Beyond the pale cast of thought

Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions might better have been called That Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, or even When, as he doesn’t really explain How, much less Why. The book is a pleasing rant with some delicious verbiage that sets out to give short shrift to anything that falls on the wrong side of rational. For Wheen, this line is a sharp divide, drawn in roughly 1750, that casts into an intellectual wilderness a quite bewildering array of human history: free market fundamentalism, Islamism, creationism, new ageism, managerialism,  leftism, self-helpism, Tony Blairism…the list goes on.

And it is simply a list, though an entertaining one. Wheen makes no attempt to connect these rebellions or retreats, (except that they all somehow offer an affront to the Enlightenment thinkers he admires), or to account for the persistent hungers that drive the embrace of irrationality, conspiracy, spirituality, alterity across such a dispersed range of human life.  Even within these groups, divisions or diversions don’t show up in Wheen’s view of them over the fence. He tends to expose inconsistent behaviour in groups too broad to be consistent; for example ‘the left’ does this or that, thinks this or that, apparently as one.  And he naturally has no room for difference (certainly not for differance!) within the thought or acts of one person, so his world is one of goodies and baddies. Most of the last three decades (the decline of reason beginning precisely in 1979) are peopled by baddies.

He offers no acknowledgement of whence the cultural revolutions of the last fifty years sprung and what they achieved, sourcing any good or compassionate impulses in the enlightened thinkers of two hundred and fifty years ago.  His purpose is ‘to show how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned or betrayed, and why it matters.’ With the egregious exceptions of suicide bombers and Enron, he doesn’t really show ‘why it matters’ except that it annoys him. He allows no gains to proceed from irrational foundations, and does not begin to imagine what, if his rationalist agenda were rigorously pursued, might be lost.

Thanks to Wheen’s gift for insult the book is amusing; the sheer quantity of synonyms for ‘nonsense’ is impressive.  But it is a product of journalistic ire, rather than sustained thought or analysis. And for all its rationalist bluster, the book falls readily into idealism, in particular an idealism about America that his own evidence would seem to discredit. He writes as though America began in 1776, as an idea founded on principles, instead of a culture that grew from a chaotic melange of nations, religions, ideologies, and pathologies.  He writes about the enlightenment with the reverence of a true believer, and about its prophets with a blind faith in their enduring soundness. A prophet himself, rebuking an apostate modernity, he sounds in the end like the voice of one crying in the wilderness.