The Tyranny of Positivity

My friend’s childhood friend recently passed away after a painful bout with cancer. She was abandoned by her boyfriend because she was ‘too negative’ about her illness. A mutual friend of my friend’s also blamed the ailing woman for being too negative. If she couldn’t be positive about her disease, then she must in part have been responsible for her own decline. Or so the thinking goes.

If there is anything unique about this story, it is the nationality of the cast: they are Italian. In the United States, this is the norm. People who suffer from debilitating diseases are not only expected to endure the pain but also to put on a brave face. If they don’t, then friends can abandon them with a clear conscience. They just aren’t being positive, and hence are the architects of their own decline.

Positivity became the reigning attitudinal orthodoxy around the time of the ‘Reagan Revolution’, but it has its roots farther back in Calvinist theology. God rewards piety and hard work with success; failure, perforce, is evidence of sloth. Sidney Blumenthal once ironically summed up the mindset as ‘God takes most pleasure in people who are most pleased’. Reagan turned positivity into the central tenet of American civic religion. This also freed the New Right from the responsibility of caring for the destitute and vulnerable: if they aren’t doing well the fault must necessarily lie with them. It has come to a point, notes Barbara Ehrenreich in this excellent interview on Media Matters, that even people who lose their jobs are expected to be positive about it. Since a negative attitude will merely prove that their dismissal was justified.

As for illness, Tony Judt ends a recent essay about the torment of enduring nights while suffering from ALS thus: ‘Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.’

Media Matter with Bob McChesney

Greetings, welcome to Media Matters. I’m your host, Bob Machesney here on WILL 580 in beautiful downtown Urbana, Illinois. We’re coming to you live today. It’s my great pleasure to have joining us Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of the bran new book Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, just published by Metropolitan Books out of New York. Barbara Ehrenreich needs no introduction to our listeners. She’s been on the show many times, usually accompanying one of her new books, and it’s a real pleasure to welcome her to our show again today.

EHRENREICH: Good to be back with you again, Bob.

MCCHESNEY: SO the first question, obviously, is why this book? Why did you decide to write a book on positive thinking being a negative?

EHRENREICH: I know. Doesn’t it sound Grinch-like? A vicious attack on positive thinking?

I guess the idea, or even an awareness of positive thinking as an ideology started for me eight years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer. I was kind of horrified by the expectation that you’re supposed to be really cheerful and positive about the cancer, even to the point of accepting, even as a gift, something that would make you more spiritual or more involved or something. It seemed to go along with, or even the dogma, I should say, almost, that you would not get better unless you talked positively. Which I didn’t. I felt outraged, I think for reasonable reasons – not just personal “Why me?” kinds of reasons, but “How come this huge epidemic, and we don’t know what causes it?”

Also, why are the treatments so barbaric, in particular, chemotherapy, which is a real sledge hammer approach.  It is very toxic, very debilitating. So I was angry, and I kind of put that aside until I rant into the positive thinking ideology, which by now I was sort of tuned in to.

In other cases of other kinds of misfortunes, like economic hardship, layoffs, people are often told “Hey! This isn’t a bad thing. It’s an opportunity.” And you’re never going to get another job unless you’re grinning like a fool all the time, and ready to accept anything employers will hand out.

MCCHESNEY: And this recalls your book Bait and Switch, which I had you on to talk about a couple of years ago, where you go through all of these management gurus giving pep talks to people who are out of work.

EHRENREICH: Yeah. Somewhere along the way, a connection was formed, and I realized it was the same sort of thing – take someone going through a very bad patch, and tell them that it’s really fine, that in fact, whatever happens to them, it’s really only their attitude that matters, and they’ll only get out of it by putting on a smiley face and going with the program. And I began to understand this as very widespread pervasive form of, dare I say, political pacification.

MCCHESNEY: The book is detailed and rich and goes into a lot of different approaches and levels on the subject. I want to talk about it for the full hour. You end the book with the point you were just talking about, and I want to go through the entire book. There’s a lot of stuff in it. I think it is worth pointing out there are real consequences – not just for individual’s unhappiness and sense of well-being in the world, but for the whole society with this positive thinking bright-sidedness that you chronicle in the book, and for the economy. Talk if you would just a little bit about the role this upbeat, cheerful, optimistic positive thinking plays in contemporary capitalism and the current dilemma we face economically in this country.

