Friday, 2 June 2017
Thursday, 1 June 2017
Friday, 26 May 2017
How Self-Help Doesn't Help
Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze
By Svend Brinkmann
Polity, 138pp, £12.99
Svend Brinkmann is the self-help guru who paradoxically presents himself as the antidote to self-help culture. In this provocative and entertaining book he urges us to liberate ourselves from the edicts of the self-help industry, with their phoney promises of happiness and self-realisation. We should resist their mantra of “self-development”, and their exhortations to be forever positive and optimistic. He calls upon us to stand firm against pointless, perpetual incommands to be “true to oneself”.
Brinkmann instead asks us to be happy with staying still and living with oneself, with saying “no” sometimes instead of “yes” all the time. Perfect happiness is an impossible goal. There is nothing wrong with being unhappy or being doubtful. His most abiding message is to resist the temptation to “look inside oneself”, and instead to suppress one’s feelings when they are infantile and destructive, and to look outside oneself. It’s usually people who give in to their base emotions, and those in possession of certainty, who have caused the most misery in the history of humanity.
Brinkmann introduces his own “seven- step guide to happiness”, a somewhat ironic and indeed risky approach, considering that he seeks to debunk therapy programmes. His steps are: 1. Cut out the navel gazing; 2. Focus on the negative in your life; 3. Put on the No hat; 4. Suppress your feelings; 5. Sack your coach; 6. Read a novel — not a self-help book or biography; 7. Dwell on the past. He urges the reader to look outwards, to be open to other people, cultures and nature. “You need to accept that the self does not hold the key to how to live your life. The self is merely an idea, a construct, a by-product of cultural history.” The much-vaunted journey of “self-discovery” is a dangerous one, as you may not like what you find — or you may not find anything at all.
With an eye for paradox, he talks about positivity as a negative thing, and attacks the prevailing notion that it’s good and healthy to “say yes” all the time. He exhorts the reader to eliminate the tyranny of the positive by accentuating the negative. It will make you better prepared to stand firm, where you are.
First, the “say yes” dictate paradoxically annuls personal agency. Second, not everything is possible if you merely “put your mind to it”. The notion that you can change things merely through positive thinking will only lead to ultimate feelings of failure.
The self-help industry has been marked by two paradoxes over the past decades. First, it celebrates the individual, freedom of choice and self-realisation, yet simultaneously it helps to create people who are increasingly addicted to self-help (does anyone know someone who has only bought a single self-help book?). The second paradox is that the self-help industry has flourished precisely because self-help books don’t work. The first author to create a successful self-help book would instantly finish off the genre. Self-help programmes merely create dependent users, who much like addicts are forever after their next fix — the next mythical, miracle dose that will give them final bliss.
Brinkmann is openly in debt to the Stoics, and the book contains an appendix on Stoicism. Yet there are more recent thinkers than the Ancient Greeks who came to identical conclusions. Schopenhauer wrote that life was essentially unhappy and the best way of dealing with it was to minimise displeasure and pain. In his footsteps came Nietzsche, who said that life was not about accepting life’s inherent sufferings, but facing and overcoming them. (Nietzsche also thought “the self” was a myth and that life’s calling wasn’t being “true to oneself” but “conducting a war against oneself, that is to say self-controlled outwitting.”) And it was Freud who wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents that peaceful societies were erected upon the very premise that people don’t give into their emotions. Without repression or control of our emotion we might think nothing of killing our neighbour. Still, Brinkmann does openly point the finger of blame at Rousseau, whose Confessions initiated the cult of “being true to oneself” — that the key to life is to be yourself and listen to your “inner voice”.
Brinkmann’s “just say no” message is a refreshing one, and one that might have caused more controversy — especially among mental health charity firms and the pharmaceutical industry, who are all too keen to promote the idea that there is something wrong with being unhappy or sometimes distressed by life. But Stand Firm was a roaring success upon its first publication in Denmark three years ago. Perhaps its success represents a backlash against the self-help and therapeutic consensus that has held sway over the years. Or perhaps it merely represents a return to the status quo ante, a need to “stand firm” in our hyperconnected society where there is a sense of information overload.
This book is indeed timely, considering that so many feel overwhelmed by an ever-accelerating globe, in which our modern maladies are sleep deprivation, digital addiction and “FOMO” (fear of missing out). Our culture has also witnessed increased stress, fatigue and depression levels. Brinkmann’s message — to stand still — encourages the reader to “take back control” (to coin a phrase) not only from the self-help ethos, but in everyday life from personal coaches. By standing still and saying no we return dignity to ourselves. Instead of trying to be authentic at any cost, a rational adult should strive for dignity, which assumes the ability to control our emotions.
Sunday, 21 May 2017
Friday, 12 May 2017
Sunday, 7 May 2017
Thursday, 27 April 2017
Saturday, 22 April 2017
Don't blame the Frankfurt School
Patrick West on a bold critique marred by conspiracy theories
What Are They Teaching The Children?
Edited by Lynda Rose, Wilberforce, £12
Not a day seems to pass these days without a story in the newspapers about students or universities banning books or speakers for being “offensive”. Invariably, the offending text or person has said something taboo about someone’s gender or ethnicity, something which contemporary students find unbearably hurtful. Modern higher education appears awash with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” designed to protect today’s students who are at once easily offended and yet alarmingly belligerent in their perceived defence of minorities and the oppressed.
