Sympathetic magic – Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die

Sympathetic Magic

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World
Barbara Ehrenreich, London: Granta, 256 pp., £10.99

Endorsements by Christopher Hitchens and Nora Ephron do not inspire confidence in Smile or Die. Nor does Barbara Ehrenreich’s website, with its list of soporific- sounding previous publications, which includes Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad and Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. Her enumerated interests also threaten tedium—healthcare, peace, women’s rights, and economic justice. But despite these contraindications, and despite the fact that the author fires wide of the most obvious target, Smile or Die contrives to be both worthwhile and original.

America is regarded, and regards herself, as a “can-do” country where almost anything is achievable, and everyone can aspire to “the American dream.” As Ehrenreich states,

In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent.

Like all stereotypes, this one contains a degree of truth. In all kinds of ways, from rapturous religiosity and utopian philosophies to cheerleading and effusive customer service, there are smiley-face stigmata across all of American life. Europeans do tend to be less demonstrative, less likely to  have religious faith, less patriotic, and less likely to affect interest in the clients we secretly despise. For some of us at least, enthusiasm retains its older connotations.

The Founding Fathers were acutely conscious of history, and their republican idealism was tempered by cultural memories of the fate of Rome and of more recent European discontents. But as the 19th century galloped headlong toward the “American Century,” social mobility, economic growth, and the sense of possibility offered by the frontier persuaded Americans that, if they worked hard enough, they could achieve virtually anything. Territorial acquisitions, waxing military might typified by Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” and a rejection of dour Calvinism made many Americans believe in manifest destiny— and there seemed no obvious reason why America should not continue climbing the upward way.

From out of individualistic prosperity came new theories of psychology and personality, and “New Thought” cults like Transcendentalism and Christian Science, that insisted on self-esteem and offered opportunities for self-improvement. In parts of Europe there were comparable phenomena, but they were always counterbalanced by conservatism and the sheer fact of living in geographically and culturally constrained territories.

A belief became slowly predominant in American business, medicine, and religion (and politics, of which more later) that “optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience.” There is a complementary superstition that negativity—which Mary Baker Eddy dubbed “malicious animal magnetism”— has a countervailing effect. One “New Age physicist” cited in the book believes that “the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived.”

Ehrenreich also cites the charming recommendation given by a best-selling “self- help” screed, Secrets of the Millionaire Mind:

Identify a situation or a person who is a downer in your life. Remove yourself from that situation or association. If it’s family, choose to be around them [sic] less.

Ehrenreich first developed an interest in positive thinking through the discovery that she had breast cancer. By this misfortune, she had fortuitously located

an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.

She was surprised, and offended, to keep coming across the same advice: be positive. It was almost as if having the right attitude were as important as having the right medical treatment. As a woman of intelligence and taste (not to mention considerable medical knowledge), she felt profoundly insulted to be offered psychic pabulum—bromides, exhortations, and a “breast cancer teddy bear.”

I didn’t mind dying, but the idea that I should do so while clutching a teddy and with a sweet little smile on my face—no amount of philosophy had prepared me for that.

She shakes her head in sympathetic wonderment at sufferers like cyclist Lance Armstrong, who declared, “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.” False cheerfulness in the face of illness is, the author feels, more beneficial for family members than for the sufferers, who must conceal their natural anger and fear and make the considerable effort of maintaining the requisite inanely cheerful façade. Positive thinking is hard work at the best of times, requiring continual self- evaluation and causing guilt when it fails to effect change (in these respects, a little like the Calvinism it rose to oppose). When their condition deteriorates, some cancer sufferers will blame themselves for having “a negative attitude.” Far from being an aid to healing, for some patients it may be an effort too far at a time when they need all their resources and faculties.

Positive thinking has also been transmuted into the “prosperity gospel,” preached by “pastorpreneurs” in mega-churches empty of all discomfiting reminders of sin, sacrifice (most lack even crosses), or Hell. The author quotes a televangelist, Joyce Meyer:

I believe that more than any other thing, our attitude is what determines the kind of life we are going to have.

Economics has always been as much a delusional science as a dismal one. From the South Sea Bubble and “tulipomania” in the 18th century all the way to today’s pyramid salesmen and bankers, there has always been a substantial minority of otherwise sensible people willing to suspend disbelief when presented with a sufficiently plausible get-rich-quick scheme. Thousands of charlatans cater to our avarice and naiveté, making millions by telling others that they can make millions by pinning up pictures of dollar bills and chanting repulsive mantras like the one Ehrenreich mentions:

I admire rich people!

I bless rich people!

I love rich people!

And I’m going to be one of those rich people too!

As the author points out, this is little more than primitive ‘sympathetic magic’, a species of fetishism that would not be out of place amongst Papuans. There is a strong conceptual connection between this private foolishness and the public foolishness that made supposedly shrewd economists believe, pre-2008, that the boom would never go “boom!”

Many large corporations have embraced positive thinking, realizing it encourages dedication to the creation of wealth, causing employees to think of themselves as sales representatives, even if they are not. In one nasty case recorded by the author, an employee was actually subjected to waterboarding pour encourager les autres. He was taken outside, ordered to lie on his back with his head pointing downhill, and held in place while the supervisor poured water into his nose and mouth. Afterwards, the supervisor said,

You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales!

For middle-class employees, positive thinking has increasingly become “a substitute for former affluence and security,” with counseling, motivation and “team- building” exercises used to cover up modern corporations’ lack of commitment to quality, customers, or communities.

Ehrenreich makes a promising start when she brings the discussion around to politics. She shows how the Pollyannaish neoconservative projects in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused by geopolitical ignorance and wishful thinking combined with sycophancy, and cites Condoleezza Rice’s remark about George W. Bush:

[T]he President almost demanded optimism. He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.

When it came to Iraq, the “reality-based community” was (and is) sidelined. Brilliantly skewered—but then her argument goes badly adrift. Although she acknowledges that positive thinking can raise its hideous head anywhere, “[e]ven on the liberal news site the Huffington Post,” she makes the cardinal mistake of assuming that positive thinking is a right-of-center phenomenon:

The real conservatism of positive psychology lies in its attachment to the status quo, with all its inequalities and abuses of power

In fact, positive thinking runs directly counter to genuine conservatism. From Plato to The Anatomy of Melancholy, from Baltasar Gracián (who sought the “dis-illusionment” of men) to Samuel Johnson (“most schemes of political improvement are laughable things”) and Ronald Reagan (“Trust, but verify”), down to John Derbyshire’s recently published We’re All Doomed, genuine conservatives have always been profoundly pessimistic, sol- idly skeptical, and acutely aware of human limitations. In fact, they often err so far in this direction that their pessimism becomes a vice, producing an “uncertain trumpet” that few people are inspired to follow.

The real self-delusionists are Ehrenreich’s ever-gullible allies on the political left, whose views are based on the most flagrant ignorance of human nature and rejection of reality. It is the left, not the right, that is responsible for egalitarianism, socialism, welfarism, “anti-sexism,” tolerance of crime, mass immigration, multiculturalism, and so-called ethical foreign policies. Historically speaking, it is only in the last ten minutes or so that some on the right have moved into this barren territory.

This myopia on the part of its author turns what might otherwise have been a forensic classic like Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds or The Revolt of the Masses into something very much blander. Smile or Die is a partial analysis of a noteworthy phenomenon.

This review appeared in Chronicles in August 2010, and is reproduced with kind permission

 

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