Sadly, the reality-based community has lost control of the world.
According to Francis Wheen, the values of the enlightenment are in full retreat in the face of religious fundamentalism, ivory-tower ideological nonsense, misty-eyed sentimental idiocy, and vacuous new-age twaddle. And if western civilisation is to survive, all of this nonsense needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Unlike the crusty conservatives who think the world went to pot somewhere about 1963, Wheen dates the downfall of rational civilisation to 1979, the two pivotal events being the Iranian revolution and the election of Margaret Thatcher. One saw the ugliest face of religious fundamentalism, a retreat into medieval barbarism. The other saw the economic policies dominated by wingnut ideologues that plunged the nation into deep recession, and the beginnings of politics where style and presentation was considered more important than substance, something which was to get even worse under Tony Blair
The whole book is a first-class rant; very little of today’s world escapes unscathed. For example, in the chapter ‘New Snake Oil, Old Bottles’, Wheen attacks new-age management gurus and all those ludicrous self-help books full of ‘Hallmark greeting card platitudes’. In ‘The Demolition Merchants of Reality’, he skewers the deconstructionism of the recently-deceased Jacques Derrida. Wheen suggests that once you start regarding history as being about ‘conflicting narratives’ rather being about what actually happened, it’s a slippery slope that ends with Holocaust denial.
And once these lunatics get their hands on science, well. A hilarious section tells of the hoax played by Alan Sokal, a physics professor who submitted a paper called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. Although the article was complete and total nonsense, it was filled with enough quotations from various deconstructionist academics that they all completely fell for the hoax. Much egg on faces when Sokal revealed it was a hoax a week later.
The chapter ‘Candles in the Wind’ reminds us of the terrifying collective insanity that gripped Britain following the untimely death of Princess Diana.
On that Sunday afternoon I was telephoned by a neighbour, a ferociously conservative columnist on the Daily Mail: ‘I can’t bear any more of this, fancy a drink in the pub’. He had just been given a week’s holiday from the paper after informing the editor that he couldn’t participate in the national ululation and genuflection; having watched several hours of hyperbolic homage on TV, he was beginning to fear that he was the only sane person left in the country.
Then we have the next moment of collective insanity, the madness of the dotcom bubble, when everyone thought the normal rules of business no longer applied. We’re reminded of how investors gullibly wasted their money on ludicrous schemes like boo.com. Sadly he neglects the equally ridiculous Clickmango.com. I worked briefly for the software house that build this “woman’s health and beauty” site, and saw the deeply frightening database model. Where else would there be entities called ‘Horoscope’ and ‘Celebrity Endorsement’? Needless to say, the Mango went pear-shaped in a very short space of time.
Then there’s Enron. Part corporation, part religious cult, part confidence trickster’s shell game. In a fully reality-based world Enron could not have happened; but such was the scale of their hubris that money-worshipping politicians and financial analysts alike completely failed to see through them before the inevitable collapse.
The last half of the final chapter deals with the total failure of too much of the left to understand the world after the end of the cold war, and especially after 9/11. Wheen doesn’t have any kind worlds for the ‘Enemy of my enemy is my friend’ brigade, and the likes of Micheal Moore and particularly the loathsome Noam Chomsky, who appear to be prepared to side with nihilistic fanaticism rather than admit that an enemy that attacks the west is in fact an enemy against which we have to defend ourselves. Perhaps wisely, although supporting the overthrown of the Taliban, Wheen avoids getting into any discussion on the contentious issue of whether or not it was a good idea to invade Iraq.
Wheen’s final words reminds us what will happen if we allow mumbo-jumbo to prevail.
but those who refuse to learn from experience, and strive instead to discredit the rationalism that makes such enlightenment possible – whether they be holy warriors, anti-science relativists, economic fundamentalists, radical post-modernists, New Age mystics or latter-day Chicken Littles – are not only condemning themselves to repeat the past. They wish to consign us all to a life in darkness.
Altogether a brilliant rant, taking blunderbuss shots at the sacred cows of both left and right. An essential read for everyone who doesn’t like the direction the world is heading, and wants us to change course before it’s too late.