Pathologically happy thoughts and Buddy Jesus

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 2:33 PM

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Barbara Ehrenreich has once again demonstrated why she is awesome. I appreciate her books, even when I disagree slightly with her methods (most poor people know better than to rent the motels near highways and don't start with a $5000 budget and car), I appreciate the role she plays as a cultural sociologist, explaining the personal toll of various policies and ideas to people who may never have the experiences which would let them see exactly how hard it is to get by. I appreciate it for another reason, as well: I grew up in a family and communities which believe in the Prosperity Gospel. Not surprisingly, for my family this meant my father, in particular, is also a libertarian. The supernatural backing for his feelings of superiority syncs quite easily with the idea that the determining factor in success is will and work, from libertarian doctrines.

The people in these communities believe that if you think happy thoughts and Jesus is happy with you, you'll have a fat bank account and nothing bad will happen to you. I loathe this idea, even above and beyond my antipathy for religion, for a few simple reasons.

First, behaving as if happy thoughts mean you will never experience something bad creates a trap where if anything bad happens, you just weren't trying hard enough. Sometimes, this comes packaged in lefty woo, as well as in Christianity; the idea that you're 'attracting negative energy' by being unhappy, and that anything which happens to you is something you 'made' happen by not trying hard enough to be happy.

In Christianity, taken directly from the sermons of my childhood, having unhappy thoughts means that you aren't properly appreciative of God and deserve to be punished until you learn to make yourself be more grateful.

Both positions do a number on the mentality of the believer: guilt, guilt, guilt for even the smallest of daily aversive experiences because they are signs that the believer is unworthy. And when the believer isn't feeling guilty for their failings, this insistence that everything which happens is deserved or earned means that the believer is free to ignore the role history, the past, prejudice and/or privilege play in the inability to have a perfectly happy and prosperous life, and allows believers to smugly or pityingly remind people who are suffering from any of the above that they made it happen to themselves by not being happy, despite what is happening to them.

I cannot describe how much I hate that particular loop, and won't try. It suffices to say that it allows people to continue to take advantage, through power, prejudice and privilege, of others and allows them to feel justified, and even sadistically pleased in doing so.

Second, this particular line of thinking prevents individuals from taking responsibility for their actions and participating meaningfully in society. If the individual has no reason to believe that their actions have an effect on anyone else, the only actions they have to take responsibility for are the actions which are aversive to them personally. It becomes okay to take advantage of others, because you wouldn't be able to if they weren't deficient by god, or by being negative. In terms of US policy, this neatly explains any amount of the utterly stupid economic policies and/or stupid decisions in foreign policy; starting a war is not a bad thing, it means that the other country earned it by being deficient. This means that the systematic kicking of the poor which seems inextricably wedded to domestic aid policies is justified; fuck 'em if they can't learn to stop being negative and poor.

Third, this situates blame on people who can't help it, or blames people for things which happen to them in ways which they could not take responsibility for. Children who were abused, for instance, are both damned (or god wants them to suffer for his own reasons) and forever ruined, or just bearing the 'sins' of their parents. In woo, this shows up as someone's negative thoughts/desire for bad things to happen. Instead of the situation being the blame of the abuser, it's the problem of the abused. Ditto for accidents, rape, violence or any of the things for which we seem so compelled to blame the victim. We blame them for not being good enough, happy enough or spiritual enough.

It's worth noting that the perfect/ruined child dichotomy is a product of this: children with happy childhoods are 'destined' to good things or have earned them by being born into a happy family, and other kids either 'picked that family before birth' (woo) and therefore asked for their own unhappiness, or were selected by god for suffering. Either way, they're 'ruined', never to recover, and are destined to be miserable. They can't be helped without endangering the helper's happiness, and therefore cannot be helped. Jesus, guardian angels or whatever fucking woo the believer believes will have to take care of them. In practice, they fend for themselves or end up in the shrinking social nets.

For a Gospel of Happiness or a teaching of happiness, it sure as shit leaves a long trail of unhappiness, misery and oppression behind it, but that's what I've come to expect from belief. For something which purports to make people happy, it sure manages to leave behind a lot of destruction. This manages to never be the fault of the system or the believer of course; someone just wasn't trying hard enough.

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