Pathologies of Hope
by Barbara Ehrenreich,Harper's Magazine, February 1, 2007
I hate hope. It was hammered into me constantly a few years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer: Think positively! Don't lose hope! Wear your pink ribbon with pride! A couple of years later, I was alarmed to discover that the facility where I received my follow-up care was called the Hope Center. Hope? What about a cure? At antiwar and labor rallies over the years, I have dutifully joined Jesse Jackson in chanting "Keep hope alive!" -- all the while crossing my fingers and thinking, "Fuck hope. Keep us alive."
There. It's out. Let pestilence rain down on me, for a whole chorus of voices rise up to insist that hope, optimism, and a "positive attitude" are the keys to health and longevity. The more academically respectable among them -- the new Ph.D.-level "positive psychologists" -- like to cite a study of nuns in which the ones professing a generally positive outlook in their twenties went rather tardily to their maker while the glummer ones dropped off like flies a decade earlier. The average author of motivational materials -- books, CDs, and audiotapes -- needs no studies to buttress the warning that negative thoughts "can be harmful to your health and might even shorten your life span."
Not only is health at stake; so is your credibility as a citizen, employee, or social entity of any kind. "Ninety-nine out of every 100 people report that they want to be around more positive people," claims the self-help book How Full Is Your Bucket? Many champions of positivity urge one to ostracize negative people -- complainers and "victims" -- because they are "committed to lose."
It's everywhere, this Cult of Positivity, at least in America, the birthplace of Mary Baker Eddy, Norman Vincent Peale, and est, where 30,000 beaming "life coaches" ply their trade and a pessimist is no more likely to be elected president than an atheist. George W. Bush provides a sterling role model. Asked on his most recent birthday about the potential nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea, as well as the U.S.-instigated civil war in Iraq, he replied, "I'm optimistic that all problems will be resolved."
Google offers more than a million entries on "positive thinking" covering almost any kind of challenge you might encounter. Dieting? Robert Ferguson, the "Master Weight-Loss Coach," tells us, "With a positive attitude you can do, have and be everything you want in life!" Bereaved? You can put the fun back in funeral by replacing it with a "celebration" of the deceased's life. Need money? Attract it to your wallet with positive mental affirmations, such as:
I love having money. . . . I am open to receive money. I give generously to myself and others. I am generous. I feel great about all the money I spend. Note: Be SPECIFIC about amounts of money [you require].
Cancer? See it positively, as a "growth opportunity," and hopefully not just for the tumor. A representative of the American Cancer Society rebuffed a researcher in the mid-Nineties by saying that the organization didn't "want to be associated with a book on death. We want to emphasize the positive aspects of cancer only." Laid off? Forget the economy and concentrate on reconfiguring your attitude, as explained in the 2004 bestseller We Got Fired! . . . And It's the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us.
One measure of the cult's success is the growth of the "self-improvement" industry, most of which promotes techniques for upgrading your attitude and visualizing success through affirmations that open you to the abundance of the world -- like this one, for example, from a current financial self-help book:
Place your hand on your heart and say . . . "I admire rich people!" "I bless rich people!" "I love rich people!" "And I'm going to be one of those rich people too!"
In 2000, the self-improvement industry -- including books, CDs, seminars, and coaches -- took in $3.35 billion. In 2005, it grossed $5.62 billion, with the coaching market alone growing by almost 500 percent.
Until recently, the marketing of optimism was left largely to familiar snake-oil purveyors like motivational speakers, prosperity-oriented preachers, and self-anointed coaches. Then, in 2000, the new academic discipline of positive psychology emerged, complete with annual conferences, a Journal of Happiness Studies, and a World Database of Happiness. There are now more than a hundred courses on positive psychology available on college campuses, and in the spring of 2006, one of them was the most popular course at Harvard. Its professor, Dr. Tal D. Ben-Shahar, takes an indulgent stance toward his disreputable confederates. "For many years," he says, "the people who were writing about happiness were the self-help gurus. It had a bad rap. . . . What I'm trying to do in my class is to regain respectability for the concept of self-help."
Much of the behavioral advice offered by the gurus, both credentialed and otherwise, is innocuous. "Smile," advises one success-oriented, positive-thinking website, "greet coworkers." Surely the world would be a better, happier place if we all held doors for one another and stopped to coax smiles from babies -- if only through the well-known social psychological mechanism of "mood contagion." Nor can I quibble with the common assignment in positive-psych courses to write "gratitude letters" or keep a "gratitude journal." As the mother of two Ivy League graduates, I'm for having all students write weekly odes to their tuition-payers.
