Needed: More Positive Thinking?

David Brown: Dec. 27, 2012

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an excellent book titled “Bright-Sided”. It is all about that peculiar North American cult known as the Positive Thinkers. In Chapter 2 of the book she examines the core notion of the Positive Thinkers. It is the law of attractions. “Visualize what you want and it will be attracted to you. Ask, believe, and receive, or name it and claim it.” All of this is set out in a run-away bestseller “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. The Secret makes the claim, implicitly and explicitly, that you can manipulate the physical world through your thoughts and feelings.

The purest form of positive thinking was practiced by the Cargo Cults of New Guinea and nearby islands. In the 1940’s and 1950’s the indigenous people observed that the Japanese and Westerners possessed a massive quantity of manufactured goods or cargo. Unacquainted with the modern manufacturing process they assumed that cargo was produced by spiritual means and that they could similarly obtain such cargo for themselves through spiritual agents. They carried out various rituals including setting up of mock airports with military-style landing strips, life-size replicas of airplanes made out of straw, offices, and dining rooms and men on the ground with headsets with bamboo antennas.

Westerners laughed at the Cargo Cultists but the New Guineans were really of one and the same ilk as our Cult of Positive Thinkers. In fact the Cargo Cultists were much more forgivable since they were isolated from the science and technology that would have made manufactured goods understandable. There was a logic in equating cargo with magic.

Now what is the connection between Nanaimo and the Cult of Positive Thinkers?  It is this: Nanaimo’s civic affairs has been heavily influenced by Positive Thinkers for many years. The Friends of Plan Nanaimo (FPN) experienced the local Cult of Positive Thinkers during the debate over the building of the Conference Centre. All of the facts and figures that FPN mustered with respect to the project were instantly labeled as “negative”. The Conference Centre proceeded notwithstanding there was not a lot of evidence to support its short term or even long term viability. The project was an act of mind over matter faith – akin to the faith of the Cargo Cultists. Build a Conference Centre and it will ATTRACT the conventioneers! Ironically, its post-opening troubles have even been blamed on insufficient positive thinking – on those bad thoughts being projected by the skeptics, the “nattering nabobs of negativity”, the people who dare to point out the Centre’s poor economics. Gord Fuller and Ron Bolin are the reason for the poor bookings, not Nanaimo’s awkward location or the abundance of competing facilities.

Barbara Ehrenreich says “The alternative to positive thinking is not, however, despair.” Instead “Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things as they are or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions”. In other words what is needed is a commitment to realism, a willingness to turn over every stone to see what is underneath it, a preparedness to ask the tough, critical and often not very nice questions.

Let’s return once again to Nanaimo’s relentless gang of cheerleaders – the people who tell you this is paradise on earth, who cheer every big expenditure of civic funds and who are the ever eager promoters of projects like the Conference Centre. All of their positive thinking unfortunately has not altered this town’s economic and social realities. It hasn’t changed bad economics into good economics; it hasn’t brought in thousands of tourists; it hasn’t vanquished poverty and hunger; it hasn’t created a Downtown which is alive after 7 in the evening, it hasn’t prevented the closing of long existing restaurants.

In fact in the context of Nanaimo the positive thinkers have probably had a significant damaging role. The fault with Positive Thinking is that it does not help to bring real solutions to real problems. Instead the problems and deficiencies are glossed over and yesterday’s strategy is today’s strategy and will be tomorrow’s strategy.

We need to look realistically at the Downtown and its commercial struggles and social problems. We need to acknowledge that Commercial St. is dead after 7, that it remains a problematic location for businesses and that it lacks a lively street scene even in the middle of the summer. We need to look realistically at the barren gasoline alley that runs through the heart of the Downtown. We need to look realistically at the many vacant, weed filled lots that can be found throughout the central and near south parts of the City. We need to look realistically at the likely economic factors (bad and good) that will impact on not only the future of the Downtown but the City as a whole.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that through the negativity of realism we can have genuine, positive change.

P.S. There is one group of positive thinkers in Nanaimo who actually do get what they imagine. They can be found in the vicinity of Franklin and Wallace Street. These people imagine a lovely, new building to replace their patched together, worn out 1950’s building and lo and behold it happens. Then they imagine how nice it would be to have new furniture to accompany the fancy new offices and these positive thoughts are also magically effective. More positive thoughts result in expensive new electric vehicles and electric plug-ins to recharge them. So nice to be a zero emission hero when it is not your own money that is being spent. Further thoughts about a river once again running wild through the southern environs of the City causes century old dams to disappear. So perhaps I shouldn’t be so negative. For certain people positive thinking does ATTRACT all sorts of things that they want.