EHRENREICH: When the financial meltdown of ’08 happened, I was well into working on this book,, and writing it already. And then it took my breath away. Here was the day nouveau – that everybody in corporate America had managed to whip themselves up into a frenzy of positive thinking. And this had been going on for some time within corporate America, which is something else we might want to talk about.

To the extent where anybody who raised doubts, or raised questions, would be labeled as being “negative” and silenced, or, fired for that reason. Nobody was really listening to people, the few people, who would say things like “I think our subprime exposure is too high”, or, “I think this housing boom might be a bust, a bubble.” Those people were silent. The corporate world, including the finance sector, was very lost in this delusion that everything was wonderful, and nothing  bad could happen.

MCCHESNEY: I wonder if that’s the reason why – and issue that isn’t even in your book – a political issue like environmental climate change, which … I don’t know if there’s any way to put a happy spin on that one …  doesn’t seem to get the traction in our news and political culture that the objective understanding of the problem would demand. It just in no way could fit into happy talk.

EHRENREICH: I raise that issue toward the end. We are collectively, as a species, not in a good situation here. We many have screwed up our habitat beyond reclaiming. There is no way to put a positive spin on that. The only possibility of survival, the only way out, is something humans have done pretty well to keep us on this planet for the hundreds of thousands of years or more that we have been here. And that is by trying to understand what the threats are, what the danger is, what the situation is, and then mobilizing and doing what we can about it. But not just living either in fear or wishful thinking.

MCCHESNEY: And also not trying to solve it through individuals doing positive vibrations, but doing actual tangible collective actions.

EHRENREICH: Well, you know, if those positive vibrations would work, I’d be all for it.

MCCHESNEY: Unfortunately, your book doesn’t seem to make that case.

EHRENREICH: No. And this is a very quintessentially American idea, that you can affect the world with your thoughts or your attitude. A modern form of it, which really dates to the nineteenth century, is something called the Law of Attraction. If it were a law of physics, that if I send out thoughts of happy things, et cetera, to the universe, then happy things will come to me. Or, more specifically, money will come to me. Or health. Or whatever. A husband. Anything you want.

That’s a really insane idea. But is has been, as one corporate guy I interviewed put it, viral within the corporate world, including at the highest levels. We can with our thoughts affect whatever happens.

MCCHESNEY: You have a great discussion in the book about that phenomenon which I thought was really interesting. There’s so much you just covered in that last sentence, historically – the evolution of the notion of positive thinking in American history from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present. And I want to get to all of it. But before we get to the more recent manifestation, because I think that in many ways that’s the most important, the corporate side, let’s do a little bit of this history. Because you point out that you just said, the notion of positive thinking, being bright-sided, is very much an American phenomenon. And yet, at the same time, you point out the irony that the founding religious credo of America was anything but bright-sided. It was as dark and gloomy as a Bergman film.

EHRENREICH: Yeah, the weight of Calvinism in early America is always striking to me when I go back to into that period. Here was a theology that said we are all wretched sinners. We are mostly likely, the overwhelming majority of cases, doomed to eternal tormenting hell.

That gets you down. There was an epidemic – they didn’t call it that in the time, in the nineteenth century – of depression and lots of vague physical symptoms that went along with it, that I argue were very clearly related to the acceptance of this doctrine. Well, I don’t just argue it – others could see it too – they called it “religious melancholy”.

I have a certain respect for the guy [George Miller Beard] who began the positive thinking movement. He was a very interesting fellow, not formally educated, a clock repairman in Portland, Maine. He must have been very brilliant. He invented things and he, on the side, was also a metaphysician who wrote tons of unreadable stuff about these metaphysical issues which are pretty openly an attack on Calvinism. And then he became a lay healer, dealing with people who suffered from this melancholy and neurasthenia disorders associated with religious depression. He was very successful as a healer for that particular kind of illness, because he could say to people “It’s not that bad. God doesn’t hate you. Change your view. Think of yourself as a health person. Get up, get moving.”

