Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another Disappointment from Barbara Ehrenreich: A Review of "Bright-sided", Part I

For some unfathomable reason, I keep hoping that Barbara Ehrenreich will finally produce an insightful analysis of something. This never happens, however, and the only thing I take away from her books is a sense of disappointment. Ehrenreich's latest subject seemed so promising that I bought her book . She takes on the perennial cheerfulness, perkiness, and optimism that characterizes (to use Terry Eagleton's beautiful phrase) "the genetically upbeat Americans."

Positive thinking, says Ehrenreich, is "beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults." Ehrenreich describes the constant efforts to promote positive thinking within companies that, according to her, are now seeping into the academic world. I don't know much about the corporate world and whether the cheery mood is obligatory there. I do know, however, that Ehrenreich is completely wrong when she says that cheerfulness and positive thinking are becoming popular in academia. Academics are the whiniest bunch of people you will ever meet. We love bitching, complaining, moaning, and sighing. Recently, I have been feeling simply ecstatic about my new job, but I can see that even the people who gave me the job in question are being repelled by my enthusiasm. Everybody expects me to complain and when I don't my fellow academics seem a little disoriented.

Ehrenreich believes that human beings are nothing more than tiny little objects at the mercy of blind forces beyond our comprehension. She is a fierce materialist who believes that our circumstances are the only thing that defines our lives. She is consequently very annoyed by any worldview that believes in the possible victory of spirit over matter. In her opinion, thinking that you can achieve anything you want if you work really hard at it and want it really badly is wrong because it obscures reality. Apparently, she cannot accept that everybody's version of reality is very different and that some people might be justified in shaping their own reality.

Ehrenreich's one-dimensional materialism seems boring and overly aggressive. She insists that your happiness depends on your income, an idea that is profoundly alien to me. I accept her right to be an atheist and a materialist. I don't think that any one deserves scorn and ridicule for possessing this worldview. It would be nice to see Ehrenreich respond in kind to people who are religious and/or seek other explanations than the purely materialistic type that she promotes. I, for one, do believe that human beings have a lot more agency in the world that Ehrenreich allows for (I mean, I have a lot more agency. If Ehrenreich doesn't want this agency, then she definitely shouldn't try to exercise it.) I believe that my financial problems (mine only, I am not extrapolating this on anybody else) are caused exclusively by my profound need for them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found your blog by googling reviews of Ehrenreich's latest book, because I've only seen positive reviews so far. Like you and some your other readers, I've read Barbara Ehrenreich and have had huge problems with how she takes a noble idea but gets so mired in the agenda that grinds it to death, in the process completely alienting me as a reader.