Saturday, February 18, 2012

Books: How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

I've had this book, by Francis Wheen, for some years now, but never felt like reading it.  Mumbo-jumbo ranges from the voodoo economics of the 1980s, through postmodernists, catastrophists, neoliberals, the emotional diarrhoea around Princess Diana's death, Chomsky, the third way, right back to modern voodoo economics and radical left reactions to 9/11.

There's some interesting stuff in there.  There are some quick background histories to things that you probably already know are wrong, but might not know much about.  Wheen lays into Chomsky's record of, if not defending, then at least giving a lot of the benefit of the doubt, to regimes opposed to the US - in particular Cambodia.  In a similar way to Nick Cohen, he attacks those who think that because countries like the US so often do bad, they can never do good.  There are a few good quotes, which I now can't find.

About a quarter of the way through, though, it begins to drag.  I think part of this is because Wheen never ties together his subjects.  Wheen explicitly defends enlightenment values like rationality, independent thought, liberalism and humanism, but I don't think this is the whole picture.  Does all this 'mumbo jumbo' have the same causes, or are different phenomena independent?  Is the strategy to resist or defeat them the same?  You might be able to work it out for yourself by studying and thinking about what Wheen says, but honestly, it didn't interest me enough to bother.

One thing that particularly puzzled me were the quotes on the jacket.  The book is described by the Spectator as "deliriously funny" and by Jeremy Paxman as "hysterical".  Now it certainly did raise some smiles, but no more, suggesting that either Paxman has been hiding a streak of hysteria behind his hard-bitten exterior, or he spends too much time with extremely dull people.

If you want to read a more concise, illuminating and much funnier treatise on a similar subject, read HG Frankfurt's On Bullshit.  I've just read someone suggesting that it is itself mostly bullshit, but even if that is the case, it's still thought-provoking bullshit.

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