life”. Smile or die, indeed.
Barbara Ehrenreich has long been a tireless fighter against the purveyors of silliness and self-deception who clog America’s airwaves and bestseller lists, and she reserves her special venom for those who profit by taking advantage of the poor, the unemployed, the uninsured. In books such as Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America (2002) and Bait and Switch: On the (futile) pursuit of the American dream (2006), she reminded readers to ask who it is that benefits when Americans who are struggling financially are advised to solve their problems by wishing harder and praying more. In Smile or Die (which is published in the US under the title Bright-Sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America), she takes on the excesses, delusions and unsupported promises of the positive-thinking movement, tracking both its naive and its corrupt manifestations in the worlds of health, business, religion and psychology.
Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 256 pages
“Positive thinking” is the shmoo of American culture: an irresistible target that invites mockery but is impossible to eradicate. (The shmoo, a cartoon character invented by Al Capp in 1948, would do anything to make you happy, absorb any abuse you cared to hurl at it, and then, if you were hungry, turn itself into a nice steak dinner for you.) Ehrenreich examines the rise of positive thinking from its inception in the nineteenth century, where it began as a revolt against Calvinism’s doctrine of hard work and eternal damnation. Mary Baker Eddy’s invention of Christian Science, allied with Phineas Quimby’s New Thought movement, held that illness was all in the mind, and therefore a mind cure was better than a medical one. (In many cases, given the state of medicine at the time, it was.) What Mary Baker Eddy was to the nineteenth century, Norman Vincent Peale was to the twentieth; his The Power of Positive Thinking in turn spawned legions of bestsellers, such as Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006), whose secret is that if you are poor, unhappy, or jobless, the fault lies not in your stars or your circumstances but in your thoughts.
What a welcome message for companies busily laying off employees! Between 1981 and 2003, some 30 million full-time American workers lost their jobs as corporations downsized. As that happened, Ehrenreich argues, positive thinking became a big business, and big business was its principal client. Corporations, having no safety nets to offer their laid-off workers, offered psychological cheerleading instead: how better to manage workers’ despair and head off anger than by hiring motivational speakers to give them pep talks about all the new opportunities they now had? Don’t be angry at your boss or blame the system, one Christian motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, advises, “work harder and pray more”. Corporations bought the message of positive thinking themselves, too: “Why bother worrying about dizzying levels of debt and exposure to potential defaults”, Ehrenreich writes, “when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to expect them?”. Ehrenreich knows that the economic collapse that struck America has many complex causes, but she argues that positive thinking paved the road to disaster as American corporate culture replaced “the dreary rationality of professional management” with cheery expectations of ever-greater success. They were victims of the same delusional thinking they sold to their workers: wishing will make it so.
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