Unfortunately, that approach did not work with diseases like yellow fever or whooping cough or anything like that, but it did work for this middle class kind of neurasthenia. He was tremendously influential. Mary Baker Eddy was one of his patients. Another one his patients went on to become a healer for William James, who is often called the first American psychologist.

MCCHESNEY: For some of our listeners, you might explain who Mary Baker Eddy was.

EHRENREICH: Oh, Mary Baker Eddy, she was the founder of Christian Science – a woman who started her own religion somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century.

MCCHESNEY: And so, as you put it fairly eloquently in the book, this sort of positive thinking is anti-Calvinism and is sort of the necessary response to Calvinism. They really are the yin and yang.

EHRENREICH: Yeah. It’s a nice intriguing kind of dialectic because Calvinism also, in creating this disorder, depression and psychosomatic kind of complex that people would get, it was handing to people like the main watch corporate [illegible] a tool against Calvinism. Calvinism was making people sick, and sick in a way that people then called the new thought healers, what we now call positive thinking healers, could actually cure.

MCCHESNEY: And it does lead to this whole strain of sort of P.T. Barnamesque motivational – I hesitate to say con artist – that wouldn’t be necessarily a correct term – but magical thinkers, self-promoters, motivational speakers in the American tradition from that era up to the recent path: Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale play pretty significant roles in your book. So there’s a strain of this  that predates the current period. But it hans’t changed a lot in the current period. Where does Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent Peale fit into the current scene of positive thinking?

EHRENREICH: Norman Vincent Peale is the more influential of the two, and he derived his ideas , as he himself said, from new thought thinkers, the vestiges of new thought thinkers from the nineteenth century that came into the twentieth century. He combined it with Christianity. He was a minister in, actually, the Dutch Reform Church, which is strange because that was once a very Calvinist denomination. But anyway, he fused this new thought together wit a kind of veneer of Christianity. He had a huge appeal to, as far as I can make out because it is hard to know who bought all the books or subscribed to his magazine and things, to two kinds of people. One was salesmen, and I say salesmen because in the 1950’s they were much more likely to be men. The other was homemakers.

MCCHESNEY: My father was a salesman in the 50’s, and I recall growing up that he was sort of immersed in this sort of literature.

EHRENREICH: Well, oh, yeah – it’s hard to be a salesman. I cannot imagine how one would do it, you know, to be rejected, and then to have to pick yourself up immediately and be just as enthusiastic for the next potential customer. And so that was an important market. Norman Vincent Peale was extremely popular at sales conferences that companies would hold. He could pump people up, he cold say look, it’s really easy, you just have to think what you want and it will happen. He had that kind of message.

MCCHESNEY: One thing that occurred to me as you were describing the change in the sort of immersion in the bright side of positive thinking – you make the point, accurately, positive thinking is not optional, really, to survive in our sort of culture, our economy. It’s sort of built into the system. If you’re not a positive person, something is wrong with you and you are sort of castigated for it. You talk about those bumper stickers or posters and wall hanging that have “whining” with the cancel sign through it. I recall a secretary at a place I once worked. She had a pretty awful job, as I remember, and she had one of those signs, and was very bright. And I was wondering, fifty years ago if we were to go to an office in the United States, or a workplace, would there have been less of that cheerfulness? How much did this really change, or is this just the way it’s been for along time?

EHRENREICH: It really grew from the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s enormously. And the reason for that is that corporations themselves were increasingly purchasing the means to become a positive thinker – that means, motivational speakers to come in and address  the workers at meetings, the inspirational posters and other products, sending executives off on motivational weekends, sometimes in expensive, exotic place with people like Tony Robbins. Corporations became addicted to this. They became major consumers of it, and so the business of motivation, or making people feel more positive, took off too with that kind of influx of money.

