Want to know when The Age of Enlightenment ended and what is responsible? Francis Wheen thinks he has it pinpointed in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.
According to Wheen, 1979 “marks the moment when the world was jolted by a violent reaction to the complacency of the existing order.” This is thanks to two seemingly unrelated events: the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran and the election of Margaret Thatcher. For Wheen, a British journalist, those events are emblematic of the abandonment of rationality in favor of “notions that are usually ridiculous and occasionally sinister.”
The subtitle of Wheen’s work – “A Short History of Modern Delusions” – more accurately describes the book. Contrary to the title, Wheen never really explains “how” mumbo-jumbo came to dominate political and cultural discourse. For example, while he examines the “voodoo economics” of Thatcher and her contemporary, President Reagan, he is not as clear on the role of Khomeini’s return in his premise. In fact, the closest he comes to the “how” of the title is lines like:
The new irrationalism is an expression of despair by people who feel impotent to improve their lives and suspect that they are at the mercy of secretive, impersonal forces, whether these are the Pentagon or invaders from Mars.
Wheen does, however, skewer plenty of ideas and people in examining the kinds of thinking and ideas he believes have moved to the forefront since his self-defined turning point. The chapters, each more in the nature of a freestanding essay, examine various aspects of the mumbo-jumbo he condemns. He takes aim at the marketing of platitudes as business and personal advice, manifested by such works as In Search of Excellence and The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun and authors like Deepak Chopra, one of Wheen’s favorite targets. He also excoriates what he calls “post-modernism,” relativism disguised in cloaks of intellectualism. He also pillories how new-agers, astrologers and the like as essentially modern-day Chicken Littles. Wheen uses the fascination with Lady Diana at her death (“Diaorrhoea,” as he terms it), as a prime example of elevating misguided feeling over reason and being “nothing more than a disguised version of self-love.”
Wheen is at turns humorous and insightful, even when discussing America’s role in the apparent abandonment of rational analysis in favor of so-called “alternative” solutions to personal, business and political problems. Some may claim he is too oriented to the left. But while the bulk of the work may tend that way, Wheen shows no mercy to either side of the political aisle. Just as he hammers the economic policies of the Thatcher/Reagan years, he has no qualms taking to task such notables of the left as Noam Chomsky.
No, Wheen doesn’t tell us “how” mumbo-jumbo came to dominate political and cultural thought and discourse. But he certainly has fun trying to dismember it.