Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2004

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

I hope no-one will be put off by the bilious yellow covers, or the execrable dust jacket (shades of Brad and Janet from The Rocky Horror Show meet Keith Harris and Orville the Duck), because this is a well-written, wise and passionate book by an erudite and extremely well-informed rationalist and humanist.

Francis Wheen is perhaps best known as a formidable journalist – particularly on the Guardian – and a witty contributor to BBC Radio 4’s satirical The News Quiz. But his scholarship is of an altogether higher level than most journalists’, as witness his marvellous biographies of Karl Marx and Tom Driberg.

This latest book (which I am tempted to suggest is really several books masquerading as one) is a brilliant analysis of the intellectual and political forces in the modern world that despise and undermine the great achievements of the Enlightenment, and seek to plunge us into either the dog-eat-dog, free-for-all of unrestricted deregulation or the tyranny of medieval religious hegemony.

His range of targets is very wide – and that is part of the reason why it might have been better to make it two or three books instead of one. On the one hand are the structuralists and postmodernists, such as Derrida, Foucault, Lacan and their American and British disciples, who seek to persuade us that there is no such thing as truth or objectivity, that science is just a tool for political domination and – to quote its most notorious American exponent, Paul Feyerabend – “Anything Goes”.

On the other hand are the politicians like Thatcher, Reagan, Blair and others who have abandoned the traditions of the Enlightenment and the American Founding Fathers, and opened the door to corporate fraud and unrestrained personal greed and ambition. Enron, junk-bond dealers, the Murdochs and Goldsmiths of this world, are all shown to have derived their power to destabilise and impoverish societies at home and abroad from the political (and ultimately philosophical) consequences of the modern hostility or indifference to rational and Enlightenment values.

Wheen also takes in the Diana (Princess of Wales) cult, modern Islamicism, “alternative” medicine, gurus of personal development and industrial management, New Age mysticism, flying-saucer cults and a variety of other highly profitable, but utterly irrational, fads and fancies. He makes an unanswerable case that these are not harmless personal idiosyncrasies, but positively dangerous to the health of society.

If I have a reservation about this book, if is perhaps that its scattergun approach (notwithstanding that all his targets deserve shooting down) tends to dilute the much-needed opprobrium that each of his victims (including Noam Chomsky, egregiously an Hon. Associate of the Rationalist Press Association!) justly deserves.

But, considered as an extended piece of well-written, passionate and highly intelligent journalism in the service of values dear to all humanists and rationalists, it is hard to imagine a better example. I hope that, as such, it has the success it so richly deserves.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-05-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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