MCCHESNEY: I must say that in the book I think the discussion of this kind of corporation and the role of motivational speaking and bright-sidedness and positive thinking, in the corporation – it is some of the best writing in the book that I read on the subject by far. As you point out in the book, back in the 50’s and 60’s it was the sales fleet that had to be motivated and bright and cheer all the time. But the cool managers and executives  were probably laughing at this sort of stuff. They certainly wouldn’t think it applied to them. But all of that really started to change in the eighties, didn’t it?

EHRENREICH: Well there is a book that was very helpful to me here, and a person, Rakesh Khurana, who is a professor at Harvard Business School, and he has made the case for what I would call a real revolt against rationality that took place in corporate America from the 80’s on. There’s always been this pretense or idea in the past that management is a very rational undertaking, that you have to do a lot of analysis, and there are numbers involved and so forth, as Khurana argues, this began to be replaced by an idea that no, the main thing about being a high-level corporate manager, especially a CEO, is to be sort of mystically inspired in ways that inspire other people. They get the management gurus in the 90;s no longer talking about things like decision-making, but things about instant, quick judgments, that only have other people who have this fabulous gift of positive thinking and insight and so forth. The executives on their retreats were no longer going to put their heads together and talk about market share. They were going to maybe experience a sweat lodge or a vision quest or hang out with somebody who had been inspired by Native American or Eastern religions.

MCCHESNEY: Barbara, I’m laughing because I marked in your book this one passage you have from a business self-help book from 1996 – I just want to read the sentence, because it gets to the point you’re making. This is one of those books that executives and people in business were buying up ten years ago. And the quite is:

Corporations are full of mystics. If you want to find a genuine mystic, you are more likely to find one in a board room than in a monastery or a cathedral.”

My wife said “Why are you laughing so hard?”

EHRENREICH: I found that book, The Corporate Mystic, in some kind of use book sale for a charitable endeavor, and there it was, made very clear.

MCCHESNEY: Well you made the very serious point in the book that this is actually the understandable reaction to the changes in the nature of the corporation in the United States during this era of financialization starting in the eighties.

EHRENREICH: Yeah, well their perception was, even before the Internet changed so many things, that things were happening so fast with globalization and the mergers and acquisitions that you never knew what was going to happen, and that you couldn’t plan anymore. You really couldn’t think rationally.  That was the idea.

And of course, then with the Internet you had a non-tangible product with all the dotcoms and everything, and then with the rise of the finance sector, as opposed to the industrial sector, there was nothing very concrete anymore. Is that making sense?

MCCHESNEY: Yeah, and plus there’s also this whole point of the stability of the manager’s position, sort of a career  job where if you did your job and you were good you got promoted and you stayed till you were 65 and then you retired and went to a nice retirement home or a retirement place. That all ended, really, starting in the eighties, with downsizing mania.

EHRENREICH: Oh, right. That’s the key thing that changed, as far as I could see, is that downsizing becomes almost faddish – I don’t know if that is fair to say – in the 1980’s, and accelerates, well before this recession. It’s just a regular thing that corporations are doing. They can boost their stock price if they can say that they are eliminating so many people – blue or white collar people. It ceased to matter which one. You just had to cut those labor expenses.

And so that posed a big management problem. If, before, the reward for doing a good job was that you would be promoted, that you would stay and get to that gold watch stage, you can no longer promise that any more. So how do you manage insecurity and fear? Well, positive thinking was the method. It is so closely associated – I quoted somebody in the book who said that when you saw the inspirational posters going upon the wall you knew the next round of layoffs was coming around.

Positive thinking does two things. One, it was quell any dissent on the part of people being eliminated. You know – you shouldn’t be unhappy about this. This is only a transition. It’s an opportunity. Secondly, you could squeeze out more and more work from the survivors from the layoffs.

MCCHESNEY: And the manifestation today of this, and you have a long chapter on this in the book and I really enjoyed it, is this whole notion of magical thinking, the power of mind over matter, which sort of culminates everything into this recent period. It is bogging as I read this, but it is also astonishing how widespread it is. One of the key phenomena was a book called “The Secret”. I confess, to show how out of touch I am with our culture, I missed The Secret. It’s still secret to me. Probably still secret to some of our listeners. What is the secret, and what are the claims here?

