Column on The Face of Envy

The Face of Envy

Tibor R. Machan

In THE WEEK, January 16, 2010, the item "The last word" is given to someone whose attitudes and ideas have always put me off. I am speaking of Barbara Ehrenreich, a prolific author whose major theme tends to be that the world needs to make equality its primary public purpose and until that comes about, let everyone be miserable.

Her latest book appears to reinforce this impression. Her Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (Granta, 2010) is a relentless, over the top rant against a group of authors and advocates who have produced much print aiming to ease the agony of those who are suffering from cancer. Ehrenreich herself had recently survived a bout with breast cancer and as most good writer-entrepreneurs are wont to do, made this experience the basis of a book which expresses her exquisitely sour outlook on life by dissing all those who would wish to inject some measure of relief into the lives of those who have been hit with the often fatal malady. No doubt there is much hokum in these books, which essentially follow the doctrine promoted most prominently by Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 The Power of Positive Thinking. Many of them have a desperate tone, especially the one by Anne McNervey titled The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening.

Yet who could begrudge the effort, albeit at times inept and desperate, of authors and readers alike to find some solace in the midst of fear and pain? Who would make a fuss, spend precious time writing an entire book debunking those who try to manage and even flourish in the midst of their calamity?

It would be Barbara Ehrenreich, of course, the quintessential sourpuss of American popular culture. In THE WEEK article, which is excerpted from her book, she is actually depicted in a photograph from the UK newspaper, The Guardian, frowning out at the reader holding, you may not believe this, a happy face balloon! Talk about making a concerted effort to rain on other people’s parade!

Yet this is no surprise, not at least to those who have followed Ehrenreich’s paper trail, the numerous books she has penned which attack bourgeois society for even caring about the enjoyment of life! And no one can accuse Ehrenreich with false advertising–one of her books of essays is called The Snarling Citizen, a very apt description of her indeed. Yet despite this admittedly accurate self-assessment, Ehrenreich lacks a crucial quality of a sound cultural commentator, especially one whose focus is America. This is the realization that one size does not fit all. Perhaps for some folks the dour attitude of a Barbara Ehrenreich makes sense but it certainly does not make sense for everyone struck by misfortune. And since many, many folks will shake off a negative disposition even while undergoing hardship and distress, Ehrenreich appears to want to make them all feel bad, just as she prefers to feel. It seems to her to be even a sign of astuteness and erudition to reject a pleasant state of mind, or so at least would her writings suggest. But why?

I am not personally privy to the details of Ehrenreich’s personality and so I do not want to guess at what in her life may have supported her morose outlook. But I do suggest that whatever reason she has for apparently feeling so down all of the time, as a matter of intellectual discipline she ought to resist trying to recruit everyone to share the feeling. Because recruiting is just what she is after, especially with this latest book of hers. And that suggests a profound sense of envy toward all those who, unlike her, manage to have a fairly bright outlook on their lives even while in trouble. I suggest the more power to them and the less to Ehrenreich.

Fortunately my reaction to Ehrenreich’s efforts to spread her attitude of doom and gloom is shared by some who have access to prominent publications. Thus Amy Bloom provides a nice antithesis to Ehrenreich’s preaching, in her essay "The Rap on Happiness" (The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 2010). Bloom is not endorsing the peddling of false hope, not by any means. But she recognizes that Ehrenreich’s pitch is shrill and not needed at all. As she concludes, "I don’t see how even the most high-minded, cynical or curmudgeonly person could argue with" the reasonable understanding of human happiness Bloom presents in her short missive, one that identifies five components of such a state, namely, having basic necessities, getting enough sleep, having relationships that matter (i.e., not spreading oneself thin), extending generosity to others just as prudence to oneself, and going to work on stuff one is interested in. Not a bad list, me thinks–reminiscent, in fact, of Aristotle.

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