The problem, for anyone with a lingering loyalty to secular rationalism, is that the prescriptions don't stop at behavior. Like our culture's ambient Protestantism, the Cult of Positivity demands not only acts but faith. It's not enough to manifest positivity through a visibly positive attitude; you must establish it as one of the very structures of your mind, whether or not it is justified by the actual circumstances. Some gurus attempt to dodge the potential conflict with reality by attributing to positive thoughts the power to control the outer world through a "Law of Attraction," as yet unknown to physicists, whereby thoughts somehow produce their material counterparts in the outer world. The 2005 book Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, for example, explains that the universe "is akin to a big mail-order department. . . . You 'order' what you get by sending energetic messages out to the universe based on your predominant beliefs."
The academic side of the cult, which rests its claims to respectability on science, is of course barred from endorsing wacko mind-over-matter notions. Instead, we learn there that irrationality, at least in the form of "positive illusions," works like a vitamin, even at the admitted "cost perhaps of less realism." Scientists should presumably avoid such magical thinking, but it is recommended to everyone else: Go ahead, pump yourself up, imagine that all the obstacles you face are projections of some lingering negativity, whatever gets you through the day.
Why should an intelligent species need to rely on illusions? According to positive psychology's founder, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, it is our negative, pessimistic, thoughts that are maladaptive and happily, as it turns out, vestigial:
Because our brain evolved during a time of ice, flood and famine, we have a catastrophic brain. The way the brain works is looking for what's wrong. The problem is, that worked in the Pleistocene era. It favoured you, but it doesn't work in the modern world.
In this view, which was restated uncritically in a February 2006 New Yorker review of two books on happiness, our Paleolithic ancestors were well served by the suspicion that a saber-toothed cat crouched behind every bush. Today we would do better to visualize pots of gold.
There are exceptions, the positive psychologists concede, even in the modern world, and at first glance they seem a little exotic: airplane pilots, for example, need to anticipate worst outcomes rather than happy landings. Recently, Seligman further limited the purview of positive psychology to nations that "are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at war," perhaps not realizing that he had thus excluded the majority of the world's people. But even leaving the poor and war-ravaged aside: if a pilot needs a healthy dose of negative thinking, what about the driver of a car? Should I assume, positively, that no one is going to cut in front of me or, more negatively, be prepared to brake?
Child-raising is another quotidian activity that eludes the positive psychologists. Religion and marriage are both recommended as positivity-boosters, and they do seem to increase self-reported happiness, but children, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, can be "an extreme source of negative affect." Kids are, in other words, bummers, and it's easy to see why. You might want to be "positive" by advertising a trip to the pediatrician as an opportunity to play with the cool toys in the waiting room rather than an occasion for a painful shot, but no parent dare risk assuming that the sudden quiet from the toddlers' room means they are studying with Baby Einstein. Visualize fratricidal stranglings and electric outlets stabbed with forks: that's how we reproduce our genomes.
If health and well-being in general are at stake, the positive psychologists would argue, why not indulge in some positive illusions even at the cost of "realism"? There's no question but that extreme, locked-in negativity in the form of depression is a risk factor for physical illness, but the evidence for the health-enhancing effects of positivity is surprisingly muddled. A frequently cited 1988 article arguing that positive illusions, such as unwarrantedly high self-estimations, promote mental health has been disputed. Nor are positive-thinking people necessarily happier than pessimists or realists, since anyone who self-reports positivity is equally likely to self-report happiness. As for "success": in workplaces that enjoin a positive attitude, one would do well to conform, but the halls of fame are lined with the busts of major depressives, including Max Weber, William James, John Donne, and Samuel Johnson.
It takes a positive spin to see a consistently positive effect of positivity on physical health. A 2002 New York Times article headlined "Power of Positive Thinking Extends, It Seems, to Aging" cited two studies linking optimism to longevity -- and four studies tracing longevity to such other traits as "conscientiousness," calmness, pessimism, and even cantankerousness. A 2002 study not cited in the Times article found mildly depressed women living longer than nondepressed or more severely depressed women, and even two positive psychologists reported that people displaying negative affect "complain about their health but show no hard evidence of poorer health or increased mortality." As for those oft-cited nuns: Nuns are popular with researchers because of their controlled, homogeneous lifestyle. But that lifestyle is not for everyone, and Freud might think of reasons why those who were not initially enthusiastic about their vocation would go on to live lives of quiet and self-destructive desperation.
