exercises in compound storytelling

Friday, February 5, 2010

Barbara Ehrenreich: Bright-Sided

I finished Barbara Ehrenreich's 2009 book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America earlier this week, and I've been too busy to write it up. There are really three themes in this book:
  1. The history of positive thinking in America
  2. Positive thinking, management fads, and exploitation
  3. Positive thinking, illness, and positive psychology
Ehrenreich contextualizes positive thinking as a reaction to Calvinism, self-criticism, and neurasthenia, starting with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and New Thought, running through both Mary Baker Eddy and Norman Vincent Peale into the American religious landscape, through the prosperity theology of Kenneth Hagin and Joel Osteen Jr., wrapping up with the now-popular comparison between megachurches and large corporations. I guess she had to go to press before she had a chance to cover Hanna Rosin's article in The Atlantic asking whether and how prosperity theology itself contributed to the current recession.

She blames positive thinking for the rise of irrational professional management, blaming management gurus like Tom Peters for the "management bubble" that led to so much irrational decision-making in the last twenty years, suggesting that the spreading irrational optimism, while it couldn't all be blamed on Peters, could be tracked by following the arc of his career. She includes this quote from Fortune:
If you know one thing about Tom Peters, you know about his first book (In Search of Excellence), and if you know two things, the second is that he hasn't written a book as good as that since, and if you know three things, the third is that some time in the 18 years since that first precious book, he's gone bonkers.

She traces the spread of various kinds of positive thinking for its own sake in corporations: imposed on low-status workers to make them more productive in the face of mounting layoffs and reduced job security, adopted by mid-status workers as a kind of willful self-deception in an attempt to become more successful, and embraced by high-status workers as justification for their escalating salaries and compensation packages, all the while becoming less effective and in some cases outright destructive. Of course Ehrenreich wouldn't be Ehrenreich if she didn't trot out the usual complaints about modern capitalism: too few people own too much, pay discrepancies are too high, etc. This really has nothing to do with the book's supposed thesis: Ehrenreich is really describing several things that happened without demonstrating that one caused the other.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Ehrenreich begins the book with a chapter on positive thinking and breast cancer, demonstrating that while resolute positive thinking is part of the breast cancer patient/victim/survivor subculture, there is no clinical evidence that it actually helps. However, when she returns to the question of attitude and illness later in the book, it does appear that a positive outlook can be helpful in avoiding and recovering from other illnesses. She also delves into the phenomenon of positive psychology, the study of happiness as a positive outcome, as described by Martin Seligman and his colleagues, and by turns declares it and him a fraud and a product of a right-wing conspiracy courtesy the Templeton Foundation. Some of the stuff she says about the positive psychology people borders on nitpickery, and I was left wondering if she'd been fair to Seligman and Suzanne Segerstrom, or if perhaps she was treating them with disdain because they're in the social sciences and she has a background in lab sciences (Cellular Biology PhD, Rockefeller University, 1963).

This was a fairly light, quick read at 206 pages, the sort of book I could have easily knocked off on a long plane flight, and that's about what it is: a handful of relatively simple themes, explained briskly, with occasional visits to familiar if occasionally tedious territory. I'd recommend the book for its discussion of positive thinking and prosperity theology: as an evangelical Christian I'm disturbed by the spread of Word-Faith doctrine but I didn't know much about its history. It's not a very good book: Ehrenreich doesn't know enough about some of the things she dislikes and doesn't bother to fill the gaps in her knowledge, so she occasionally takes second-rate explanations as sufficient: she often doesn't distinguish between what something is and what it does, and makes a mess of Calvinism, for example, and probably places too much confidence in D. R. McConnell's book A Different Gospel as a definitive history of the Word-Faith movement. On the other hand, I'm not sure what is an appropriate standard for what is admittedly a popular, not a scholarly, treatment of a topic that can't really be rigorously defined.

I'm increasingly curious about Ehrenreich generally, though, and I will probably have to dig into her backlist. Just because I thought Nickel and Dimed was intellectually dishonest doesn't mean one of her books would make for an adequate way to while away a long plane flight.

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