exercises in compound storytelling

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Barbara Ehrenreich: Bright-Sided

Barbara Ehrenreich is something of an institution: she's a social critic, essayist, and author of nearly twenty books. She's probably best known for Nickel and Dimed, in which she took four entry-level/minimum-wage jobs in an attempt to prove that it's impossible to live on minimum wage. She's also what, exactly? A curmudgeon? A pessimist? I'm not sure. She's a Socialist, and unfortunately in what I've read of her writing some sort of magical central planning seems to be the obvious conclusion she leads her reader to.

I got on the wait list for her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America after hearing her speak at the Commonwealth Club of California. It came available over the weekend, and I almost immediately dived in. It's mostly a loosely-connected series of essays on the pitfalls of positive thinking; so far (after five of seven and a half essays) she hasn't gotten around to demonstrating how positive thinking undermines anything. Instead she mostly deals with the obvious implications of believing that you're the master of your own fate given that not everything goes your way.

The opening essay is about her experience with breast cancer, and more or less with the contention that a positive attitude is in any sense helpful when dealing with a potentially life-threatening disease. She first deals with the phenomenon itself: the outfits, the trinkets, the social obligations, etc. associated with breast cancer, and then she delves into the effectiveness of a relentlessly positive attitude on survival rates. Evidently there is none. Ehrenreich doesn't really deal with other related questions: whether a positive attitude makes someone with cancer easier to be around, improves quality of life, etc.

I won't be returning to this essay the next time I post about this book. It doesn't really fit into the sweep of the book, which has more to do with positive thinking in business and religion, and could have been left out without weakening the book.

I'm mostly interested in this book because it deals with an aspect of American evangelicalism I find disturbing: not just the positive thinking angle, but also the blurring of the lines between MBA-style business leadership and executive-pastor-style church leadership. I often fall into the trap of thinking that people who believe and behave even slightly differently than I do aren't "real Christians" and furthermore that the differences are clear to everyone. I'm baffled by the rise and persistence of prosperity theology, the Word of Faith movement, etc. and tend to assume that everyone can tell on its face that it's nonsense. It's helpful to get a perspective from someone who isn't just not in my part of the culture, but who confronts the same questions from an entirely different frame of reference.

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