In fact, there is some evidence that the ubiquitous moral injunction to think positively may place an additional burden on the already sick or otherwise aggrieved. Not only are you failing to get better but you're failing to feel good about not getting better. Similarly for the long-term unemployed, who, as I found while researching my book Bait and Switch, are informed by career coaches and self-help books that their principal battle is against their own negative, resentful, loser-like feelings. This is victim-blaming at its cruelest, and may help account for the passivity of Americans in the face of repeated economic insult.
But what is truly sinister about the positivity cult is that it seems to reduce our tolerance of other people's suffering. Far from being a "culture of complaint" that upholds "victims," ours has become "less and less tolerant of people having a bad day or a bad year," according to Barbara Held, professor of psychology at Bowdoin College and a leading critic of positive psychology. If no one will listen to my problems, I won't listen to theirs: "no whining," as the popular bumper stickers and wall plaques warn. Thus the cult acquires a viral-like reproductive energy, creating an empathy deficit that pushes evermore people into a harsh insistence on positivity in others.
I got through my bout of cancer in a state of constant rage, directed chiefly against the kitschy positivity of American breast-cancer culture. I remain, although not absolutely, certifiably, cancer-free down to the last cell, at least hope-free. Do not mistake this condition for hopelessness, in the beaten or passive sense, or confuse it with unhappiness. The trick, as my teen hero Camus wrote, is to draw strength from the "refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation." To be hope-free is to acknowledge the lion in the tall grass, the tumor in the CAT scan, and to plan one's moves accordingly.
Wednesday, July 06, 2011
I Don't Believe in Athiests
"I spent so long in war zones that I think we don't know what we would do under repression and abuse -- you know, if somebody killed my father. That's the brilliance of the great writers on the Holocaust, like Primo Levi and [Bruno] Bettelheim. They understood the humanity of their own killers. That line between the victim and the victimizer is razor-thin. We all carry within us the capacity for abuse, and I think that's the most disturbing lesson you walk away with when you cover wars. We're all capable of evil, under the right circumstances, and very few of us are immune."
Foreign correspondent and intellectual provocateur Chris Hedges explains why New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens are as dangerous as Christian fundamentalists.
Interview by Charly Wilder
Many charges have been leveled at foreign correspondent Chris Hedges over the years, but shrinking from conflict isn't one of them. Hedges spent nearly seven years as Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, covered the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and was part of the New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of global terrorism. He took on the American military-industrial complex with his books "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" and "What Every Person Should Know About War," and provoked the rage of the Christian right by likening them to Nazis in last year's "American Fascists." Hedges now cements his reputation as an intellectual provocateur with the charmingly titled "I Don't Believe in Atheists."
While speaking out against the Christian fundamentalist movement and its political agenda, Hedges noticed another group -- this one on the left -- conspicuously allied with the neocons on the subject of America's role in world politics. The New Atheists, as they have been called, include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and bestselling author and journalist Christopher Hitchens -- outspoken secularists who depict religious structures and the belief in God as backward and anti-democratic.
Though Hedges, a Harvard seminary graduate and the son of a Presbyterian minister, considers himself a religious man, his quarrel with the New Atheists goes beyond theological concerns. In "I Don't Believe in Atheists," he accuses Hitchens and the others of preaching a fundamentalism as dangerous as the religious fundamentalist belief systems they attack. Strange bedfellows indeed -- according to Hedges, the New Atheists and the Christian right pose the greatest threat facing American democratic society today.
Hedges spoke to Salon by phone from his home in New Jersey.
You say that "I Don't Believe in Atheists" is a product of confrontations you had with Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. How did those debates inspire the book?
In May of 2007 I went to L.A. to debate Sam Harris, and then two days later I went to San Francisco to debate Christopher Hitchens. Up until that point, I hadn't paid much attention to the work of the New Atheists. After reading what they had written and walking away from these debates, I was appalled at how what they had done for the secular left was to embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right. I found that in many ways they were little more than secular fundamentalists.
Although I come out of a religious tradition -- I grew up in the church, my father was a Presbyterian minister, I graduated from seminary -- I've spent my life as a foreign correspondent, mostly for the New York Times, and I have a pretty hardheaded view of the world. I certainly understand that there is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever, that many people of great moral probity and courage define themselves outside of religious structures, do not engage in religious ritual or use religious language, in the same way that many people who advocate intolerance, bigotry and even violence cloak themselves in the garb of religion and oftentimes have prominent positions within religious institutions. Unlike the religious fundamentalists or the New Atheists, I'm not willing to draw these kind of clean, institutional lines.
A lot of people would find it counterintuitive that you would go from your last book, "American Fascists," which was a scathing critique of Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., to writing against atheism. Do you see these as connected projects?
