'BRIGHT-SIDED: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America'
By Barbara Ehrenreich
235 pages. Metropolitan Books. $23.
When Barbara Ehrenreich became a breast cancer patient, she found herself infuriated by the disease's upbeat, infantilizing culture of pink ribbons and teddy bears. When she found that there were patients' message boards that extolled breast cancer as a blessing, she signed on and expressed her indignation.
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Along came "a chorus of rebukes" from other patients, one of whom condescendingly addressed her as Barb. The word "barb" can be associated with Ehrenreich, but it works better to describe her favorite kind of rhetorical weapon than as a nickname.
Flinging the vituperative barb is a specialty for this writer, whose book titles include "The Snarling Citizen," "The Mean Season" and "The Worst Years of Our Lives" (as well as the snappier, better-known "Bait and Switch" and "Nickel and Dimed"). She thrives on righteous indignation, and she may seem to have found the perfect target with "Bright-Sided." Here is her chance to make a frontal assault on the institutionalized American version of good cheer and to wipe that dopey smile off the happy-face symbol that pervades American culture.
"Bright-Sided" does have a point to make. And it's a point so simple that it can be aptly summarized by the book's subtitle, "How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America."
Ehrenreich thinks the prevalence of bogus optimism has weakened America, and she is willing to shoot fish in barrels to make that case. There is no shortage of megachurch preachers, self-help gurus, business coaches and positive-thinking academics whose idiocy and avarice can be exposed by Ehrenreich's high beams.
Her argument has the makings of a tight, incisive essay. And each chapter eventually delivers a succinct reiteration of the central point. But this short book also is padded with cheap shots, easy examples, research recycled from her earlier books and caustic reportorial stalking. Ehrenreich starts out with her ideas firmly in place, then goes out hunting for crass, benighted individuals whose perniciousness helps her accentuate the negative.
There's no arguing with Ehrenreich's sense that false optimism is a form of stupidity. Nor is there reason to dispute her idea that such false optimism can be profitably exploited. But it's a little late for her to tell her readers about the decade-old mouse parable "Who Moved My Cheese?," let alone explain that corporations use that book to convince the downsized employee that losing a job is a backhanded form of good fortune. The good-cheer baloney business has long since gone on to embrace the great news that this recession can be a blessing.
"Bright-Sided" begins with Ehrenreich's highly humanizing chapter about her illness and with her legitimate scorn for "the ultrafeminine theme of the breast cancer marketplace." ("Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.")
After that it takes a downhill trajectory. The next chapter concerns the cultural validation of "magical thinking," as in the book "The Secret," which makes another barn-sized target. What is the real meaning of that book's assertion that we can attract whatever we want by wishing for it? "Bright-Sided" rightly says that the meaning is twofold: that we are encouraged to override the wishes of anyone else, and that we become failures when the process doesn't pay off.
But as part of her skewering of magical thinking, Ehrenreich digs up one motivational speaker who advises increasing business by rereading one's mailing list and "loving each name," and another who boastfully proclaims "my life is what I would consider the definition of success." She is simply too smart for this bottom-feeding, just as she is too smart to be citing the number of Google searches for "positive thinking" or to be quoting something fatuous said by Larry King. Her valuable insight about the solipsism of magical thinking and about the loneliness of a world that will grant any wish is obscured by the caliber of the evidence that supports it.