In history class, I was taught that French generals during World War I believed that their soldiers could fight their way through No Man's Land and drive the Boches out of their trenches if they had sufficient elan. When an offensive failed, as the novel and movie Paths of Glory showed, the generals blamed it on the soldiers' cowardice. A similar psychology of rationalization works on almost every level of American society, according to Barbara Ehrenreich's 2009 book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. My local library just picked up a paperback copy and it's one of the most alarming books I've read recently, a chronicle of a real-life present-day dystopia. Ehrenreich details how a bastardized version of Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalism has permeated American culture, from the enthusiasms of Christian Science to the modern-day positive thinking industry of self-help books, life coaches and cultlike seminars dedicated to keeping people motivated to function in our ruthlessly competitive society. The problem with positive thinking, Ehrenreich argues, is that it too often offers positive thinking as a substitute for practical or critical thinking. It teaches that success depends on a positive attitude. It complements the personal-responsibility ideology of the Republican party by blaming failure on personal failures of will rather than circumstances that just might be beyond individual control. It even contributed to the millennial economic bubble, Ehrenreich claims, because positive thinking discouraged caution and restraint while enabling reckless risk-taking. In its crudest form, whether spiritual or secular, positive thinking exalts mind over matter, preaching that the correct attitude can overcome all obstacles, from disease to a glutted marketplace. In its place, Ehrenreich calls for a degree of "defensive pessimism," a willingness to imagine what can go wrong at any moment, an instinctual precaution that positive-thinking indoctrination threatens to extinguish. More importantly, she insists on realism and a reliance on facts rather than faith.
The scary thing about Bright-Sided is the implication that modernity seems to require uncritical positive thinking in order to keep systems running. Ehrenreich notes that more and more Americans have become salespersons of some sort, whether they actually sell products or themselves, and have grown more dependent on the sort of motivational rhetoric that dates back to Dale Carnegie and other authors once read mainly by salesmen. The phenomenon is bigger than America or capitalism; Ehrenreich notes toward the end how the same mentality is often forced upon the subjects of Bolshevik dictatorships, where failures to meet plan quotas are blamed on intellectual sabotage and people are bombarded with optimistic propaganda. For other people, cults provide the same motivational discipline, and Bright-Sided helps us understand how cults and cultlike phenomena in the guise of business could proliferate in the last century. Does the future promise more of the same, or worse? What Ehrenreich describes seems a lot like the kind of thought control that frightens people like Glenn Beck and his counterparts on the left and off the grid. But is a positive mindset on some level necessary to accomplish the great and in some cases necessary tasks other people envision for mankind? It may be idealistic to imagine more people capable of practical critical thinking, but for many others might the only alternative to some kind of indoctrinated optimism not be some sort of paralyzing pessimism? Perhaps an appeal to duty and honor might work where optimism seems implausible or an insult to the intellect. The fact is, more people could probably stand to get motivated in their own interest, for their own sake, their nation's or the planet's. There is a kernel of truth to the self-helpers' notion that we often defeat ourselves through pessimism or fear. There should be a way to overcome those paralyzing feelings without turning people into mindless cheerleaders. Ehrenreich herself suggests emphasizing that the right thing is worth doing -- and can even be fun -- no matter what the result. I don't know how many people would buy that idea, but it has the virtue of taking us back to our liberal roots, when process mattered as much as result, and how you played the game actually mattered more, sometimes, than whether you won. Positive thinking of the debased kind denounced by Ehrenreich is arguably a product of a world where only winning matters and nothing compensates for falling short. A culture more capable of compensation or consolation while encouraging real accomplishments might prove a more positive one in the better sense of the word.