I do. I didn't start out that way, because these guys were not on my radar screen. I think a lot of their popularity stems from a legitimate anger on the part of a lot of Americans toward the intolerance and chauvinism of the radical religious right in this country. Unfortunately, what they've done is offer a Utopian belief system that is as self-delusional as that offered by Christian fundamentalists. They adopt many of the foundational belief systems of fundamentalists. For example, they believe that the human species is marching forward, that there is an advancement toward some kind of collective moral progress -- that we are moving towards, if not a Utopian, certainly a better, more perfected human society. That's fundamental to the Christian right, and it's also fundamental to the New Atheists.
You know, there is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere. Technology and science, though they are cumulative and have improved, in many ways, the lives of people within the industrialized nations, have also unleashed the most horrific forms of violence and death, and let's not forget, environmental degradation, in human history. So, there's nothing intrinsically moral about science. Science is morally neutral. It serves the good and the bad. I mean, industrial killing is a product of technological advance, just as is penicillin and modern medicine. So I think that I find the faith that these people place in science and reason as a route toward human salvation to be as delusional as the faith the Christian right places in miracles and angels.
Don't you think that a belief in perfectibility or progress may be necessary for people who devote their lives to big endeavors, like, say, developing vaccines? Americans especially are known for big dreams. It seems like to lose the idea of progress would be a kind of defeatism.
Well in science, one does have progress, because science is based on what can be proved and disproved.
But you say in the book that the Holocaust, because it was framed as a modern project and an outgrowth of technological advance, was that kind of scientific progress, as well.
Well, I wouldn't quite say it that way. I would say that the fascist agenda was Utopian, and that it adopted the cult of science. That's what leads Hitler to try and breed humans and apes to try to create an oversized warrior or to send expeditions to Tibet to find a pure, Aryan race. I mean, that's not science. It's the cult of science, and I think the New Atheists also make that leap from science into the cult of science, and that's a problem.
The Enlightenment was both a curse and a blessing, because it was really a reaction to the kind of superstition, intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism of the clerics, of the church. But it also ended up with the Jacobins, [who said] well, if we can't make certain segments of the society "civilized," as we define civilization, then they must be eradicated, in the same way that you eradicate a virus.
I write in the book that not believing in God is not dangerous. Not believing in sin is very dangerous. I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don't believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it's the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they're great supporters of preemptive war, and I don't think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.
So you think that Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are just shills for a neocon agenda?
Well, Dawkins is a little different, because he's British. But looking at our own homegrown version of new atheism, yes. Hitchens and Harris do for the neocon agenda in a secular way what the religious right does in a so-called religious way.
You say at one point in the book that the New Atheists, "like Christian fundamentalists, are stunted products of a self-satisfied, materialistic middle class." But I wonder what you would say to someone like Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, a victim of genital cutting who fled her faith-based homeland for the secular West, when she says that the secularism of Western society is better than the religiosity of her native Somalia?
It was better, for her.
She doesn't qualify that. She says it's better.
Well, she's speaking out of her personal experience, and it was better for her. I mean, look, I covered conflicts in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Central America, where Western society rained nothing but death and destruction on tens of thousands of people, which is of course what we're doing in Iraq. So, is Western society -- American society -- better for Iraqis? And I think part of the problem is people who create a morality based on their own experience, which is what of course the New Atheists and the Christian fundamentalists have done.
You believe new atheism has emerged in reaction to religious fundamentalism, but I wonder if you also see it as a reaction to a kind of cultural relativism and multicultural mind-set that a lot of people perceive as weak and self-destructive, in its tendency to sympathize with enemies.
Well, "enemies" is a pretty loaded word.
Let's say al-Qaida -- those whom we can with few qualifications say are in an antagonistic relationship with the West.
I've spent a lot of time in Gaza with Hamas, with people who have an antagonistic relationship with the West. Circumstance, fate, nationality, geography create different reactions, and if I had been born in Gaza, especially given the horrific Israeli assault at the moment in Gaza, and had stood by for 60 years while the outside world ignored the injustices committed against the Palestinian people, who knows how I'd react? I think people who start dividing the world into us and them fail to have empathy.
Are you saying you might be a jihadist, if you had that upbringing?
I spent so long in war zones that I think we don't know what we would do under repression and abuse -- you know, if somebody killed my father. That's the brilliance of the great writers on the Holocaust, like Primo Levi and [Bruno] Bettelheim. They understood the humanity of their own killers. That line between the victim and the victimizer is razor-thin. We all carry within us the capacity for abuse, and I think that's the most disturbing lesson you walk away with when you cover wars. We're all capable of evil, under the right circumstances, and very few of us are immune.
