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Harper's Magazine/Notebook
February 2007


Pathologies of Hope

by Barbara Ehrenreich


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."...

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....

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 at Harvard....

I got through my bout of cancer in a state of constant rage, directed chiefly at the kitschy positivity of American breast-cancer culture. I remain, though 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. ###



The Cult of the Amateur:
How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture

by Andrew Keen

2007 Andrew Keen

At the heart of this...experiment in self-publishing is the Internet diary, the ubiquitous blog. Blogging has become such a mania that a new blog is being created every second of every minute of every hour of every day. We are blogging with...shamelessness about our private lives, our sex lives, our dream lives, our lack of lives, our Second Lives. At the time of writing there are fifty-three million blogs on the Internet, and this number is doubling every six months. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, ten new blogs were launched.

If we keep up this pace, there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to commerce, to culture. Blogs have become so dizzyingly infinite that they've undermined our sense of what is true and what is false, what is real and what is imaginary. These days, kids can't tell the difference between credible news by objective professional journalists and what they read on For these Generation Y utopians, every posting is just another person's version of the truth; every fiction is just another person's version of the facts.

Then there is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia where anyone with opposable thumbs and a fifth grade education can publish anything on any topic from AC/DC to Zorastrianism. Since Wikipedia's birth, more than fifteen thousand contributors have created nearly three million entries in over a hundred different languages—none of them edited or vetted for accuracy. With hundreds of thousands of visitors a day, Widipedia has become the third most visited site for information and current events; a more trusted source for news than CNN or BBC Web sites, even though Wikipedia has no reporters, no editorial staff, and no experience in news-gathering. It's the blind leading the blind—infinite monkeys providing infinite information for infinite readers, perpetuating the cycle of misinformation and ignorance....

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