Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology

Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology

Fool's Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology

Through the channels of the mass media, celebrity psychologists urge us to realize that society has robbed us of our authentic selves. That every moral standard or prohibition imposes on our selfhoods. That what we have inherited from the past is false. That we ourselves are the only truth in a world of lies. That we must challenge “virtually everything.” That we must “wipe the slate clean and start over.” Each of these “principles” is a commonplace of pop psychology, and each has almost unimaginably radical implications. Where did pop psychology come from, and what are its promises—and fallacies? How is it that we have elevated people like Phil McGraw, Theodore Rubin, Wayne Dyer, M. Scott Peck, Thomas Harris, John Gray, and many other self-help gurus to priestly status in American culture? In Fool’s Paradise, the award-winning essayist Stewart Justman traces the inspiration of the pop psychology movement to the utopianism of the 1960s and argues that it consistently misuses the rhetoric that grew out of the civil rights movement. Speaking as it does in the name of our right to happiness, pop psychology promises liberation from all that interferes with our power to create the selves we want. In so doing, Mr. Justman writes, it not only defies reality but corrodes the traditions and attachments that give depth and richness to human life. His witty and astringent appraisal of the world of pop psychology, which quotes liberally from the most popular sources of advice, is an essential social corrective as well as a vastly entertaining and stimulating book.

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3 Comments so far »

  1. Craig Matteson said,

    Wrote on April 15, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

    18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A wonderful book of powerful literary criticism, November 28, 2005
    Craig Matteson (Saline, MI) –
    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)

    This review is from: Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology (Hardcover)

    It is important to understand that this takes on the world of pop psychology as a subject for literary criticism rather than debating its medical claims, a subject for humorous satire, or by offering its own “therapy”. Any of the alternatives would be justified and could have been successful, but I really do appreciate the serious way literary criticism is used in these essays because we get so little of it in our post-modern values-neutral deconstructionist non-judgmental age. Here, instead of a bunch of emotional ranting trying to pass as analysis we get an informed and reasoned approach that demonstrates the ways in which the world of pop psychology has inverted and misused literature from the past, contradicts itself, and actually creates a toxic interpersonal environment.

    Stewart Justman teaches English at the University of Montana. He has written previously on psychology, studied at Columbia, and is an award winning essayist. He begins this book with an extended essay on the ways in which pop psychology is intertwined with the Utopian movement of the sixties. Not that one sprang from the other, but that the culture was ripe for both and the mis-readings of Utopian literature led to ignorant writings advocating unworkable system. He shows us how these advocates misuse even our Declaration of Independence and its right to the pursuit of happiness for a right to happiness! He notes that some claim this movement is rooted in American Individualism, but the author wonders if any individualist would so completely submit to the dictates of a Wayne Dyer, Steve Covey, or a Phil McGraw (among countless others).

    He goes through a series of seven chapters demonstrating how this literature inverts traditional values and puts its adherents in even greater isolation and dependency. We go through blame, guilt, obligation, patience, choice, morality, and self-transformation. He shows us how serious psychologists such as Maslow and Laing extend us into a narcissistic world where all relationships are about “me” and even children become accoutrements! Where we must realize that all relationships in our life, our family, our religion are all toxic, EXCEPT for our dependency upon our therapist or guru (again, Dyer, Covey, McGraw, and more).

    I think the strongest chapters are those devoted directly to literary criticism. Literature Rewritten and Constructing Stories are absolutely terrific and powerful. The author demonstrates the way the reader of this literature is manipulated. It demonstrates how the stories the literature uses also fail the requirements of art and why this important to understand.

    The last chapter on liberal guilt is quite entertaining because the author shows how this is a guilt of discussion not emotion. If you actually feel the guilt you talk about something is then wrong and the emotion must be disposed of.

    This is a very good book and I strongly recommend it. I hope college students get an opportunity to read it. Of course, having a professor of the quality of this author would help the class discussion a great deal. Still, this book can help any reader understand better so much of what is going on in our culture and why it is not only wrong, but very damaging to its adherents and their accoutrements.

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  2. Zen Nataraj said,

    Wrote on April 15, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

    41 of 52 people found the following review helpful
    2.0 out of 5 stars
    Angry Intellectual’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Literary Criticism, January 14, 2006

    This review is from: Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology (Hardcover)

    I read this book after listening to the author in a radio talk show. On the air, his comments on the history of psychology were surprisingly vague; he was irritable, and rebuked callers (some therapists) who moderately tried to consider some benefits of pop psychology. Nonetheless, I reasoned, maybe the book is better…

    It raises good points againt pop psychology: that it is solipsistic, blindly non-judgemental, immediatist, and formulaic. The author also makes interesting, even if loose, associations between pop psychology and the civil rights movement and classic Romanticism.

    However, the author totally ignores the vast scholarship on individualism trends, counterculture and the New Age, and never considers what psychologists or readers may have to say about pop psychology. A textual analysis that reinvents the wheel, and ignores the producers and consumers of the cultural texts under consideration, is anything but persuasive.

    Yet, what ultimately undermines the book is its excessively corrosive style. The essay basically is the outraged opinion of someone who read a bunch of self-help books and utterly hated them. With no further justifications, the author indulges in an overkill strategy of restless sarcasm that becomes quite tiring after a while. The angry essay unfortunately backfires on what could otherwise be a compelling critique of pop psychology.

    For a balanced analysis, Anthony Giddens’ “Transformation of Intimacy” considers pop psychology in the context of social reflexivity and growing demands for interpretations of the self. Anthony D’Andrea examines pop body therapies and New Age spiritualities in the book “Global Nomads: New Age and Techno as Transnational Countercultures.”

    [PS: curious how low-starred reviews tend to be voted “unhelpful”, regardless of their intrinsic merit…]

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  3. bronx book nerd said,

    Wrote on April 15, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

    7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    A Much Needed Balance to the World of Self Help, January 26, 2006
    bronx book nerd (Bronx, NY USA) –

    This review is from: Fool’s Paradise: The Unreal World of Pop Psychology (Hardcover)

    Justman clearly exposes many of the contradictions and outright bouts of logical errors found in self-help tomes. He rightly describes the way self-help authors seek to estalish themselves as your one true friend, while accusing the rest of the world, especially your parents and any traditional insitutions, of conspiring to make you unhappy. Today’s self help gurus rant against tradition and the past, while blindly building on the past tradition of the self help movement. I give Justman 4 stars because I think there are some self-help books, authors and techniques that can be useful. Not all of them can be pigeonholed as snake oil. Anyone who reads self-help books should read Fool’s Paradise to get a different perspective on the subject. I would also recommned Paul Pearsall’s The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need. Pearsall, a practicing psychologist, offers critique’s of self-help backed up by studies, while at the same time allowing for self-help to be, well, helpful.

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