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Book Club: “Bright-sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Posted on : May-06-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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book cover

Our next book

Our book for May is Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The first chapter describes Ehrenreich’s experience with breast cancer and all the useless, belittling advice she received from well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) people about how she could overcome it with a positive attitude and strength of character. Implicit in this advice is an enormous dose of victim-blaming. It’s her fault if she has cancer because she wasn’t positive enough, and if she doesn’t get on the program (of magical thinking with no, zero, nada, zip evidence of efficacy), it will be her fault if she doesn’t recover. This sounds to me like a perfect Republican health care plan: blame the victims and quickly get rid of all those annoying, expensive sick people. But that’s just me…

The second chapter describes her visit to a national convention of motivational speakers. Reminiscent of a Jon Ronson exploration, she finds the ultimate goal of becoming a motivational speaker is to motivate our people to become motivational speakers in some gigantic multilevel marketing scheme. Ever since the dawn of the self-help and positive thinking movements (which are deeply intertwined) in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), other people “are there only to nourish, praise and affirm”. (Sounds like a recipe for sociopathy, or at very least, libertarianism.) The whole edifice is built on a foundation of pseudoscientific principles, such as “The Law of Attraction”, pre-scientific understandings of magnets and gravity, and profound misunderstanding of simple oscillators (“vibrations”), and quantum. Its crowning achievements are The Secret and other forms of magical thinking.

If the rest of the book is as interesting (if disheartening) and as readable as the first two chapters, it will be well worth reading and discussing.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, May 16 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary phaser blast. (Warning: I did remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (May 17) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live too far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be here!)

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