On Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided

Wednesday, December 23, 2009| 12:41 pm| 1 comment

In vastly different settings, positive thinking has been a tool of political repression worldwide. We tend to think that tyrants rule through fear–fear of the secret police, of torture, detention, the gulag–but some of the world’s most mercilessly authoritarian regimes have also demanded constant optimism and cheer from their subjects.
–Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided

I have finally escaped the death jaws of end-of-semester grading and can resume my favorite pastime: reviewing fabulous texts and Blingeeing grade-A douchebags (because really, no other label quite captures this entry’s blinged out queen–Joel Osteen; plus, I would like to rid the world of the myth that, and I quote Naweko San-Joyz/Nicole Dial, the “vagina is a filthy pit” by applying the word “douche” to people whose actions actually are vile). Indeed, I might as well begin with Pastor Osteen.

Joel OsteenUntil I read Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, I held most of my contempt for Minister Rick Warren and his homophobic douchebaggery.
But then I read the following in Ehrenreich’s new book:

Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California at Riverside, argued that pastors like Osteen reassured low-income people with subprime mortgages by getting them to believe that ‘God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and bless me with my first house.’ (p. 182)

Such “advice” is not only despicable, but this “gospel” also takes lessons straight from our nation’s other leading douchebags: several CEOs, like the Lehman Brothers’ Joe Gregory and Countrywide Mortgage’s Angelo Mozilo. Ehrenreich notes that as poverty and insecurity increased in the U.S. at the dawning of the twenty-first century, “an unimaginably huge buildup of wealth” accumulated at the tippy top of the economic spectrum. Speeding along this concentration was the growing belief by business executives (and readers of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret) that visualizing success manifests it. In her cutting words, “…in a short period of time, about $3 trillion worth of pension funds, retirement accounts, and life savings evaporated into the same ether that had absorbed all our positive thoughts” (p. 191).

I appreciate most the historical elements of Bright-Sided. When I read Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as a freshman in college, I ashamedly noted that my European heritage was heavily tied up in Calvinist Protestantism (the shame being a key ingredient of this legacy). Ehrenreich brilliantly details both the past fallout of this punitive Calvinist worldview, describing the many women and men who fell prey to “socially imposed depression” and “invalidism” on account of its torments, as well as the positive-thinking counter revolution that this doctrine inspired.

She also underscores how Calvinism–without the theology–as well as the “concrete therapeutics” (a la William James) it motivated live on today. I intimately relate to ongoing elements of Calvinism in U.S. society and, particularly, Ehrenreich’s reference to academia’s investment in seeing “busyness for its own sake as a mark of status.” She is worth quoting at length on this point:

In academia, where you might expect people to have more control over their workload hour by hour, the notion of overwork as virtue reaches almost religious dimensions. Professors boast of being ‘crazed’ by their multiple responsibilities; summer break offers no vacation, only an opportunity for frantic research and writing. (p. 76)

Anyone else in the ivory tower feeling this? I also find compelling her point that even today’s positive thinkers maintain a key toxic feature of Calvinism: “an insistence on the constant interior labor of self-examination” (p. 89). Subjecting one’s inner life to “relentless monitoring” facilitates more self-flagellation than joy, for that I can vouch.

So what positive wisdom does Ehrenreich impart to her readers?

[T]ry to get outside of ourselves and see things ‘as they are,’ or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world if full of both danger and opportunity–the chance of great happiness as well as the certainty of death. (p. 196)

AMEN! And to conclude this entry, I am going to attempt to realize her suggestion. I am currently writing from Denver, Colorado, where my family lives and the destination of my holiday travels. The D.C. Snowpocalypse, as Roxie called it, resulted in three sadness-inducing flight cancellations. Then Papa Jack stepped in.

Now, if I subscribed to Osteen’s delusional “prosperity preaching,” I might believe that positive-thinking manifested itself in a first-class ticket to Denver. Because I am practicing “a certain level of negativity and suspicion,” as Ehrenreich counsels, I understand my current situation as follows: my father possesses enough money to have traveled frequently with United Airlines. Consequently, he has secured not only “premier” status with this corporation but also lots and lots of “free” miles. This cornucopia of miles, accompanied by Papa Jack’s socially savvy call to United, landed me a fancy schmancy seat to Denver only one day after my planned arrival.

In sum, economic privilege, not “visualizing victory,” resulted in my pre-Christmas Colorado alighting. Instead of doing my usual Calvinist schtick of self-berating for this good fortune, I conclude this entry with gratitude for the opportunity to be with my family during the holidays and my father’s 64th birthday, which falls on Christmas Day. Additionally, I am hoping (rather than cloud-cuckoo-land praying) that the many stranded travelers I encountered en route to Denver also found their way home. Finally, I renew my commitment in the fast-approaching 2010 to Ehrenreich’s purposeful recommendation: vanquish real threats “by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world” (p. 206).

Comments

One comment

    • Leslie Gates

    December 23, 2009| 4:09 pm

    First of all, the art teacher gives you an A+ for the animated image of Joelsteen. Secondly, the pastor’s wife gives you an A+ for your criticism of Joelsteen’s crookedness. Thirdly, the doc student gives you an A+ for helping me remember how busyness is subconsciously infused into my own work ethic. Triple A+. Unfortunately, we both know grades don’t mean much.

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