Reviews — From the February 2014 issue

The Almighty Dollar

America’s self-help gospel

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Medical school takes a long time, but Carnegie’s book can be read in a night, and the Dale Carnegie Course it spawned, versions of which are still offered to individuals and corporations by a worldwide network of 2,700 instructors, can be finished in a weekend that promises to leave you “better-equipped to perform as a persuasive communicator, problem-solver and focused leader.” Learn how to put on the mask of someone who cares, to satisfy the longing for acknowledgment, and you can corner the market on friends and influence and, naturally, get rich in the process. You can even, as John D. Rockefeller Jr. (at least according to Carnegie) once did, end a miners’ strike simply by professing to understand and share common interests with the workers — a move that, Carnegie writes, “produced astonishing results . . . [T]he strikers went back to work without saying another word about the increase in wages for which they had fought so violently.”

Of course, as Watts points out, Rockefeller did not win the Great Coalfield War of 1914 merely by providing the strikers with an audience. After such standard union-busting techniques as mass firings failed to bring about the desired results, his Colorado Fuel and Iron Company obtained the services of Colorado’s National Guardsmen, who, along with company guards, turned a machine gun on a strikers’ encampment, killing something like twenty of its inhabitants. (Accounts vary, but we know for sure that the dead included eleven children and two women.) Another hundred or so were killed in the guerrilla war that broke out in subsequent days, which ended only after Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops. Only then did Rockefeller arrive on the scene, preaching conciliation and cooperation and making various offers that the impoverished miners, with their busted union and diminished prospects, could not afford to refuse.

Carnegie’s “simplistic rendering of this traumatic event,” Watts writes, “epitomized a larger difficulty in How to Win Friends and Influence People: a startlingly naïve view of social, economic, and political issues that reduced them to matters of personality, human relations, and psychological adjustment.” But the view isn’t really all that startling, at least not to contemporary eyes — thanks in no small part to the success of Carnegie and all the self-help messiahs who have come in his wake, we’ve been led to think of all our troubles as manifestations of our inner lives. And to call it naïve may be to let Carnegie off too easily. He is, after all, the man who, having won friends and influence, used his newspaper column to tell his readers what he did when encountering people richer than himself.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. can’t enjoy a good book any more than I can; Andrew Mellon himself couldn’t see his wonderful collection of oil paintings with any better vision than mine . . . Yes, when I think of all the joys I can have at so little cost, I might, if I didn’t really enjoy my work and had no responsibility, even drop back and apply for a place on the relief roll.

This victim blaming seems just plain cruel, the platitudes of a man who has not simply forgotten his past but pushed it away with brutal force.

On the other hand, it’s no crueler than providing the downcast with an audience and then, once your attentions have gotten theirs, assuring them that because their suffering is not really the fault of the bankers and speculators who wrecked the economy, they have it within themselves to overcome it. It’s no crueler than telling them that what they lack isn’t money but the confidence that would render their penury inconsequential even as it makes their affluence more likely. It’s no crueler than turning empathy into advantage, and from there into a comfortable living. That’s what you want when you’ve been knocked to your knees, isn’t it? If not a god to beseech for a hand up, then at least someone who will tell you that you have what it takes, even if you are paying for the privilege.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is the author, most recently, of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry (Blue Rider Press).

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