Sunday, October 30, 2005

The People Who Brought You the Weekend

Earlier in the month I spoke with reporter Dan Brillman about self-help culture, and last week that interview ran. Dan and I had an incredibly interesting conversation that lasted more than an hour, so I didn't envy him the task of distilling it to a 1,000 word Q & A.

One of the things that didn't make it into the article was our discussion of how the rise of self-improvement culture also parallels the decline in the strength of organized labor. Entrepreneurial up-from-under striving becomes an appealing idea when more collective and community-based solutions are absent or in decline.

We talked about how a revitalized labor movement that takes its model from Hollywood's guilds could help Americans re-engage with their colleagues in the interest of mutual aid and support. We talked about the Freelancer's Union, and its importance in promoting the idea of portable benefits.

People feel that they have to think of themselves as the CEOs of Me, Inc. when there is no social safety net: no health insurance for 46 million Americans, evaporating pension funds for workers who still think they even have pensions (reported in The New York Times Magazine, 10/30/05), ongoing attacks on social security, and a minimum wage that won't support a single person, let alone a family.

It's not surprising that Americans have embraced a culture of entrepreneurial uplift and fantasies of rags-to-riches, but a revitalized labor movement would offer a more sturdy solution. Remember, as the bumper sticker says: these are the people who brought you the weekend.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Thanks to Barbara Ehrenreich . . .

. . . who mentioned in a recent interview that she's found Self-Help, Inc. to be interesting reading . . .

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Self-Help Authors—For 'Em or Agin 'Em?

Yesterday a young Harvard graduate who had written a self-help book approached me, introduced herself, and said, in a decidely confrontational voice, "You're against me."

"I'm not sure what you mean," I said.

"I read your web site," she said. "And you're against me and what I do."

I paused to consider her. She looked genuinely angry.

"No, I'm not against you," I said. "I'm against a culture that tells us that we can do it all alone. And I'm against a society that provides not even the most minimal safety net for its citizens."

She looked puzzled.

Sometime later she said, "I want to offer you some advice about your web site. I'm a smart person—at least I think I'm a smart person—and I couldn't tell what your book is about from your web site."

Apparently. As to whether she's a smart person, I can't say.

So let's set the record straight, at least on the topic of self-help authors and self-help books: Am I for 'em or agin 'em?

Neither, actually. I've met a number of self-help authors and it seems to me that they are mostly well-intentioned. A couple seemed downright brilliant. And most seem to want to help people while making a living doing something they themselves like doing—writing, giving talks and lectures, running workshops. So I'm not against them. Never have been. Doubt I ever will be. Heck, on a good day, that's almost the same thing I do.

What I'm against is a social order that offers only individual solutions to problems that are global, economic, and systemic. And I'm not wildly enthusiastic about an industry that makes people feel as though all their problems are consequences of poor "choices," bad judgment, or lack of willpower.