Mumbo Jumbo Has Conquered the World

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the WorldA Short History of Modern Delusions by Francis Wheen, Harper Perennial, (2004) 312 pages.

Post-truth, post-fact, post-reality. You don’t need a lengthy introduction on the state of the world. You just need to take a look around: A man who wavers between imbecile and potential despot sits in the highest office of the land; the far-left in the academy enjoys titillating itself with concepts of postmodernity; the GOP engages in a demagogic post-truthiness, while its black sheep of a relation (first name “alt”) is busy sending the mainstream media into tizzies by co-opting “OK” signs as white supremacist on 4chan, making memes, and blaming Jews for everything.

In wondering how we got here, Francis Wheen’s polemic against stupidity, idiocy, and “mumbo-jumbo” as he calls it lends a clue. First published in 2004, the book offers Wheen’s humorous and biting commentary on politics, recent history, and cultural events around the Anglosphere and beyond — and lays out the foundations to how we got to our current reality. Neither side is safe, and neither does Wheen limit his scope, included on his hit-list are Princess Diana, Francis Fukuyama, Enron, Tony Robbins, Margaret Thatcher, Jerry Falwell, Deepak Chopra, Noam Chomsky, Samuel Huntington, and many more. It is the veritable who’s who of the past half century. It seems more than a decade ago, Wheen found the conversations we would be having in 2017, from self-help “gurus,” university madness, to religion and terrorism, it’s all there.

Chopra, amongst other peddlers, is lambasted in a chapter titled “Old Snake Oil, New Bottles.” Noting the good doctor Chopra’s rise to fame on July 12th, 1993, when he said on The Oprah Show, “Love is the ultimate truth,” Wheen diagnoses the moment as “perfectly pitched for Oprah and her millions of fretful yet hopeful viewers.” A sad sentence, reflective of America’s you just have to believe mantra, follows: “Within twenty-four hours of the broadcast 137,000 copies of Ageless Body, Timeless Mind [Chopra’s book] had been ordered.” This is the same Chopra who’s since been known to offer up arcane advice like, “People grow old and die because they have seen other people grow old and die. Ageing is simply a learned behavior.”

“Academics” take it on the chin, too (rightly deserved). The work of postmodernists and poststructuralists with their characteristic obtuseness is described as:

“… the babbling impenetrability of most postmodern text arouses the suspicion that they are no more than atonal noise, signifying nothing — in a fitting style, perhaps, for a theory that seeks to cast doubt on the very existence of ‘meaning.’”

We learn about Michel Foucault, idolized and revered in parts of the academy, when Wheen recalls what Foucault, “enraptured by the beauty of the Ayotallah Khomeini’s neanderthal regime” had to say about the suppression of dissent in Iran after the Islamic revolution. In “deep” thoughts, Foucault is quoted as saying:

“They don’t have the same regime of truth as ours, which, it has to be said, is very special, even if it has become almost universal… And in Iran it is largely modeled on a religion that has an exoteric form and an esoteric content… everything that is said under the explicit form of the law also refers to another meaning. So not only is saying one thing that means another not a condemnable ambiguity, it is on the contrary, a necessary and highly prized additional level of meaning. It’s often the case that people say something that, at the factual level, isn’t true, but which refers to another, deeper meaning, which cannot be assimilated in terms of precision and observation.”

Wheen’s comments on Foucault’s answers are far superior to mine so I’ll let them take center stage. He writes:

“This is a magnificently Parisian method of avoiding a straightforward question: with enough intellectual ingenuity, even the absence of free speech and promotion of mendacity can be admired as exercise in irony and textual ambiguity.”

All I had annotated to Foucault’s response was, “what the hell?” Foucault was free to blither his reply — while essential freedoms of the Iranian people were being suppressed. His words were, I’m sure, perceived as “profound” by the cults of graduate students taken in by him and his colleagues’ babbling.

In pointing out Jacques Lacan’s laughably flawed forays into the world of mathematics in trying to represent erectile organs through algebra (I’m not making that up), Wheen offers Barbara Ehrenreich’s question “What does it matter if some French guy wants to think of his penis as the square root of minus one? Not much, except that on American campuses, especially the more elite ones, such utterances were routinely passed off as examples of boldly ‘transgressive’ left-wing thought.” Wheen then opines,

“Few progressives dared to challenge this tyranny of twaddle for fear of being reviled as cultural and political reactionaries — or, no less shamingly, ignorant philistines.”

I wonder if Wheen is aware of the current climate in some universities today. It seems his observations from over a decade ago have extrapolated outwards and into serving as the underpinnings of some of the lunacy we see. Though at the time of writing I’m sure they were just beginning to teeth. Wheen is harsh — deservedly so, on the individuals who were thought of as thought leaders; Lucy Irigiray and Jacques Derrida do not escape his scope. He uses Alan Sokal (of the famous Sokal affair) and Jean Bricmont to barricade his positions. If you’re curious as to the origin of most of the pseudo-scholarly drivel that is corrupting the humanities and has seeped into the social sciences and further, I recommend the chapter “The Demolition Merchants of Reality.”

