Monday, May 17, 2010

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

I had been coveting this book for at least a few months, but it was only when I rediscovered the joy of a library card that I got hold of it. In it, Barbara Ehrenreich, a woman I very much admire, takes on so many things I absolutely cannot stand: prosperity gospel, pink-ribbon breast cancer culture, The Secret, even Oprah herself here and there. The central thesis of this book, so far as I can summarize it, is that the positive thinking craze that is the common thread through these hated trends represents yet another way our society is moving away from reasoned empiricism to a more malleable way to look at "reality." And that that trend is not good for us long term, because it encourages us to downplay serious problems when we should be marshaling resources to fight them head on.

As one might imagine, this is a helpful lens through which to view the recent real estate downturn and financial crisis. Being a former real estate attorney (and current devoted Planet Money listener), I'm pretty familiar with the basics of how all that went down. But I was especially impressed by the way Ehrenreich drew a line from the evolution of CEOs from ruthless but efficient technocrats to visionary shamans who glorify gut instinct over ledgers and tough decisions, to the growing economic disparity between average workers and top earners, to the growth of motivational speeches and personal coaching, to the idea that we shouldn't be resentful of those earning 300x what we do because, hey, we could be that rich one day.

I also love her biting humor, particularly when she's describing her own breast cancer diagnosis. Her complaints about grown women being given teddy bears and boxes of crayons are funny to be sure, but she also shows how stressing the need to think positively in order to beat cancer can become a form of victim-blaming, not to mention demonstrating pre-Feminine Mystique ideas about how illness should be handled.

I could go on and on. I won't. This book is wonderful, and so needed.

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