EHRENREICH: The Secret is a book that was released in, I think, 2006, by an Australian woman named Rhonda Byrne. It’s not actually a book that she wrote so much as it is a compilation of the wisdom of about a hundred motivational speakers and life coaches. The gist of what they all have to say is that you can have whatever you want by thinking about it. You send vibrations out into the universe, and they bring it to you. So she’ll describe in her book or DVD, I don’t remember which exactly, the woman who covets a necklace in a jewelry store window, so she concentrates on it until she manifests it – that is, it becomes hers.

I would probably call that robbery, but that is the idea right there – that your thoughts go into the universe, the universe is a “big mail order department”, which exists to do your bidding. So you send it the orders of what you want, and she has so many examples – people who need money, who want a boyfriend, whatever. And they send out the vibrations, and they what they wanted.

MCCHESNEY: There was a news item about someone back in the 70’s when I was in college who got involved in some sort of group that dressed itself up in the Eastern religion. I can’t believe any credible Eastern religion would hold this, or any credible anything. But it was basically if you chanted this Eastern chant over and over again you would get whatever you wanted. I forget what the chant was, but it was the name of the group. It was very simple. They probably have a website now with .com after the chant. It was like ying …

EHRENREICH: Bob – how could you forget such a thing?


EHRENREICH: It would be really important.

MCCHESNEY: I should be chanting it, I guess. Yingi-hingi – it was something yingi-hingi ho. And I had an acquaintance who signed up with this group. He was really enthralled. He was working at McDonalds. And so he came out during his break at McDonalds to explain how great it was to me, and he said “You just chant with us over and over and you get whatever you want.”

And I said “What happens if you chant to get a raise, and Ray Kroc, then the owner of McDonalds, chants to lower your pay. Whose chant wins?” And I think he was stumped by that one.

EHRENREICH: Well, one thing you have to grasp about this world o magical thinking we’re talking about here is that it is so individualistic. The thought of another person, another conscious desiring person does not enter into it.

MCCHESNEY: So there’s no resource conflicts.

EHRENREICH: Obviously, if I wanted that same necklace that that other woman wanted in the window, and there was only one of them, there would be a conflict. But it never enters anybody’s mind.

MCCHESNEY: Another thing that I thought was an interesting discussion was the effort to envelope magical thinking in the secret of some of these more recent proponents of magical thinking and the power of mind over matter in quantum physics. It seems to be widespread. Is the reason for that that they figure that no one understands what quantum physics is, so they can get away with that?

EHRENREICH: I’d like to look into the whole thing more. First they tried magnetism, I should say .. ..there must be a magnetic force issue .. that your thoughts exert that brings you the exact stuff you want. You know – it doesn’t work too well. Heads are not attracted to refrigerators and so forth. They’re not a problem there. So quantum physics, I discovered, has filled the gap. I think it isn’t well understood at all. I can only say … my academic encounters with it were slight. As an informed lay person …

MCCHESNEY: You have a PhD in biology, right?

EHRENREICH: Yeah. And an undergraduate degree in chemistry and physics, so I certainly had run-ins with quantum chemistry and quantum physics. And because it’s hard to understand and because it says that things are very, very different at the level of subatomic particles, many people, wishfully thinking, have taken that as license to say “Well, all science is wrong”, because science is deterministic and looks for causes and effects and so on. And they don’t work that way – they work more or less by magic. That’s about as well as I can explain it to you. It does drive me crazy when I hear somebody who – you know they’ll mix up some of these gurus and motivational speaker and they’ll bring in elements of quantum physics with what they think of as Eastern religion, with what they think of as the Kabbalah, and masonry – anything. They’ll just mix ancient Egyptian wisdom and they’ll just put all this stuff in a big cauldron and say “ah … anything can happen ha ha ha.”