Wheen’s book, however, is not only focused on the postmodern lunatics who have thrived in the humanities. He spends a considerable amount of time taking to task those who would question Enlightenment values. From Theodor Adorno, Horkheimer, to Alaisdair MacIntyre and John Gray who, in Wheen’s words, saw the Enlightenments promotion of universal values as “a camouflage… for a brutal imperialistic project to subjugate other cultures and impose Western hegemony.” Wheen quickly offers the rebuttal:

“Quite the opposite: an insistence on universal standards of morality, freedom and human dignity was what inspired their defense of indigenous peoples against invaders who trashed ‘inferior’ cultures.”

In an interview in the closing sections of the book, Wheen describes himself as an “admirer of the Enlightenment… Things like scientific empiricism, the separation of church and state, the waning absolutism and tyranny.” These positions clearly serve as the guiding filter through which Wheen dissects the issues he tackles.


Covering Islam and terrorism, his writing similarly seems prophetic to our current and fuddling environment — is it the religion which causes the heinous actions we see all around the world, or is it Western media, intervention, and policy? Referencing a New Statesman editorial that lays culpability on the American people for the 9/11 attacks, which states:

“American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vientnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no… No, because Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries, at least have the privileges of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favor of a different order. If the United States often seems a greedy and overweening power, that is partly because its people have willed it,”

and then adding Seumas Milne’s opinion in the Guardian that,

“US’s ‘unabashed national egotism and arrogance’ that drove ‘anti-Americanism’ among swaths of the worlds population,”

Wheen asks the question:

“So it was all their own fault — even if many of the victims were not American citizens[?]”

I am not aware of Francis Wheen’s politics today, but at the time of composition of How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World he seems to have been a prototype of what Sam Harris calls the “new center” (although his economic views are probably anything but). A position which values reason, evidence, and objectivity; accepts Islam’s role in creating terrorism whilst avoiding bigotry towards Muslims, values sense, logic, and rationality over subjective experiences and personal truths. All of Wheen’s judgements rotate around these principles — and promote ideas out of the Enlightenment. 

Read 13 years after publication, from Ronald Reagan’s dependence and frequent consultations with Nancy’s astrologer, to Margaret Tatcher’s wonky economic policies, to the UFO craze that swept the USA, Wheen’s recount fires an arrow that can be used as the guiding light for tracing the disintegration of our discourse today. Though laced with humor, above all, Wheen’s book is the call for a renewal of Enlightenment values and against the postmodernist, post-truth influence he saw coming from both the right and the left. A call, it seems, that has gone unheard.


  1. Caleb Powell says:

    Well done, Malhar.

  2. Stephen Henstock says:

    Thanks Malhar. You so piqued my interest that I just ordered the book.

  3. Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia (2009) is good too, as are his biography on Marx and his book on Das Kapital.

    He’s a fairly familiar face on British TV.

  4. Hello there, Malhar!

    First than all, I must apologize for digging this thread from six feet under!! 😛

    I really appreciate the points you post here. I cannot agree with every part posited here, because I perceive confirmation bias, for the sake of doing a perfect application of the critical theory of political science (not that I undervalue the method, as you can see).

    Of course there seems to be a subjectively arcane advice for Chopra’s detractors and their personal, subjective dislikes of him because his ascent to fame. For me, I maintain a neutral viewpoint of him.

    “Love is the ultimate truth”,

    Then we should have a non-physical, albeit not necessarily metaphysical, simple concept of love based on human, proactive, every-day relationships, instead of associating it with what people subjectively dislike or like upon imposed doctrines or previous, nice or traumatic, sensitive experiences. Expressions of love are subjective, but not the core concept of love itself, even with its near ineffability.

    Something like this I’ll re-quote:

    “This is the same Chopra who’s since been known to offer up arcane advice like, “’People grow old and die because they have seen other people grow old and die. Ageing is simply a learned behavior.'”

    This unfortunately is really irritating for some people, because, I actually agree, this language is rather vague and metaphorical. But, that does not mean the phrase on itself, is irrational. Rationality is not just the use of methodologies of Aristotelian, Formal Logic and their extensions and Modus, to assemble your axiomatic parts and reach a conclusion for any posited problem. In fact, as seen from the context of anthropological philosophy, of the few things I’ve learned by my own about it, rationality stems from knowledge, and one needs to be sufficiently knowledgeable of the axiomatic parts that will be used, for any logical statement. That’s how, in practice, logic by necessity and sufficiency, actually work.

