How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

This book was top of my pile of holiday reading (well, after a biography so appallingly written I gave up after two chapters). It’s not the book I’d thought it might be, and is all the better for it. Don’t be fooled by the cheery yellow cover and Jeremy Paxman’s comment of “Hilarious” – it’s not a cheery book, and the laughs it provokes are tinged with irony. But make no mistake – it’s well worth reading. I’m not a Guardian reader so am not particularly familiar with Wheen’s writing, but will look out for him in the future. In this book, which is a kind of extended essay on what’s wrong with the world, he is concise, convincing, entertaining. He opens with Enlightenment thinking – how it changed the world for the better, and why it’s still relevant today. Further, he adds that now, “Even intellectuals who respect Enlightenment values often seem reluctant to defend them publicly, fearful of being identified as ‘liberal imperialists’.” The book then races through the kind of “mumbo-jumbo” which has swamped us, from the “voodoo economics” of the 1980s, with Reagan and Thatcher bearing the brunt of his venom, through the greed which precipitated the Wall Street crash in the 1980s, to the fascinatingly repellent antidotes to the world this created. (For example, the self-help style books which grew out of and alongside management-speak: from Deepak Chopra’s nauseating Ageless Body Timeless Mind, Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to the incredibly-titled God wants you to be Rich and Elizabeth I: CEO.) As you can imagine, Wheen is merciless in his assessment of such matters.
Another area in which Wheen excels is demolishing the jargon of post-modernism: he lampoons the impenetrable prose of many deconstructionists, and points out that the newly-subjective nature of reality permits people to question the notion of “facts” – as in, the Holocaust is no longer a “fact”, and can be dismissed much more easily than before by social historians. He also – rightly – takes issue with Luce Irigary’s statement that E=MC2 is a “sexed equation” – something I have wondered about myself…That the deconstructionists are quick to take on sciences about which they know little is not only foolhardy but dangerous, he argues, and hardly advances the world’s knowledge and understanding.
Wheen proceeds to consider the amazing number of alien abductions (suggesting that perhaps it suits the powers-that-be for people to be so gullible, since it distracts them from questioning other, even more, sinister machinations that go on in the world), pours scorn on the Mayan re-birthing ritual enjoyed by the Blairs, and various other random types of spirituality adopted by people clearly searching for something, however unlikely it may be. (I was surprised to find no mention of Scientology here).
This leads into sentimentality, which is increasing in public life, particularly in America but was manifested in Britain when Princess Diana died: I thought Wheen was quite restrained here. American foreign policy, British politics, irrational public panics, dotcom mania – it’s all here, and demolished. I suspect that the kind of people who will read this book are the kind of people who weren’t terribly susceptible to mumbo-jumbo anyway, more’s the pity – but I hope it opens a few people’s eyes. As Wheen said at the start of the book, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and the past two decades have produced monsters galore”. At least this book has brought some of the monsters out of the depths where they lurked and into the public arena.
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