MCCHESNEY: Well I must say in the book, and your chapters – I mean, I’m laughing now and I was laughing as I read it – it’s not entirely phony, but it’s hard to miss the humor. But the moments when you’re at these meetings and you, to research the book you went to a number of group conferences and interviewed a lot of folks involved in these movements, where you confront them with logical fallacies and evidentiary flaws – their responses are invariably hilarious as they try to grapple …

EHRENREICH: The most actually upsetting case of that, I was at the annual conference of motivational speakers – the National Speakers Association, which is pretty fascinating. You hear one motivational speaker after another. And at some point I got in a conversation with another woman there who was a life coach.

MCCHESNEY: Another great term, I might add.

EHRENREICH: yeah. A very, very, actually, successful  looking, and I said you know this quantum physics stuff really bothers me, and she didn’t quite get it and I – without being really didactic – said it had nothing to do with physics. And then she looked at me in a very therapeutic consoling way and said “You mean it doesn’t work for you.” Aarrgh! Science is not about what works for me!

MCCHESNEY: Another institution that comes into play in your book, and plays a fairly prominent role, are the mega churches.  I thought this was also very interesting, the way religion in this era has adapted to the whole positive thinking mindset. I’d like to talk with you about that a little bit, particularly this guy Joel Osteen, who has an NBA arena church, apparently.

EHRENREICH: Right. I was a little bit behind the times. I was still thinking when I started this book that the new right, the Christian right, was the major new thing going on in the evangelical Christian churches. But no. It has really been significantly overshadowed by positive thinking. The reason the mega churches are so mega is that there these entrepreneurial pastors – they call them “pastorpreneurs” – who started thinking at different points, some in the 1970’s, much of it more recently than that, how do we grow our church? How do we make it more user friendly? Of course, they would say “seeker” friendly, a seeker being someone who is not – who was never in the congregation. And this led to a lot of changes – more comfortable seats, for example, You’ll find in most mega churches not hard pews, but theatre-type seats. More special effects and music, flashing lights and – I actually hate it – Christian rock, in sort of soft-rock interludes. But also in this throwing out anything about Christianity that is challenging or disturbing. And  if you think about it, a lot of Christianity is disturbing. So for example in most mega churches, like Joel Osteen’s, in Houston, Texas, you will find no crosses on the wall – no crucifixes, no images of Jesus, except in the gift shop. There you can buy those things. But they’re not all around, and you know why? Hey – you know, that’s a bummer. A guy being tortured on a cross? So that all goes. All references to sin and damnation and redemption go. And the message is that you can overcome, God wants to prosper you, God wants you to have nice stuff. It’s really sort of a matter of enlisting God to help you get the things you are due. Very – feel good. Makes sense. For most  people, Sunday is one of the few times when they are not going to be either working or doing chores or housework or something. And why subject yourself to being harangued by somebody who’s going to tell you that you are a horrible sinner?

MCCHESNEY: Last week I had as my guest the author Max Blumenthal, who has the book Republican Gomorrah, and part of his book is going into the evangelical organized political right. And there was one figure who showed up in his book that also showed up in your discussion of the mega churches, who’s probably the most prominent of these preachers because of his involvement with the presidential campaign last year, Rick Warren. He’s an interesting piece of work. Talk a little bit about Rick Warren and how he fits into the bright-sided world of positive thinking.

EHRENREICH: Rick Warren has clearly rejected the so-called prosperity gospel of people like Creflo Dollar and George Myer, another televangelist, and I think Joel Osteen falls into the prosperity gospel side too. Rick Warren says no, that’s cheap, God doesn’t want to make you rich. That’s a misreading, etc. But you will not – again – all the agony has been taken out of Christianity. It is about personal growth and things getting better and so forth.

One of the things that fascinated me about Rick Warren is that he is such a good example of the mentality of these mega church pastors in thinking of himself as a CEO. Rick Warren hangs out with CEO’s. I quote Malcolm Gladwell quoting him having just had dinner with Jack Welch or something. They think of themselves as being on the same level in the same kind of undertaking trying to grow their enterprises.

MCCHESNEY: Well in fact, I remember that quote. It’s striking. Basically, Rick Warren is telling Jack Welch, the former GE CEO – or Jack Welch is telling Rick Warren, that Rick Warren, the only other person who ahs your pan-world view is Rupert Murdoch. And Rick Warren then says well of course, we’re friends. I’m his pastor and he published my book. They’re in the same club.

