How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A 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.