to say you got a helping hand to lend
you just want to be on
the side that's winning
While the book cover gives the impression of plain brown wrapping paper -- what are we to think? that no salesman will call? -- the title page is a whole different story. Look at it. Like a goddam inscription carved in Roman capitals -- or an LA freeway billboard after some fondly imagined neocon revolution has safely returned us to Tradition. Welcome to the latest installment of "positive" psychology.
The subtitle is even richer: A Handbook and Classification. So what we have here is essentially a cross between the nosological taxonomy of the DSM-IV with a sort of field guide to the better sorts of people.
I'll level with you. I spent no more than five minutes flipping though this thing in a Barnes & Noble aisle, and one of the co-authors I'd never heard of. But I had heard of the other author, and bought most of his books as exhibits in my planned trial of dangerous morons v. the people. I despise Martin Seligman and his fucking "learned optimism," both on principle and irrationally -- as is my God-given prerogative as a non-academic who owes no lipservice allegiance to fictions like fairness and critical distance. The very existence of this book makes me want to break things.
Or at least write paragraphs like that. Damn, that felt good!
But hey, don't take my word for it; work up your own apoplexy. The first chapter of Character Strengths -- a generous 84 pages worth -- is available via this PDF download from Oxford University Press. And speaking of OUP, that's where Seligman first came up on the radar, in a little number called Learned Helplessness. Again, you have to wait a beat for the subtitle kicker: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control.
That was the last respectable publisher Seligman had for quite some time. I'm sure he was crying all the way to the bank, because what he did then was to start writing for the much more lucrative Self-Help section -- books like Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, and the one that got him onto Oprah, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Sure, it's still psychology, but it's that positive psychology. You know, like that dry heat. I ask you: how am I supposed to learn optimism and achieve authentic happiness as long as run-amok rogue academics are still writing this kind of junk?
For instance, in Positive Psychology in Practice, the authors of a paper called "Positive Psychology: Historical, Philosophical, and Epistemological Perspectives" say (p. 17):
...the human being should, as Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi maintain, be conceptualized and understood as a being with inherent potentials for developing positive character traits or virtues. This idea is the core of the actualizing tendency as described by Rogers and self-actualization as described by Maslow. For positive psychology, the concept of good character thus becomes the central concept.
What Maslow wrote about this purportedly positive psychology (in Motivation and Personality, 1987) was, perhaps most succinctly, this:
The study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.
What is it about that statement that bothers me? Could it be that this is precisely the kind of rhetoric about "the unfit" that comes straight out of the eugenics movement -- and don't forget (jog your memory here) that Maslow started out under the wing of one of America's foremost eugenicists, Edward L. Thorndike. Similarly, in Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, Maslow writes:
I have already written much on scientistic, nineteenth-century, orthodox science, and intend to write more. Here I have been dealing with it from the point of view of the dichotomizing of science and religion, of facts (merely and solely) from values (merely and solely), and have tried to indicate that such a splitting off of mutually exclusive jurisdictions must produce cripple-science and cripple-religion, cripple-facts and cripple-values.
Not to regard these sorts of deus-ex-machina pronunciamentos as unscientific is (merely and solely) delusionary . To see them as somehow apolitical is (merely and solely) crap.
At EDGE: The World Question Center (the brainchild of John Brockman, whose world-class humility is the stuff of legend), there's a piece by Martin E.P. Seligman -- "Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania, Author, Authentic Happiness" -- in which he writes:
In the sociology of high accomplishment, Charles Murray (Human Accomplishment) documents that the highest accomplishments occur in cultures that believe in absolute truth, beauty, and goodness. The accomplishments, he contends, of cultures that do not believe in absolute beauty tend to be ugly, that do not belief [sic] in absolute goodness tend to be immoral, and that do not believe in absolute truth tend to be false.
Note that the book Seligman references -- Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 -- is an extended paean to Blind Boy Apollo and the All-White Astronauts of Western Civilization.
Note also that Charles Murray is co-author of The Bell Curve, perhaps the most racist book published in the last fifty years.
Now tell me again about these supposedly "scientific" -- not to mention true, good and beautiful -- metrics of character and virtue? Call me a negative unhappy pessimist, but fuck you, Marty.