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|Grand Illusion - Page 5|
The idea that any clever, determined, hard-working, ambitious go-getter can get rich is a familiar staple in our folk ideology. But during the late 19th century, huge concentrations of wealth and power increasingly put the kibosh on the idea that ordinary working people could make it rich, no matter how hard they struggled. They often couldn't even form unions for better pay and fewer working hours, much less get rich by raising themselves up by their own bootstraps. So, another version of the anybody-can-get-rich myth was born: it wasn't what you did or how hard you worked that made you rich, it was what you thought and believed.
The American "mind-cure" or "new thought" movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries (that morphed into the New Age and self-help industries later on) built a phenomenally successful market around the proposition that God, or Jesus, or World Spirit, or Universal Mind, or the Great All, wanted you to have whatever you desire, particularly success and money (which amount to the same thing). Of course, as the mind-cure gurus constantly exhorted their flocks: you have to do your part to help the universe along—that is, concentrate with dogged, single-minded focus on the object of your wish and believe with unflagging confidence and relentless optimism that you will get it.
Among thousands of books with this numbingly repetitious message, some a hundred or more years old and still being published, are Think and Grow Rich, The Science of Getting Rich, The Magic of Believing, The Miracle of Right Thinking, In Tune with the Infinite, Prosperity God's Way, and two all-time breadwinners, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, and The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, a liberal Presbyterian minister. Peale's Power of Positive Thinking, which has sold five million copies since its 1952 printing and is still popular, is a classic of the genre. To achieve success, Peale writes, "Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop this picture. Never think of yourself as failing; never doubt the reality of the mental image. That is most dangerous, for the mind always tries to complete what it pictures. So always picture Ôsuccess,' no matter how badly things seem to be going at the moment."
The current biggest New-Age get-rich-by-wishing version of this rigmarole is The Secret, a book/film/website (and mainly gigantic marketing opportunity) dreamed up by Rhonda Byrne, an Australian television producer. The "secret" is the old idea that "like attracts like" (long a staple of the mind-cure movement), and that if you want good things to come to you, including money, you must put out good feelings, positive visualizations, and the right kind of energy to draw them in. "Ask, believe, receive" is the mantra. "You are a magnet attracting to you all things [including money], via the signal you are emitting through your thoughts and feelings." In other words, thoughts are things, so a thought about money is actually just another kind of specie (try paying your mortgage with it).
Much of this is nuts, of course. But how much crazier is it than what Americans have been doing recently—flinging our money away from us as if we were afraid of it? Currently, U.S. personal debt—credit cards, mortgages, car loans, etc.—amounts to more then $13 trillion dollars, about the same amount as the country's entire GDP. For years, many of us have gone through money like a blowtorch through snow, and regarded plastic as our personal little get-away-free card, as if scribbling our names on the credit card were actually signing away debt, not signing up for it. It's as if we all thought that by acting and buying like rich people, we somehow were rich people—by the simple expedient of putting the American Dream on our visa card.