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The Pessimism Beat


Barbara Ehrenreich is an interesting writer. Though she always comes out for big government as the solution, her analysis of the problem, whatever problem, is aways intelligent and often pretty insightful. Now she has trained her sights on the interesting cultural shift we’ve seen, in our lifetimes, to a widespread American obsession with “positive thinking” as the cure for what ails you. Career going badly? Imagine things better . . . hard . . . and soon they will be. Got cancer? Don’t be negative — then you’ll die. If you smile and radiate positive energy, that will help make it go away . . . Did someone you love just die? Let’s celebrate his life! Traditional mourning is a downer. And who wants to be around that?   

Personally, I find relentless cheeriness in the face of the more serious aspects of reality kind of offensive. Positive energy is nice, of course, as are big smiles. But rational assessments of the situation — whatever situation, be it personal, political, health, or economic — will not always lead to smiles and cheers. And, indeed, serious problems are more often solved when people start acting as if they are facing a crisis than an exciting challenge — in my humble opinion, as a pessimist.

Not coincidentally, it seems to have taken a major recession to allow for cracks in the culture of eternal optimism. I suppose it would be too cheery to hope that this will turn around without additional motivation from famine, plague, extraterrestrial invasions, a total crash of the economy — or whatever.

Here is a well-written review of Ehrenreich’s new book, Bright-Sided, How the Relentless Pursuit of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. (Though the website is putatively liberal/feminist, note that the review is written by a Reason editor.) She believes that constantly being told to be positive crowds out the indignation and unhappiness that makes people take action. Of course, this has a political analogue. Few politicians dare spell out the direness of most actual situations — because voters don’t like negativity. So we get a politics of unreality. Hope and Change. Ehrenreich wants different action than I — we — do. But she’s right about the forces of idiocy. 


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