'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Thursday, January 1, 2015
Book review (2004): The bunkum stops here
How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions - by Francis Wheen
About halfway through this wonderful, breakneck undressing of emperors there is a quote from one Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard University. Professor Cox has been reading the newspapers, in particular the business pages, and has been struck by an urgent thought: 'One sometimes wonders,' he writes, 'in this era of Market religion, where all the sceptics and freethinkers have gone. What has happened to the Voltaires who once exposed bogus miracles, and the HL Menckens who blew shrill whistles on pious humbuggery?' Lo and behold, Professor Cox's prayers appear to have been answered: enter Francis Wheen, shrill whistle to hand.
Wheen's biography of bunkum begins exactly a generation ago, in January 1979, when two fundamentalist revolutionaries were pledging to return their countries to mythical pasts. Whereas Margaret Thatcher was only hoping to go back to Victorian times, with their aphrodisiac brew of money and morality, Ayatollah Khomeini was hoping to make an even greater temporal reverse and return Iran to the Middle Ages. As Wheen's book shows, both in their own ways were more successful in these crusades than they could ever have dreamed.
The subsequent Western evangelism for the dubious miracles of the free market and the parallel Eastern embrace of pre-Enlightenment religious orthodoxies form the backdrop to his Cook's tour of flat-earthers, fund-managers, faith-healers and fatwa-mongers. Early on, the author finds himself quoting Roger Scruton that 'reason is now on the retreat, both as an ideal and a reality', and on any one of these 300-odd pages you would be hard pressed not to agree with the fox-hunting philosopher's assessment.
Wheen has a Swiftian relish for exposing the cant that attends the 'new irrationality', particularly when it is allied with corporate or political greed. His enormous range of arcane gossip and obscure biographical fact, product of many years fossicking at Private Eye, informs much of this contemporary history: as when he tracks down the origins of the fallacy of 'trickle-down wealth' (what George Bush called 'voodoo economics' before he embraced them as President); or when he shows how Cherie Blair's wide-eyed romance with ayurvedic healing has crept into NHS policy; or reveals the ironies of Mrs Thatcher's dalliance with dealing rooms in the course of her executive directorship at Tiger Management hedge fund (which, in less than two years with the bond-trader's Boudicca at the helm, lost $12 billion in stock market adventures).
Sometimes, he finds unexpected links between these tales. Mostly, sceptical of any and all unifying theories, he lets them speak for themselves. His tone is occasionally speculative, as when he argues that the flood of books about fairies and angels and Incas and crystals is a symptom of escapist 'despair by people who feel impotent to improve their lives and suspect they are at the mercy of secretive impersonal forces, whether these be the Pentagon or invaders from Mars'.
More often, it is brutal and forensic. Wheen is devastating on the sophistry of postmodernism, and sees in the moral relativism of literary theorists - 'who insisted that fact and fiction were indistinguishable' - a charter for political nihilism. (This trend reached its apotheosis in Jean Baudrillard's bestseller, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.) He is scathing, too, about the unholy alliance between mysticism and management theory - the cult of the visionary and charismatic CEO - promoted by the the likes of Deepak Chopra and Stephen Covey, the Mormon guru who indoctrinated Bill Clinton, among others, with his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and pockets around $400m a year for his homilies.
One or two heroes emerge from these dark ages: JK Galbraith, quietly pricking dotcom bubbles; Richard J Evans triumphantly slaying the dangerous historical hokum of David Irving by proving facts about the Holocaust in the High Court. But what Wheen does not dwell on, or at least only occasionally explores, are the reasons why the waves of superstition and credulity he describes might have taken such a dramatic hold on the public mind.
In this, he perhaps fails to give due weight to the fact that the ascendant philosophy of much of the twentieth century was Freudianism, the belief that man was controlled fundamentally not by rational thought but by irrational desire. He mostly dismisses this therapy culture out of hand, along with the human frailty it confronts. Still, it would be hard to improve on his characterisation of the wailing that accompanied the cortege of Princess Diana, 'the Nabob of Sob', as 'the anguished pleas of a lonely and atomised populace, desperate for company'.
One of the questions his book raises is where the battle lines should be drawn against the enemies of reason. Wheen allows that the gravest danger to our civilisation comes from religious totalitarianism, but while it finds its extremes in al-Qaeda, he exposes it, too, in the hierarchy of Western governments, and in populations that show an evaporation of empirical certainty. In 1993, for examples, a Gallup poll revealed only 11 per cent of Americans believed in evolution, and that 47 per cent maintained that God created human beings within the last 10,000 years. Even more alarming, perhaps, are the 2 per cent (3.7 million people) who claim that they have at one time in their lives been abducted by aliens. As one commentator pointed out, this should, if nothing else, signal a crisis for air-traffic control.
One uncomfortable possible conclusion to Wheen's argument is the notion that logic alone cannot satisfy us and that, further, its presence appears to give rise to an urgent hunger for the irrational, whether it be playing the lottery or believing in little green men. Around the edges of this book, therefore, lurks the unspoken suspicion that a rational world would be a duller one: the conmen and the hucksters have all the best stories. Wheen counters this by allying all his considerable wit and logic to the Enlightened cause: he is, in this respect, bullshit's enema number one.