Thursday, November 19, 2009

Avoid the 158.1's


I finished Barbara Ehrenreich's newest Bright-Sided just today at lunch.

If your local library still uses the Dewey Decimal System, you may know that the 158.1 section is reserved for "self-help" books: how to feel better, how to increase your creativity, how to increase your self-esteem, your self-confidence, how to change the world through napping. You'll find a plethora of people from many different backgrounds telling you that with just a little work, some affirmations, some visualization and some exercises (the written kind) you will banish all negativity from your life, you will not only unblock your creative life but also live a life more creatively, you will be more successful, you will have more friends, you will be the life of the party.

I have loved the 158.1's. Whenever I felt down, I'd run to it, looking for Peter McWilliams to make me feel better and teach me how to stay that way. But it never really worked. No matter how much I worked, I either continued feeling depressed or slightly blue or bad things happened every once in a while...and the only thing that I picked up from that section of books was that I was mostly responsible. I was in error. I was out of touch. I was not accepting my bright inner flower. I felt out of love with the 158.1's.

A friend of mine who worked in a metaphysical bookstore and I would argue. We were both gay and we'd argue the politics of gay equality. His line: well, gay people don't feel loved so they don't want to go out and create the world that would give them equality. My line: fuck love! Use that anger, use those negative feelings and let's build a new world. Rip this one down and build a new one! We didn't stay friends for very long - granted that had something to do with him still being in love with me, and wishing I was a miniature version (he was 6'5") of himself.

I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone - better jobs, health care, and so forth - there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met - in my utopia, anyway - life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking. (12-3)

Though I do realize from the many arguments that I and this friend had before the breakup of our relationship, that I wasn't doing something right. I just don't know what that thing was.

But in the world of positive thinking other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm. Harsh as this dictum sounds, many ordinary people adopt it as their creed, displaying wall plaques or bumper stickers showing the word "Whining" with a cancel sign through it. There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their own. No one has the time or patience for anyone else's problems. (56)

...More and more people were employed in occupations that seemed to require positive thinking and all the work of self-improvement and maintenance that went into it. Norman Vincent Peale grasped this as well as anyone: the work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, coworkers, and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure for the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults. (96)

In the hands of employers, positive thinking has been trasformed into something its nineteenth-century proponents probably never imagined - not an exhortation to get up and get going but a means of social control in the workplace, a goad to perform at ever-higher levels...With "motivation" as the whip, positive thinking became the hallmark of the compliant employee, and as the conditions of corporate employment worsened in the age of downsizing that began in the 1980s, the hand on the whip grew heavier. (100)

[Joel] Osteen's books re easy to read, too easy - like wallowing in marshmallows. (126)

HA! I love that last quote which is specifically on the "Gospel of Prosperity" movement in the Christian religion, of which Joel Osteen AND Rick Warren are parts.

But my gay brethren and sistren, do you want to see what "positive thinking" has done for you?

The Templeton Foundation...is probably best known for its efforts to put religion on an equal intellectual footing with science. Founded by billionaire investor Sir John Templeton in 1972, the foundation gives out an annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which was designed to fill a gap left by the Novel prizes and pointedly pays more than they do...Until his death in 2008, Sir John Templeton was fond of bringing scientists and theologians together with the aim of finding common grounds in luxurious tropical resorts. (166)

But Templeton was not just another positive-thinking businessman. He was something of a political ideologue, as is, to an even greater degree, his son and, since 1995, successor at the foundation. John Templeton Jr. is a major Republican donor and activist, having helped fund a group called Let Freedom Ring, which worked to get out the evangelical vote for George Bush in 2004. In 2007, he contributed to Freedom's Watch, which paid for television commericials supporting the war in Iraq, often by conflating Iraq with al Qaeda. More recently, he supported the Romney and then the McCain campaigns for the presidency and was the second-largest individual donor to the campaign for California's Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage. [My emphasis] (167)

What I find odd about Bright-Sided is that "positive thinking" in its earliest stages started out as a reaction against Calvinism (or what we commonly called the American "Puritan" ethic). But as with a lot of things (look into the history of the Supreme Court in regards to slavery and the corporation) someone took it and ran with it, and now we have the economic mess that is the world. But the odd thing is that Calvinism focused on work - yes, you may still go to Hell, only God (literally) knows, but you exhibited or faked that you weren't be doing good works.

With "positive thinking" we didn't have to work: we could feel better, and everything we wanted, we simply had to visualize and as long as we were in the flow, we'd get it (this is both Joel Osteen's and Rick Warren's and all the CEO's philosophy). And in the process the world is falling apart. The economy is shit. And California of all places has a ban on gay marriage. It seems like it is time to get in touch with our inner Calvinist and instead of visualizing whirled peas, get out and do the work that is before us.

1 comment:

Kyle said...

"Use that anger, use those negative feelings and let's build a new world. Rip this one down and build a new one!"

JP, now that's what I'm talking about!