Sympathetic Magic

Endorsements by Christopher Hitchens and Nora Ephron do not inspire confidence in Bright-Sided.  Nor does Barbara Ehren­reich’s website, with its list of soporific-sounding previous publications, which includes Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad and Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers.  Her enumerated interests also threaten tedium—healthcare, peace, women’s rights, and economic justice.  But despite these contraindications, and despite the fact that the author fires wide of the most obvious target, Bright-Sided contrives to be both worthwhile and original.

America is regarded, and regards herself, as a “can-do” country where almost anything is achievable, and everyone can aspire to “the American dream.”  As Ehrenreich states, “In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent.”

Like all stereotypes, this one contains a degree of truth.  In all kinds of ways, from rapturous religiosity and utopian philosophies to cheerleading and effusive customer service, there are smiley-face stigmata across all of American life.  Europeans do tend to be less demonstrative, less likely to have religious faith, less patriotic, and less likely to affect interest in the clients...

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