Book Review of How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen
Readers of Francis Wheen’s previous book, his highly entertaining biography of Karl Marx, will probably buy this one expecting a fun few evenings in the company of a witty and effortlessly compelling storyteller.
They will not be disappointed. How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is a humorous polemic against all things irrational and unscientific, and few gurus are spared Wheen’s scorn: New Age and management gurus, Margaret Thatcher and other “free market fundamentalists”, Tony Blair, Islamic fundamentalists, creationists, and Diana worshippers, among others.
Wheen claims a serious agenda: his aim, he says, is to “show how the humane values of the Enlightenment have been abandoned or betrayed, and why it matters”. A defence of rationality, science and progress against wooly thinking and faddy beliefs matters, he says, because “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters”.
But unfortunately, he doesn’t manage to show any such thing. His rants are certainly amusing and hit some deserving targets, but, for the most part, it’s obvious Wheen is slaughtering straw men. It’s all great knockabout fun, and I feel like a real party-pooper complaining, but if Wheen wanted to do his job properly, he’d have to deal with these theories on the grounds of their strengths, not their weaknesses. That might well spoil the jokes, but it would be necessary if Wheen was to sustain his argument.
Actually, the book hardly amounts to an argument at all. Wheen’s Private Eye background is all too obvious, in that he takes great delight in tearing every argument in sight to shreds, sneering at theories that seem to go against common sense, yet never feeling too troubled to come up with much in the way of a coherent alternative.
In short, he doesn’t answer his own question, ie, just how did mumbo-jumbo conquer the world? How did this happen, and why? The book reads like a collection of witty columns, strung together on a dodgy thesis.
The thesis for the book, the thread that is supposed to do the job of holding Wheen’s disparate rants together, is that 1979 marked a turning point in the world as it was the year that Margaret Thatcher was elected in the UK and the year the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran. Wheen barely seems to believe this himself, and goes to little effort to defend or elaborate the theory or go beyond it in timescale.
Wheen’s blunderbuss approach leaves casualties on both the left and right of political opinion — and, for the most part, deservedly so. Fair enough. But what are we left with? Like the people he is attacking, Wheen ends up groping for simplistic explanations (everyone’s gone mad) for complex phenomena. But don’t let any of this put you off. If it’s a choice between Wheen and the purveyors of mumbo-jumbo he is attacking, I’ll happily hand this Victor Meldrew of political opinion a soap box and help him draw a crowd. He certainly deserves one.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.