Thursday, May 24, 2007

On wishing The Big One away.

I took a circuitous route to this piece by John Gravois and the anti-Secret backlash he represents—via Cosmic Connie, a Google search, an email or two I received off-blog, and even a link on AOL's news page. (And let me be the first to admit, it is a very bad sign indeed when the author of SHAM is getting his news on the SHAMscape from a mass-market source like AOL.) In my defense, I've been very busy and in large part have been trying to keep the blog going with "maintenance text," as I put it once before. But if you haven't yet looked at Gravois' facetious "letter to Oprah" in Slate, you owe it to yourself to do so now. It may be the best enunciation I've seen—arguably including, it pains me to say, my own work—of the downside of today's personal-Empowerment juggernaut. With very few words (and a handful of striking examples), it details the broad and colossal damage that this tide of "wishful thinking" has wrought in such diverse realms as parenting, health care, the war on terror, and even the U.S. space program as run by NASA. Gravois points out that because of the prevailing hopefest, among other things, "Only a third of American sunbathers use sunscreen, and Californians are almost twice as likely to play the lottery as they are to buy earthquake insurance." (Hence, the title I chose for this post.) He also writes compellingly of how even the lexicon is structured to reward whimsy and punish caution: "Just think of all the pejorative and even pathological terms we have for doomsayers. Like, for instance, doomsayer. Also alarmist, naysayer, paranoiac, complainer, defeatist, downer, and killjoy. Rack your brain: It is hard to think of a laudatory term for contemplating the worst-case scenario."

I go back to the subtitle of my book: "how the self-help movement made America helpless." This stuff is not benign. In most settings, as applied by most Americans, it is likely somewhere between counterproductive and downright devastating. Like the so-called and well-documented paradoxical effects in medicine, today's empowering brand of self-help too often causes the exact problem you were hoping (literally) to avoid. If not a worse we'll show here, in a few days, when I begin posting some of the horror stories I've received.

In sum, Gravois has put together the kind of piece where I just sort of sit there afterwards and think, Damn, I wish I'd written that!* It even makes me guardedly optimistic that maybe we're reaching an important bend in the road of this latter-day, check-your-brains-at-the-door silliness.

Then I look at the best-seller lists and my heart sinks again.

* See? I have wishes too.


Anonymous said...

How about the many people who have symtoms of something but refuse to go to the doctor because that's "bad luck", as if they think the act of going to the doctor is what is going to cause the problem they're already having symptoms for! Is that the dumbest thing you've ever heard? Like wishful thinking in reverse. But I think we all know people like that.

Cal said...

I have a story that I read in my local paper that I'm surprised hasn't gotten much national attention (yet). Dr. Laura Schlessinger's son is in the Army. Her son is under investigation for having a Myspace that the article quotes an Army officer said is "repulsive". I guess that is what you get when you are your kid's Mom.

Trish Ryan said...

Don't give up Steve...
If you can imagine it, you can achieve it...if you can dream it, you can become it!

I think Jonathan Livingston Seagull said that, and he was a bird who managed to get a book deal - proof that indeed, anything is possible!

(kidding... I'm kidding!)

Cosmic Connie said...

"And let me be the first to admit, it is a very bad sign indeed when the author of SHAM is getting his news on the SHAMscape from a mass-market source like AOL."

No, what's really bad is when you get your news from a source like Cosmic Connie. :-)

I had the same thought you did when I read Gravois' piece: I wish I'd written that.