Blaming the Victim, American Style

brightsidedLast year, while working in one of the roughest schools in one of the roughest districts of Orange County, I had a chance to see how the positive thinking/ self-help movement had slimed its way into public education. Each day at School X came with newly minted (and labeled) behavioral problems, expulsions, and cop cars, always cop cars. Many of the kids were flirting with, or had already taken on, gang membership, and during my last week a group of students caused a five car pile up by hurling rocks into passing traffic.

Despite the poverty and often abusive conditions under which many of these kids lived, the only remedy the principal could arrive with his fevered lack of imagination was chicken soup. Real soup might have been better considering the crap they were being fed at school, but no, I’m talking about Jack Canfield.

Yes, indeed. The school had made a deal with the Chicken Soup tripe spewing machine, and each week before their lessons for the day would commence, students were subjected to a three minute mini morals read in a cracked, schmarmy voice that made the After School Specials of the 70s seem weighty in comparison.

I remember standing in the classroom one post Christmas morning, the economy having just ground to a halt, when a story about a curtain salesman who screws up an order sprang forth from the loudspeaker – riveting, I know. The salesman, you see, had mistaken a customer’s order for Venetian blinds, but rather than owning up to it, he’d blamed the credit card company for his mistake.

I couldn’t help wondering what kind of loony, officious moron would think that a lie told by a terrified, eight-dollar-an-hour service rep, would be interesting to kids whose parents, in the age of deregulation, mostly like had one or more creditor’s hands at their throats. More likely, if they were listening at all, they would probably side — as I did — with the salesman whose foisting the blame on an industry responsible for so many of this country’s financial ills was less a character -damning lie than an act of resistance.

I tell this story, because it is exactly the kind of thing that Barbara Ehrenreich eviscerates in her book “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.” Ehrenreich’s book explores how our Calvinist work ethic mingled with the new thought of Mary Baker Eddy into a gallimaufry of blind optimism and a blame-the-victim mentality just ripe for corporate manipulation. If I have one complaint, it’s that she doesn’t cover the education system; her descriptions of laid-off employees being cheerfully browbeat into submission were certainly a larger version of what this principal was doing to these kids.

It’s not your poverty, or your “language arts” teacher whose interest in the spoken work stops at the Michael Jackson slogans she’s pasted to her podium; it’s not the lack of art or music available in your school because your test scores haven’t met state requirements; it’s not the standards peddling principal who won’t let even your good teachers enjoy some creative freedom; it’s not the fact that your parents must work two or sometimes three low-paying jobs in order to feed you, and often must take you with them while they work. It’s not the two or three shootings that happen weekly outside your house, or the fact that you live in a motel or share an apartment with three other families.

Nope.

It’s your attitude, see?

Now, click your heels.

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