Barbara Ehrenreich about ‘positive thinking’

This video is about a British TV discussion about cancer and ‘positive thinking’.

By James Walsh in Britain:

Smile Or Die
by Barbara Ehrenreich (Hawthorn, £15)

Tuesday 02 February 2010

In simpler times, it was a hobby of mine to wander into the self-help section of the local bookshop, gape at the extraordinary titles and observe the customers browsing. Most of them wore the furtive look usually associated with the purchaser of pornographic magazines.

Judging by Ehrenreich‘s Smile Or Die, willingly subjecting oneself to the cult of positive thinking is a shameful act indeed.

The author of the excellent Nickel and Dimed, an expose of low-pay USA, Ehrenreich‘s first encounter with the baseless optimism industry came when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Her bemused navigation of a world of pink ribbons and teddy bears, websites full of inspirational quotes and books with titles such as The Gift Of Cancer: A Call To Awakening is crisply told and her destruction of the myth of the health benefits of positive thinking is absolute.

Armed with an incisive mind and a gift for a wry turn of phrase, Ehrenreich uses this as a jumping-off point into an entire industry of bullshit – one that exhorts you “to see the glass half-full, even when it lies shattered on the floor.”

She charts positive thinking’s rise from its 19th century roots as a reaction to the bleak self-examination of Calvinism and traces its roots back to one Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. He was a failed mesmerist-turned-healer who told his patients that the universe was on their side and that “they could leverage their own powers of mind to cure or ‘correct’ their ills.”

Ehrenreich then returns to the present-day US where everything can be fixed by not really thinking about all the things that could go wrong and gurus recommend a reprogramming of the mind to ensure that no destructive dark thoughts can ruin one’s chances of success.

In the motivation business incentives and team-building exercises are used to distract salespeople from noticing they have few actual rights. In the most extreme case a company in Utah waterboarded an employee as part of a motivational exercise.

‘”You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there,” the supervisor reportedly told the sales team. “I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales.”

Ehrenreich describes a country that has lost its critical faculties, where top management executives go on shamanic healing journeys and believe in the market as a mystical force that will take care of itself – until the economy collapses.

A helpful God is portrayed as a personal assistant in megachurches shaped and planned like corporate headquarters with the unbiblical suggestion that “God wants you to be rich” hanging in the air.

Wholly unimpressed with this genie-in-a-bottle deity, Ehrenreich concludes that “positive theology ratifies and completes a world without beauty, transcendence or mercy.” If you get ill or poor, it’s your own fault for not trying hard enough to think yourself to health and success.

Much of this ground has already been expertly covered by Francis Wheen‘s post-Enlightenment rant How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World.

Yet Ehrenreich’s book is a concise and eminently readable debunking of a dangerous movement.

She ends with a call for “vigilant realism” and a return to ideas of collective responsibility – in essence, a wholesale rejection of Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

See also here. And here.

Hearing Held in Breast Cancer Gene Patent Lawsuit: here.

In Pink Ribbons Inc., breast cancer patients and patient advocates say that large nonprofits like the Susan B. Komen For The Cure Foundation, fritter away funds on spectacular events that don’t contribute to finding cures: here.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing In The Streets: here.

3 thoughts on “Barbara Ehrenreich about ‘positive thinking’

  1. ‘Praying parents’ guilty over death

    United States: A couple has been found guilty of criminally negligent homicide for praying over their dying son instead of seeking medical help.

    Prosecutors said that Jeff and Marci Beagley, both members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, had a duty as parents to provide medical care for their 16-year-old son Neil, who died in June 2008 from a urinary tract blockage.

    State authorities have found that a disproportionate number of children whose families belonged to the Followers of Christ had died at an early age.


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