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Our Oppressive Optimism 

Who’s to blame for the very American phenomenon of “bright-siding”?

The left is in love with false conscious­ness. Ever since Karl Marx called religion an opiate, progressives have been pulling on their muckraking boots, breaking out the bullhorns, and shouting "Wake up!" at the supposedly somnolent masses. While the paranoid right tends to see its enemies as corrupt conspirators, the left prefers to assume its opponents are merely dim bulbs, just one well-argued monograph away from enlightenment.

Barbara Ehrenreich has been shouting "Wake up!" for a while, as you might gather from an oeuvre that includes titles like For Her Own Good (about how medical experts bamboozle women), This Land Is Their Land, and Bait and Switch. Her latest book, Bright-Sided, makes the false consciousness argument at a particularly audacious level. Rather than focus on some particular tool of oppression—like religion or television—that's misled the masses into believing they're happy, Ehrenreich trains her ire on happiness itself. Bright-Sided is a sustained attack on enforced optimism and positive thinking, on the belief that speaking no evil is an effective way to ward off evil.

click to enlarge BrightSidedMagnum.jpg

Without a doubt, the self-help garbage Bright-Sided pillories is pernicious. As Ehrenreich notes, many gurus argue not only that thinking happy thoughts will make you happy, but that it'll improve your life in concrete, material ways. It's a short hop from there to the argument that thinking negative thoughts will hurt you, and from there to the belief that if something bad happens to you—like, say, getting laid off—it's your own fault for not smiling enough. At the extreme, victims get blamed for natural disasters: Ehrenreich quotes Rhonda Byrne, best-selling author of The Secret, claiming that people washed out to sea by a tsunami, for instance, are "on the same frequency as the event." In superficially more sane iterations, breast-cancer sufferers are told to stay cheerful and positive because doing so will strengthen their immune systems—even though, Ehrenreich claims, there's no solid scientific evidence that positive thinking helps the immune system. A cancer survivor herself, Ehrenreich reports that the monomaniacal insistence on cheerfulness can be a cruel burden on the ill, who should at least be allowed to be pissed off.

But enforced optimism isn't just an annoyance when you're sick. It also obstructs the liberal agenda. Positive thinking, says Ehrenreich, undermines critical thinking in government, business, and everyday life. The result is a smiling, enforced stupidity, and a country where no one is allowed to say that housing prices won't go up forever, that invading Iraq is a really bad idea, or that workers are treated like crap. Since negativity is verboten, problems don't get fixed, the powerful can't be challenged, and we all slide cheerfully into impoverished servitude.

Ehrenreich argues, in other words, that optimism is conservative, while realism is progressive.

She bolsters this assertion by tracing positive thinking back to, of all things, Calvinism. According to Ehrenreich, the modern magical belief in optimism began as a reaction to the depression and frenzied self-loathing generated by the Calvinist milieu in mid-19th-century America. Mystics like Mary Baker Eddy, sick of worrying about sin and damnation, rejected the idea of God as judge and substituted the idea of God as a perky helper who'd grant you health, wealth, and the perfect prom date if you'd just ask nicely enough. In short, bright-siding, with its demand that adherents police their brains to protect against negativity, is just the mirror twin of strict Christianity, with its demand that adherents police their souls to protect against sin. Or, as Ehrenreich puts it, "The most striking continuity between the old religion and the new positive thinking lies in their common insistence on . . . the constant internal work of self-monitoring."

Many Christians have, as Ehrenreich notes, spoken out against the unremittingly upbeat prosperity gospel promulgated in many megachurches, with its focus on thinking positively rather than on living sinlessly—but that gospel is Christianity's responsibility nonetheless. Religion is still the opiate of the masses, and Bible thumpers are still the enemies of progressive change, whether they march in antiabortion rallies or elliptically inspire motivational speakers.

It certainly is fun to blame Calvinists for excessive optimism, if only because they would hate it, just as they hate everything else. I don't know that it's really a fair cop, though. It seems more just to look to other sources for the origin of bright-siding. Say, sources like progressives. Are dour Christians really responsible for utopian ideas about a magical happiness? Or are these concepts the fault of semiscientific Enlightenment dreamers like Leibniz, Adam Smith, William Godwin, and even Karl Marx, who believed in reason and that everything would eventually work out for the best in this best of all possible worlds?

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has noted that prisoners in the Soviet gulag were forced to sign birthday cards to Stalin, while Jews in concentration camps certainly weren't asked to do the same for Hitler. Ehrenreich mentions compulsory positive thinking in communist societies, but she doesn't draw the logical conclusion that paranoia and pessimism are the purview of conservatives and oppressive optimism is progressive, if anything. Our own society's obsession with happiness is a sign of the broad triumph not of religious conservatism but of secular liberalism.

Indeed, Ehrenreich herself has more in common with the bright-siders than she probably wants to admit. "Once our basic material needs are met—in my utopia anyway—life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute," she enthuses. She adds that to achieve this we can't just wish or smile, but must "struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world."

But even couched in practical caveats and references to Darwin and science, bullshit is bullshit. No matter how many books you write or meetings you attend, the poor really are going to be with us always and life will never be a perpetual celebration. And I'd argue that it shouldn't be. The bright-siders are wrong not because they get in the way of a utilitarian progressive agenda, but simply because they're wrong. Sadness, anger, bitterness, and the consciousness of sin aren't all there is to us, but when we try to live without them we stop being human. I'm all for trying to improve people's lives. I just wish we could find a way to do it without pushing sententious dreams of universal happiness achieved through the mystical eye-opening effects of best-selling tomes, whether filed under self-help or progressive nonfiction.   

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