November 24, 2009

Shiny happy people

As I mentioned yesterday, Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, is a real hoot. In it, she traces America's penchant for positive (and sometimes magical) thinking from roots in the 19th century, where it began as a reaction against the dour Calvinism that was such a strong ingredient of early American life.

In Calvinism, each soul has been predestined from the beginning of the world for either damnation or salvation, with most of us getting the former. There is nothing we can do about it, nor can one be totally sure one is among the elect. Believers were often urged to continually examine their consciences in fear and trembling.

That could be a bit of a downer. No wonder people sought for some kind of relief. One version that emerged in the late 1800s was called the "New Thought." According to this view, the universe was largely seen as a mental construct willing and waiting to come to our aid if we only got our minds right, to borrow a phrase from the classic movie Cool Hand Luke.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the popularity and commercial success of such enduring best-sellers as Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, which in turn inspired many similar efforts.

While the popularity of positivity is hardly new, modern Americans have consumed and have often been force fed a steady diet of motivational speeches, prosperity "theology," and magical thinking--even while living standards have gotten worse for millions.

Purveyors of this viewpoint sometimes promote the view that one's status and level of material success and health are primarily a matter of mental attitude, which means that people are getting pretty much what they deserve at any given time.

While clearly there's nothing wrong with having a cheerful outlook on the world, once an ideology dismisses other social factors that can hit us no matter how positive our attitude is, then it becomes just another justification for inequality.

If you buy all that, then the 10.2 percent of Americans who are jobless or the 47 million who lack health insurance or the 45,000 or so who die prematurely each year because they don't have it don't need better policies--they just need think positively.

As the saying goes, whatever.

FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH, here's an interview with Ehrenreich about the book.

STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS are facing shortfalls which could compound the recession, reduce jobs, and cut vital services in the absence of additional aid.

SAVING THE PLANET. Here are some weird ideas about how to do that.


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