Reviewed by Patrick J. Salem
There was a small item in the news a couple of weeks ago that didn’t get much play except for its irony: President George W. Bush was going to appear as a motivational speaker in San Antonio at a mega conference called “Get Motivated.” Readers and viewers of this tidbit of news were left to wonder how a man who once referred to himself as “the decider” and who routinely butchered the word “nuclear” could be cast as a public speaker, like maybe the whole thing was some inside joke, a Twitter rumor gone awry.
In fact, the former president was on a panel for a motivational speaking panel that referred to itself as “world famous for its energizing, action-packed, star-studded, fun-filled, spectacular stage show…. This motivational mega-show packs more inspirational firepower than a stick of dynamite!”
It’s exactly this type of irony, this cognitive disconnect with reality that Barbara Ehrenreich tackles in her latest broadside against the vacuity of American culture in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. At times angry, at times witty, but always very pointed, Ehrenreich once again examines American culture through a populist lens.
Ehrenreich starts her book with the very personal story of her breast cancer and how she——and millions of woman like her——was immediately assailed with calls for a positive mental attitude in her fight against the disease.
“The first attempt to recruit me into positive thinking occurred at what has been, so far, the low point of my life,” Ehrenreich begins the first chapter, titled “Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer.” The author who earned a Ph.D. in cellular biology says that this attitude—that you’ll only get better if you think good thoughts and keep a positive outlook—is particularly galling because there is no scientific evidence to support such claims. In fact, Ehrenreich says that while support groups and positive thinking may improve a person’s outlook, they do nothing to improve life expectancy or survival rates.
“The link between the immune system, cancer, and the emotions was cobbled together somewhat imaginatively in the 1970s,” Ehrenreich says. This link came from the experiments that seemed to show if you torture lab animals long enough their stress levels could be debilitating to “certain aspects of the immune system.” This led to the twisted logic that positive thinking and experiences would enhance or invigorate the immune system, which inevitably led to the notion that a positive mental attitude would help the body fight cancer. But as Ehrenreich points out, the immune system doesn’t have anything to do with fighting cancer because cancer isn’t a foreign body like a microbe, but rather the body’s own cells that have mutated. At best, the immune system ignores them, or at worst, joins in on the mutation.
But when Ehrenreich mentions these realities to others in the “breast cancer community” she is invariably met with derision for succumbing to negative thinking. In other words, a positive attitude doesn’t have time for the minutiae of reality.
Ehrenriech continues to examine this “magical thinking” in terms of how it has invaded other aspects of life, tracing the origins of bright-siding to the mid-19th century when the Industrial Revolution began to obviate the need for the Protestant work ethic. This impulse she says came to a head with the development of notions of wealth being the result of positive attitude rather than something earned through honest hard work. No sector of the bright-side movement escapes her rapier dissection. Ehrenreich ends with the suggestion that this insipid positivism was part of the banking meltdown of 2008. While positive thinking wasn’t the cause, it certainly didn’t help when managers everywhere were discouraged from negativity, that the economists and accountants who took off their rosy glasses to see things in the glaring light of the risks involved in wildly speculative investing were to be ignored because they weren’t positive thinkers, just defeatists.
“We’ve gone so far down this yellow brick road that ‘positive’ seems to us not only normal but normative,” she says in “Postscript on Post-Positive Thinking,” her final chapter. “A restaurant not far from where I live calls itself the ‘Positive Pizza and Pasta place,’ apparently distinguishing itself from the many sullen and negative Italian dining options.”
Ehrenreich says that “alternative to positive thinking is not, however, despair” because “negative thinking can be just as delusional” but that “a vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible.” In the end, she thinks that rationality should rule the day, that science and medicine should be separate from the hokum of thinking positively.
This latest polemic from one of America’s leading populists is at times poignant or pithy but always eminently readable.
Patrick J. Salem is an MFA candidate in Fiction Writing at Columbia College. He lives with his wife and son in suburban Chicago.Posted on December 3, 2009 at 3:25 PM