If we're afraid to privilege Enlightenment values, don't we run the risk of sanctioning religious rituals that discriminate against women and minorities?
But I would never argue that! I mean, I think genital mutilation is disgusting. I'm not a cultural relativist. I don't think that if you live in Somalia, it's fine to mutilate little girls. There is nothing wrong with taking a moral stand, but when we take a moral stand and then use it to elevate ourselves to another moral plane above other human beings, then it becomes, in biblical terms, a form of self-worship. That's what the New Atheists have, and that's what the Christian fundamentalists have.
A lot of the book is devoted to making this comparison between Christian and what some call secular fundamentalists, but you are pretty hands off when it comes to fundamentalist Islam.
The only reason I go after Christian fundamentalists and New Atheists is because they're here and I'm an American. Fundamentalism -- whether it's Hindu fundamentalism or Jewish fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism or Islamic fundamentalism -- is the same disease. Karen Armstrong has explained that brilliantly. Fundamentalists, no matter what their religious coloring -- bear far more in common with each other than they do with more enlightened members of their own religious communities. I'm an enemy of fundamentalism, period. And if I'm not going after Islamic fundamentalism in this book, it's because what I've tried to do is talk about these two very dangerous ideological strains within American society, although the New Atheists are peddling this under the guise of enlightenment and reason and science in the same way that the Christian right tries to peddle it as a form of Christianity.
I want to go back to what you see as the ultimate threat of the New Atheists and the Christian right. You voice concern in the book that these two groups of fundamentalists are going to gang up, "to call for a horrific bloodletting and apocalyptic acts of terror..."
It's a possibility. I mean, I covered al-Qaida for the New York Times. There wasn't an intelligence chief who I interviewed who didn't talk about another catastrophic attack on American soil as inevitable. They never used the word "if." They just used the word "when," and if this kind of rhetoric, which is racist, is allowed to infect the civil discourse -- whether it comes from the Christian right or the New Atheists -- toward Muslims, who are one-fifth of the world population, most of whom are not Arabs, then what I worry about is that in a moment of collective humiliation and fear, these two strands come together and call for an assault on Muslims, both outside our gates and on the 6 million Muslims who live within our borders. And that frightens me, that demonization of a people -- turning human beings into abstractions, so that they're not human anymore. They don't have hopes, dreams, aspirations, pains, sufferings. They represent an unmitigated evil that must be vanquished. That's very scary, and that is at the bedrock of the ideology of the New Atheists as it is with the Christian fundamentalists.
I wonder if by calling people racist and imperialistic and illiterate, you run the risk of not being taken seriously by those you most want to reach.
I'm not really interested in the impact. I'm interested in explaining as honestly as I can, regardless of the consequences, what I see.
Do you think the new atheists are similarly uninterested in their impact? It seems that what the New Atheists write and say is somewhat a performance.
Well, not Harris. Harris is just intellectually shallow. Harris doesn't know anything about religion or the Middle East. For Hitchens, it's about a performance, and that was true when he was on the left. He hasn't changed. It's all about him. It's all about being a contrarian. He reminds me of Ann Coulter, he's that kind of a figure. He's witty, and he's funny and insulting. You know I debated him, and in the middle of the debate he starts shouting, "Shame on you for defending suicide bombers!" Of course, unlike him, I've actually stood at the edge of a suicide bombing attack. That kind of stuff is just ... it's the epistemology of television. They make a lot of money off it, but it's gross and disgusting and anti-intellectual and not at all about real discussion.
Do you think Hitchens really believes what he writes?
I think he's completely amoral. I think he doesn't have a moral core. I think he doesn't believe anything. What's good for Christopher Hitchens is about as moral as he gets.
Do you worry that Hitchens and some of the other so-called liberal hawks have the advantage of charisma, that they are better able to seduce an audience?
We had over 1,500 people at the debate at UCLA, and I think that the people who came liking Sam Harris left liking Sam Harris. I don't think that they heard a word I said, and it's just insulting ... I've debated Christian fundamentalists, and it's the same. I can get up and say, look, I grew up in the church, I went to seminary. No, I'm part of the forces of godless secular humanism that are trying to destroy Christians, and they just repeat it like a mantra -- half of their audience which came to hear them hears it, and the same is true of the New Atheists.
So why ever engage in these debates? You make it seem pretty futile.
Well, I've only done two of them. Is it futile? I don't know. I think if one is given a public platform or a voice, he should use it.