    Chopra’s statement is apparently arcane, and highly qualitative, but is accurate nonetheless. Apparently, Wheen is ignorant, or deliberately oblivious, about two important differences that are widely known in the field of medicine:

    Physiological age: Is a quantitative relation with your age (in numbers), that determines, from an average person who follows their aging process, how “younger” or “older” your body is, by determining how well your body’s systems and subsystems work.

    Chronological age: This is actually your age in years (discreet quantities, numbers).

    Nonetheless, we don’t even know how the mechanism of aging actually works, as the alpha-telomerase is not the only factor for determining aging, but still, by understanding some stuff without falling into the infamous diet cults, we may lower the count with our physiological age.

    And for what I humbly perceive, skepticism is not actually a permanent view, without becoming either acceptation, or denial. Skepticism is the methodology of “always staying in doubt”. What most people do not understand, is that, in practice, it is completely impossible to maintain such a tenet, such a proposition, adverbially, without committing logical fallacies. That “always” is not adverbial. It simply refers to the initial approach to any logical proposition.

    Many people fail with logical propositions because, many people lack sufficient knowledge of what they propose and/or rebut. In the majority of the circumstances, those characteristics are psychologically –even para-psychologically, and that depends on how open or closed-minded people are– observable. Ergo, that very same people lack necessity and sufficiency, when expressing any logical argument.

    So, if skepticism remains unhinged and unchecked, it becomes either “accepticism” or “denialism” so quickly, that it rather becomes another fundamentalist counter-current that is so good in blacklisting any different worldview and becomes so radically reductionist and eliminative, that it makes so much more difficult, to continue the needed paradigmatic changes in science,engineering,philosophy,math,arts,theology,etc.

    From a socio-cultural perspective, ethics still remain in a subjective footing, as it should be. With morality, we’re going through bigger slippery-slopes. If moral standards are universally imposed, we have something akin to a ultra-centralized communist or fascist dictatorship; If moral standards keep objectivity, but are taught from a perspective of what people have in common, and simultaneously exalting their individual capabilities, acquired or otherwise -something that is completely possible, without the tenets of classical liberalism-, things might change for the better.

    Francis Wheen’s politics, seem, from what I’ve read here (Will read the book before coming to conclusions), from a sort of an Authoritarian Center. I’ve seen a bit of a striking similitude with the views of the american alt-right.

    This humble writer is not into the application of critical theory in politics as is, because some people are prone to commit the most common logical fallacies while doing it. At the same time, there’s an awkward, persistent tendency to interpret the language of the people they ideologically disagree with, to their capricious style. I prefer to stay as centrist as possible. For many radicals (even radical agnostics and nihilists, much like solipsists, they also exist!!), I feel like the wishy-washiest. That’s the sacrifice of seeing things dispassionately!!

    There are some awesome people who write for your magazine, from every conceivable view but with enough fair-mindedness that is not polarizing to read but for the foremost radicals on the range of the ideological spectrum.

    Keep up with this writing quality and King Regards!!


  5. L says:

    Deepak Chopra’s initial publication, “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind” offered something phenomenal to the public which had not been shared before by medical practitioners: listing of an approximate timeframe it takes for an organ of the body to rebuild with new cells. It was splendid to learn in ten-twelve years lungs are comprised of completely new cells, for example, which bodes well for folks who are contemplating quitting smoking.

    Unfortunately, the astute medical doctor went beyond the realm of his medical knowledge and blamed the way we think as the main cause, entirely the very reason, why we age. All of Chopra’s subsequent books focus on esoteric ways to become immortal or “ageless” by changing the way we think—that’s the “snake oil” to which Wheen refers in his book I plan on reading thanks to Mali’s review.

    Psychological countenance is one of a gajillion things which can contribute to ageing but to buy in to Chopra’s idea that the mind is so powerful it can keep one healthy and young in a “timeless” way is malarkey, hubris. It’s as true as the promise of anti-wrinkle cream ads.

    Oprah Winfrey seems real and kind despite the constant harsh scrutiny and fish-bowl existence. She means well, helped many “gurus” with their feel-good analogies become rich in book sales without considering none of their wisdom lasts after their books are read and left to collect dust on the shelf. Folks return from those pages of pretend and have to keep up with daily tasks, challenges, hopes and needs; pay their bills.

    I once sent Oprah Winfrey an email asking if she would consider interviewing neuroscientists, astrophysicists, atheists. Some examples: Neal DeGrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, Robert M. Sapolsky, David Eagelman. Never received an answer from her or staff.

    It’s disappointing to realize gullibility exists in powerful personalities who have attained an excellent education, fame due to hard work, and more wealth than they will spend in their lifetime. I wonder if Francis Wheen’s book, “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World” gives mention of Oprah Winfrey’s many guest gurus as being a huge contributing factor of much of the mumbo jumbo that’s conquering the world?

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