Monday, August 5, 2013

The Society of Magical Thinking

"Bright Sided – How Positive Thinking is Undermining America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, 2009

Ehrenreich is a well-known progressive journalist, who’s prior book, “Nickel & Dimed” took her undercover into the world of the service-sector precariat.  Now she is tackling something that started as a personal issue – breast cancer – and evolved into an insight into American conservative psychology and propaganda.  Eternal optimism, unfazed by facts, reaches into the most personal corners of our lives, and also into our meta-political lives. 

In one way, this is a philosophic broadside against idealism and magical thinking on an internal level.  In another, it is an explanation of why ‘pessimism’ (actually, realism) is such an enemy in a capitalist society.  She tracks, chapter by chapter, the sources of the ideology of ‘positive thinking’ in the U.S. – in academics, in religion, in politics and economics, at work, even in the world of cancer.  If you have suddenly noticed a raft of ‘scientific’ studies in the mainstream news (‘lamestream’ wasn’t far off…)  promoting the uber-happiness of conservatives, married people, religious people and optimists, you know something is afoot.  If you have been denounced as ‘cynical’ or ‘pessimistic’ or ‘negative’ for saying somewhat accurate things, by family members, friends or co-workers, you know what I’m talking about.

Ehrenreich challenges these studies, and also the promoters and business firms behind them.  She reveals the personal coaches, ‘scientists’ and success gurus who people the best-seller lists, corporate functions, academic sinecures and mega-churches.  She writes a surprisingly interesting history of the development of ‘positive thinking’ as a reaction to the dour Calvinist philosophy of the early U.S.  She traces it through its various permutations, from the early Christian rumblings of Christian Science, to Norman Vincent Peale’s mid-20th century classic, “Power of Positive Thinking,’ or Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” (which Charles Manson read cover to cover) and on to books like “The Secret” and the present corporate and political leaders of today.  Yeah, the ones who’s ‘optimism’ and ‘animal spirits’ led us into the 2007-2008 economic crash.  As she puts it, if ‘optimism’ is all we need to change reality, why is reality getting worse – more poverty, more unemployment, more foreclosures, more government militarism and less health? 

In this, you can see nothing changes in the U.S. – absolute positivity has been around since the development of industrialism.  It is an essential philosophic tool of social control.

This book started out when Ehrenreich got breast cancer and, in the process of dealing with the disease, entered the world of The Komen Foundation, pink ribbons and the ‘positive’ outlook thought necessary to fight the disease.  Of course, there is no scientific link between a mere outlook and staying alive.  That didn’t stop the message that, if you die of cancer, it is your own fault for having a poor outlook.  Survivors are winners – and dead losers are, well, insufficiently positive.  The onus is taken off corporate or environmental or food sources of cancer, and onto each individual’s attitude.  Sound familiar?

After that, Enrenreich first encounters are with the life coach industry, which believes that positive visualization, the ‘law of attraction” (pin a dollar bill to your wall and more will gather around it!) and thought re-programming will make reality accord with your thoughts!  This is covered in a veneer of misunderstood quantum mechanics that would make a scientist squirm, as ‘scientism’ is necessary nowadays to cover up the essentially magical thinking underneath.  She spies the essential underlying connection between Calvinism and ‘positive mental attitudes’ – a relentless focus on internal thinking, ideas and emotions in need of discipline.  After all, reality has a tendency to be negative sometimes.  PMA must turn those episodes into ‘opportunities.’  She cites evidence that this practice can actually make people … more unhappy when they fail, as they will do.  She also discovers, according to some life coaches, that ‘negative’ people must be shunned.

She takes a tour of religious ‘success gospel,’ and comes up with some interesting data for us atheists.  3 of the 4 largest ‘Christian’ mega-churches do not have crosses, bibles, stained windows, spires or other religious symbols in their buildings.  They are more like comfortable corporate environments with lots of pop music and uplifting sermons.  Their services do not dwell on guilt, sin or evil – negative things - but more on the ‘prosperity gospel’ – words fit for a middle-class audience or a desperate working-class one.  Jesus wants you to be rich!  It seems Calvin is missing even from some modern Protestant-derived non-denominational environments.  The smiley face has replaced the cross.

Ehrenreich’s next stop is the corporate CEOs that hire ‘life’ and success coaches, and rely on ‘hunches’, ‘instinct’ and snap decisions to make major changes – not dry statistics or numbers.  She especially highlights Tom Peters as one of the leading business gurus of ‘creative destruction’ and chaos – chaos that seems to have somewhat negative consequences, like mass layoffs.  Corporate workplaces, especially white-collar ones, are overrun with ‘team-building’ and positivity training, and ‘negative’ people are shunned and even fired.  Many ‘positivity’ coaches say, “Throw the negative people in your life out.”  While many ordinary people were deluded into buying impossible mortgages, what about the many deluded CEOs and firms that sold them to them?  Their delusions were even greater.  And that went all the way to the top, even to the Randian Alan Greenspan. (see commentary on Greenspan, “Who is Ron Paul?,” below, as well as 4 book reviews in which he is mentioned).

Her last stop is the academic environments that churn out ‘happyness’ studies, and college programs in ‘positive’ psychology.  (Really!)  While the scientific foundation of this branch of ‘psychology’ is so flimsy even the academic leader of this movement, Martin Seligman, is dubious, it soldiers on with help from corporation donations.  The Templeton Society, a right-wing foundation that also promotes creationism, has donated.  Seligman even explicitly opposes trying to change society, but instead wants you to ‘change your mind instead.’  This, ultimately, is the extremely conservative message of ‘positive’ psychology.

This environment is not limited to conservative religious, economic, political and corporate figures.  It extends to some liberals, like Oprah Winfrey, whose positive ‘feel-good’ philosophy is merely a gentler rehashing of the same magical idealism dished out by the prosperity gospel’s religious figures.  Though at least if you sit in her audience, you might win a car.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 5, 2013

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