EHRENREICH: Yep. Yeah, you’re right. I forgot.

MCCHESNEY: You’re entitled to forget it. I read it probably more recently that you. It is of a piece, though, that the entire culture is turning, is the argument that you are making in the book – that there’s really no institution that’s immune from this positive thinking, this bright-sidedness. You talk about the actual field of psychology too. This is an area now that is under assault for not being positive enough.

EHRENREICH: Well, a movement sprang up within the psychology profession, usually dated from 1998, called Positive Psychology, and the original intention seemed to be entirely good, which is to say that psychology should study not just neurosis and suffering, but also the happier frames of mind, to try and understand those too. I thought that was great. I want to learn all about that. But it seemed in a creepy way to overlap way too much with the corporate business of motivation and coaching. The positive psychologists provide a kind of scientific legitimation or a veneer of scientific legitimation for the run-of-the-mill hucksters preaching positive thinking.

MCCHESNEY: I read the book and you’ve mentioned it already once in the show, it’s in the book a little bit, but it strikes me that political conservatives – maybe it’s true of all politicians, actually, Democrat or Republican, but the two most successful electorally politically conservatives of the last thirty years have been Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush – and they both broke the mold of the traditional conservatives because they were these positive thinking optimistic compassionate, regular have-a-beer-with friendly guys who talked about how much better things would get. And conservatives have traditionally seemed to be these dour balance-the-books and buck up with it type guys. I was wondering, is there a connection there? This is how  … in politics now everything has to be wrapped up in positive thought to be successful.

EHRENREICH: Oh yeah. I think it would be just as easy for an overt pessimist to win the presidency as for an atheist. There’s just no way.

MCCHESNEY: You remember the Jimmy Carter “malaise” speech that was considered the equivalent exposing him elf on national television.

EHRENREICH: He didn’t even say the word “malaise” either.

N: But in retrospect, it was actually, what everyone might think about Jimmy Carter, a rather profound speech.

EHRENREICH: You can’t have that. Americans were getting this stuff from the work place, they were getting it at your church, you might want your political leaders to be nothing but inspirational and feel-good stuff too.

Caller: Just a few comments, I’ll try to make it brief. That tent you’re talking about, I think called [illegible] came out of the [illegible] Japanese crew founded the fifteenth century or so, partly as a reaction to the so-called corruption of Zen monasteries. But has she mentioned Napoleon Hill at all? And this whole idea of positive thinking  – it’s been floating around for so long and there’s a book from years ago called The Seduction of Christianity which touched on all of this. And to some extent I hope it’s limited to the protestant – it kind of appears to be, it hasn’t crept in, I hope, so much into Catholicism, and I guess there are other callers and it’s late. I’ll just hang up.

MCCHESNEY: So Barbara, Napoleon Hill …

EHRENREICH: Napoleon hill was very big in the Depression, actually, with a book called Think and Grow Rich.

MCCHESNEY: yeah – and it’s in the book. It’s one of the more interesting parts of the book.

EHRENREICH: Yeah – you attract money to yourself by thinking. But the other part of that – Catholicism – yes, I so far know of no inroads into Catholicism. Catholicism is somewhat resistant because Catholicism has always validated human suffering; even that suffering is a way to achieve grace. That is antithetical to the positive thinking outlook.

I do want wonder what’s going on with a lot of forms of Buddhism today, though. I don’t know enough about this, but I’m beginning to sense that to a lot of Buddhist people Buddhism just means “being happy” or positive thinking.

Caller: I saw a TV commercial last week for a woman who was saying “I will not let Krohn’s Disease control me”. Now that is crazy, because the disease is going to do whatever it is going to do, whatever she thinks. There’s certain things she can do to help herself, but she can’t control the disease.