This 21st-century development shouldn’t surprise us, considering the schooling these students would have experienced. For decades now, the doctrines of race and gender equality and non-discrimination have been relentlessly instilled into pupils in secondary schools.
To transgress these articles of faith is deemed to inflict severe mental anguish on the oppressed. The only surprise about our bellicose “snowflake” generation is that it didn’t emerge earlier.
As this collection of essays edited by Lynda Rose elaborates, this cultural revolution – the emergence of equality as a new dogma – materialised in the 1960s. This was a decade that witnessed a sustained attack on Christian and traditional values, with the emergence of socialism as an ersatz, substitute religion.
The associated revolution in education was but one symptom of this cultural shift. As Rose writes: “Education thus became a tool for re-education and indoctrination, ruthlessly replacing the old values with socialist dogma, aimed at emancipating the individual from perceived social pathologies and transferring allegiance to the state.”
“Fairness” has since become the unspoken guiding ideology, which is why in schools it’s deemed important to enlighten children about “equality” and “tolerance” – whether it be towards gays, the transgendered or Muslims.
Yet little comparable generosity of spirit is accorded to Christians, who, quite the reverse, have become objects of hostility. As Edmund Matyjaszek writes here:
“The most ironic aspect is that increasingly – in employment, in education, in public pronouncements – it is the expression of Christian belief that is in danger of being criminalised.” This is because today’s creed of “fairness” only applies to those who are identified or identify themselves as victims – the new dogma excludes those that don’t fit this criteria.
This book is well intentioned, and many will sympathise with the motives of the authors. But while there is much here to inform the reader, What Are They Teaching The Children? suffers from overstatement, and it lapses all too often into the shrill language of conspiracy theory.
“The LGBT movement despises biblical Christianity, following the teaching of Karl Marx and Engels ... and the Church today needs to recognise that the media and government campaigns for the populace to embrace a new morality are just carrying out the mission of radical atheists,” writes Anthony Busk in one chapter. “Their aim is the abolition of the Christian church ... as one more stage on the journey towards fascist and communist totalitarianism.”
Rose herself believes this cultural shift was actually “orchestrated” and “consciously planned” by communists and the Frankfurt School: “The cult of political correctness that we see today is a direct consequence of the organised but covert manipulation devised in post-revolution Russia – and the goal is still the creation of chaos in order to allow the imposition of totalitarian control.”
The book reaches its nadir in the chapter “Indoctrination in Scientism”, where Dr Alastair Noble laments that “evolution is always taught as ‘a fact’.” This is the ironic thing about today’s creationists: they employ the language of relativism that Christians are supposed to deplore: that all narratives can be equally valid.
Hitler and the spectre of the Nazis are invoked more than once in What Are They Teaching The Children? and, as goes one principle of modern-day discourse – Godwin’s Law – as soon as you’ve done this, you’ve lost the argument.
Patrick West is a columnist for spiked-online.com. His new book Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas) is published in August
Friday, 21 April 2017
Tuesday, 18 April 2017
On the Edge
RAFAEL CHIRBES, TRANS. MARGARET JULL COSTA
(HARVILL SECKER, 421 PP, £16.99)
The final novel by Rafael Chirbes, who died two years ago, is ostensibly a bleak portrayal of a Spain ravaged by recession and plunged into despair. It is set in the seaside town of Olba, one of thousands of towns throughout the country devastated by the financial crisis, a land now left strewn with half-finished construction sites, debt and corruption. Laid-off workers sit idle at home on shabby sofas or wile away the time playing dominos in bars, while their wives wonder what they will fill their children's lunchboxes with. Everyone, so to speak, is on the edge.
The main protagonist of the novel, Esteban, was until recently the owner of a carpentry business, but is now penniless and living with his selfish, senile father - now mute and in nappies. The majority of the novel consists in relating his inner dialogue, often in paragraphs that go unbroken for pages, in which he wonders why it all went wrong and who is to blame. It is interspersed with italicized passages from those around him, including those of the staff he had to lay off, each also reflecting on their wretched predicament.
It is an intriguing and entrancing experiment. Esteban's stream of consciousness is rambling and meandering yet lucid: think Finnegans Wake with real words and normal syntax. The prose is thick and relentless, the seaside town is unrelentingly putrid and grubby. There are some wonderful turns of phrase: “Lagoons don’t get a very good press: fever, malaria, filth”; “Work? Only if you want a job digging graves for suicides.” It is a turbulent, tormented affair. “Economics in its purest form,” reflects Esteban, is about “how to stick the knife in the pig’s gullet so that it makes as little fuss as possible when it dies.”
Although superficially a searing indictment of a system that brought a country to its knees, On The Edge is a far more ambiguous and nuanced story than first impressions might suggest. There is the nagging feeling that Estaban believes the town and the country has brought such calamity on itself, what with betrayal and disloyalties exhibited by the characters themselves in response to their plight. Estaban himself is a victim of his own weakness for cheap credit.
If On the Edge is a tale of embitterment, resentment and regret, it is as much Esteban's than the town of Olba or Spain's. His whole bungled life, he feels, has been frustrated by his father's contagious rancour. He reflects on ending as a bog-standard carpenter, unable even to have aspiration. "Perhaps, if I'd had ambition, I would have been even more bitter, would have become impregnated with the bile that has always filled my father". Esteban retreats for the most part into lurid sexual fantasies, before, in the end in seeks refuge in a vortex of childhood memories, to a time before death and money.
(This book review was due to appear in a publication, but for administrative reasons did not)