Upon learning of the death last month of my hero and friend, the great social-justice activist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, my thoughts turned to her 2007 Harper’s article, “Pathologies of Hope.” She opened with no punches pulled:

“I hate hope. It was hammered into me constantly a few years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer: Think positively! Don’t lose hope! … There. It’s out. Let pestilence rain down on me, for a whole chorus of voices rise up to insist that hope, optimism, and a ‘positive attitude’ are the keys to health and longevity.”

Given my own writings about combating what I called “the tyranny of the positive attitude in America,” I welcomed Ehrenreich’s message. In their 2010 article, Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine, psychologists James Coyne and Howard Tennen refuted positive psychologists’ claims about the benefits of a fighting spirit and cultivating a positive attitude in overcoming cancer. Tyranny indeed: First you have cancer, then if you don’t have a positive attitude, it’s your fault if you die.

What about hope? Prior to Ehrenreich’s piece, I hadn’t thought much about hope beyond the myth of Pandora’s Box. In a popular version, Pandora defied Zeus by opening a gift box, out of which sprang all the evils that have afflicted humans since, including “disease, hunger, poverty, war, and death.” Pandora shut the box before hope escaped, allowing us to hold onto hope. In a more logical version, hope, being trapped in the box, is denied us. The first version is evidently “true,” much to Ehrenreich’s consternation.

In 2008, Ehrenreich contacted a few like-minded scholars and journalists, as she embarked on her new book project, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

Ever the activist/organizer, Ehrenreich convened us in New York City in a group I dubbed the Negateers. In an interview, a reporter once asked me if the name of our group was the Negatives, which sounded to me like a photography club. I replied, “We’re the Negateers — you know, somewhere between the Musketeers and the Mouseketeers.” The name stuck. And though hope was not on the Negateers’ menu, taking action was: We took our inspiration from “Pathologies of Hope,” which closed with these words:


“I got through my bout of cancer in a state of constant rage, directed chiefly against the kitschy positivity of American breast-cancer culture. I remain, although not absolutely, certifiably, cancer-free down to the last cell, at least hope-free. Do not mistake this condition for hopelessness, in the beaten or passive sense, or confuse it with unhappiness. … To be hope-free is to acknowledge the lion in the tall grass, the tumor in the CAT scan, and to plan one’s moves accordingly.”

Although Ehrenreich insisted that she hated hope, I took her message to mean that doing nothing more than being hopeful in the face of adversity is the problem. We must not succumb to our culture’s pressure for positivity, which can lull us into complacency.

To be sure, we cannot escape having hopes, desires, dreams, and dreads, as Ehrenreich acknowledged in her 2020 New Yorker interview entitled “Barbara Ehrenreich is not an optimist, but she has hope for the future.” The question is not whether we have hopes, but what we do about them. As has been said, hope is not a plan.

Trump and his MAGA minions are the tumors in the CAT scan of our body politic, whose democracy is now in jeopardy thanks to them. Apropos of Ehrenreich, hope is beside the point. The point is to take action to combat this cancer, whether we feel hopeful or not. This is where the fighting spirit is legitimately deployed, though there are no guarantees. According to Ehrenreich, “The idea is not that we will win in our own lifetimes and that’s the measure of us but that we will die trying.”

After so many have died fighting for democracy throughout history and now in Ukraine, we must fight to ensure democracy survives in America—in our own lifetimes and beyond. Whether we succeed will surely be the measure of us as Americans.

Barbara S. Held, PhD, is a Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College.

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