Barbara Ehrenreich Takes On "The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking"

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on October 13, 2009

Barbara Ehrenreich gave a fascinating interview on this morning's "Democracy Now" radio program, as she rolls out her new book, "Bright-Sided." In this book Ehrenreich, also author of "Nickel and Dimed," which was a remarkable journey into the land of the working poor, guides readers on a tour of the world of relentlessly positive thinking.

Ehrenreich is not writing about immigration. But she describes a mentality familiar to those of us whose concerns about immigration are met with admonishments to overcome our grim negativity. The thought-police at the Southern Poverty Law Center and their allies at such organizations at the National Council of La Raza even suggest that such concerns are often built on an ugly foundation of hatred.

The book is subtitled "How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America." She encountered the positive-thinking culture eight years ago, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she sought to orient herself for the struggle, she was urged to understand that "breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance." Indeed, she was told that her cancer was a gift to be embraced with gratitude.

Ehrenreich found such thinking nutty. As she looked around, she saw its advance into other areas of our culture, including the corporate world. There the masters of human resources embraced it as a means of telling those who had been laid off to get over it and to advise them: "If you want everything to be alright, just focus your thoughts in this new, positive way and you'll be okay."

Such self delusion helped induce the recent Wall Street meltdown, Ehrenreich said. She talked of preachers of the prosperity gospel who a few years ago told their struggling faithful that the Lord wanted them to have that big house financed by that otherwise inexplicable mortgage. Corporate chieftains harnessed their boundless positivism to the self-serving notion that "the stock market can never go down, and because I think it's right it will be right, especially if you're the CEO and you're making $20 million a year."

As I lived in Phoenix during the decade of the 1990s, my initial enthusiasm about that decade's illegal immigrant influx turned gradually into concern. I saw how the city's institutions -- schools, neighborhoods, hospitals -- came under increasing strain. I began to question the notion that immigration is such an undiluted good that there can never be too much. I began to think in terms of social and economic carrying capacity. I did volunteer work to help the newcomers, but I fretted about their rising numbers. So did many of my Mexican-American neighbors.

As a Catholic, I questioned the teachings of my church that we must accept all immigration, legal or illegal. I was astonished in 2004 when Bishop Thomas Wenski, then chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, warned that those who are concerned about illegal immigration are harboring a Nazi-like inclination to genocide:

Said the bishop with chilling solemnity: "When we consider a human being as a problem, we depersonalize him, we offend his human dignity. When we allow any class of human beings to be categorized as a problem, then we give ourselves permission to look for solutions. And as the history of the 20th century has proven, sometimes we look for final solutions."

Bishop Wenski should read Barbara Ehrenreich's new book.