If the previous chapters were sometimes essayistic, the last chapter, a summing-up of Ehrenreich’s argument, really is an essay. A book that was structured along the same lines as this one chapter could have been really interesting. But while the earlier, factual chapters had a nice, flowing essayistic tone (which worked especially well in the audiobook format), this one feels choppy and superficial, and skates much too quickly from one topic to the next one.
There’s more here about what Ehrenreich thinks it means to be reasonable: to know science and use the scientific method; to understand that all animals survive through vigilance and being alert to danger; to check our conclusions and beliefs with others; to be alert to the fact that the world doesn’t care about us or our feelings; to stop thinking “positive” is a synonym for “good.” People in Stalinist countries could be imprisoned for failing to be positive enough. Though people who are depressed don’t know how to distinguish the truth about the world from how they feel about things, that is, they don’t understand that emotion isn’t true, the same holds for people who are always positive. Also, we should not keep examining our thoughts and readjusting them whenever we find they make us feel negative about something in the world. This sounds good but doesn’t survive a moment’s further thought.
The audiobook format makes it impossible to check Ehrenreich’s own sources, but it’s plain that she’s selected a tremendous number of books and articles whose authors all agree with her. It’s a little overwhelming—the rapidity with which each nugget of information goes by makes it impossible to mentally engage with any of them—and a little difficult to construe, in light of the author’s repeated injunctions, in the earlier chapters, against building a little circle of positivity around oneself, in order to magically insulate oneself from criticism.
Ehrenreich’s own personal point of view is a little difficult to pin down, but from this book I’d say she’s an old-style leftist and second-wave feminist, her beliefs more or less untouched both by the New Left and by feminism’s further waves. At times, this makes her appear as basically a liberal, in the sense in which it used to be used by the left, and in which it meant “center-right.” It’s a position that would be very difficult to manage for a younger generation, for whom “left” already included the New Left, and “feminist” necessarily meant at least the third wave. And in fact, politically, Ehrenreich has identified herself so completely with that New Left/Feminist synthesis that there’s some cognitive dissonance in the explication of her actual positions. It’s quite surprising, for example, to find Ehrenreich condemning the idea that our economy is now so irreversibly affluent that we don’t have to worry much about increasing production; or supporting the idea that evolution is all about the competition and the aggressiveness, all about the negative animal traits of our existence, and condemning the idea that our species has outgrown the need for anxiety (once the putative cause of ulcers, for those the right age to remember it).
Why does her politics matter? In part, because her political beliefs and history may help explain where she goes wrong, and show how her argument might be corrected. But also because her argument isn’t always clear, and when it’s clear isn’t always plausible, and this invites overly clever readings that argue the author is “really” saying something very different from what she appears to say.
That’s what makes this book difficult to recommend (over and above its occasional Michael Moore style clownishness in dealing with people who it wants to discredit). Someone who’d been taken in by The Secret, or who felt as oppressed by the pink-bear culture of the breast-cancer clinic as Ehrenreich did, might find it helpful. Someone looking for a reliable history of positive thought in America is likely to be misled. Someone looking for a reliable left critique of Joel Osteen and “blinking” may end up very confused. An attempt to use the book to support a point will likely be met with a counter-argument that puts its ambiguities to quite surprising uses. A reader disinclined to agree with some parts of Ehrenreich’s text may find that the evidence she describes points to conclusions very different from those she intended to support. And quite a few parts of the book are difficult to agree with.