EHRENREICH: A good point. I don’t know that much about Krohn’s Disease but it certainly is unkind and unfair to say to people suffering from cancer that you can control it with your mind if only you try hard enough. We say oh well, shouldn’t people delude themselves into thinking happy things like that? But I would have to say no, that the other side of it becomes a blamea0-the-victim thing. Oh – so you got Krohn’s Disease? You’re still suffering from it? Hey – there’s something wrong with you.

MCCHESNEY: And it also seems that in the case of flu or something – diseases that are due to environmental factors or social factors,  that if you personalize it you then aren’t going to get eth solution that might limit other people getting it or your getting it yourself.

EHRENREICH: If you’re going to run around talking about cancer as a gift to people, that kind of takes the wind out of the search for cures or causes. It’s dangerous, I think.

Caller: Just a couple of comments. Kind of go back to this cancer thing, because I remember at the beginning of the program you said that’s kind of where when you were diagnosed with cancer that’s where this whole thing started.  And I wanted to say that I had the same issue too, with dealing with hope issues and trying to find web sites and this whole thing about everybody is so positive. And it makes you feel what’s wrong with me? I’m angry; I’m upset because I have this problem. I’m thinking of one particular web site called, which had some very good information – it’s got a lot of practical information in it – but the people writing in are so nauseatingly positive, it’s like they have to apologize for having any negative thoughts. And I keep thinking it just doesn’t seem real. It’s kind of fake. How can you be this positive when you have a health issue like cancer? That’s my first comment.

And the second comment, just with everything else that you’re talking about, is that I think this whole positive thinking thing, and you guys alluded to this a little bit, really does fit into the conservative ideal because it puts the onus on the individual. If you’re not successful, it’s because you’re not being positive enough, that it’s somehow your fault. It totally fits into that whole conservative model. So I just want to get your comments on that.

EHRENREICH: I completely agree on that last point, that this is, I think I referred to it earlier as almost like a form of political pacification when you tell people who have been victimized in some way that they should be grateful for it. That’s a powerful form of social control. I want to, as a fellow breast cancer sufferer, say you hold on to your feelings, you respect your feelings. What I hated about all that positivity when I was being treated for cancer was that there seemed to be no room for me to express my personal anxiety or anger. We have to take those feelings seriously. I think that’s the biggest thing I learned from the feminist movement, for example.

Caller: Thank you. Fasicinating topic and very timely. I’m just wondering what you think about the defense mechanism. I think that a person who is working at McDonalds and wants very badly to increase salary or position is one that trying to escape the reality that they are in kind of an economic jail that they will stay in for a long time. I’m just wondering about the denial mechanism  – our mind is very powerful. Does it play a role init?

EHRENREICH: Yes, I think you’re right, I think that’s one way to see it. But I would also emphasize that sometimes it’s not even voluntary. A lot of workplaces really enforce positive thinking, or at least appearing to be a positive thinker at all times.

MCCHESNEY: That’s a great point you make throughout the book – the fact that this is no longer really an option. If you’re working most jobs in America , and you have several examples in the book, if you aren’t seen as being upbeat and positive, it can cost you your job.

EHRENREICH: Oh yeah. When you’re looking for a job, whether you’re starting from extreme poverty and temporary assistance to needy families row from having lost a middle class whtie collar job, the first thing you’re going to be told is that you’re not going to get another job unless you’re positive. Being positive counts more than your skills, your experience or your background.

MCCHESNEY: And these aren’t even necessarily jobs where you’re dealing with people selling them French fries over a counter or answering the phones. You might even not be dealing with many other people but you still gotta be upbeat and cheerful.

EHRENREICH: yeah – you’ve got to flatter the boss, you have to flatter your superiors, and make sure that nothing ever happens that disturbs them. Till the whole thing comes crashing down., of course.

MCCHESNEY: What’s next in your plans? Where are you going from here?

EHRENREICH: Recently I’ve been doing a to for reporting on the effects of the recession on people who are already struggling – blue collar people, things like that. So that continues to be a major focus.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

One thought on “The Tyranny of Positivity”

  1. Yes, Ehrenreich raises an important topic, but I wonder if she was aware of Marcuse’s _One Dimensional Man_? Marcuse traveled the same ideological space a few decades ago…

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