How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

A Short History of Modern Delusions by Francis Wheen

by Tim O'Neil

22 September 2005


On first glance this appears to be a rather light-hearted volume, with the anachronistic Ouija board cover design reinforcing the idea that, in the words of noted ironist Nick Hornby’s cover blurb, Wheen’s narrative will be “fast and smart and very funny”. The back cover quotes continue in this vein, with the Toronto Globe & Mail describing it as “[S]avagely amusing”, and the New York Press declaring that “it will delight”. I have to ask, in all seriousness, if the learned critics at these august institutions might not have read an entirely different book than the one sitting before me now.

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is no mere catalog of silliness and superstition for the amusement of the learned bourgeoisie—rather it is a powerful jeremiad against the very foundations of modern society. For those of us who pay attention, there is very little new on display here. We are all well acquainted with the practices of conspiracy theorists, Biblical literalists, motivational speakers and supply-side economists. The book’s power comes from the cumulative evidence of these seemingly unrelated hysterias, stacked up in such a way as to reveal an almost endless sequence of connections. The key to understanding these connections lies in the fact that almost every instance of modern irrationality stems from a depressingly familiar root: the death of reason and rational inquiry.

cover art

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

Francis Wheen

A Short History of Modern Delusions

(Public Affairs)

How else to explain widespread belief in angels, UFOs, Illuminati conspiracies, “Intelligent Design”, and holistic medicines? These are all phenomena that have been shown time and again to rely on nothing more than a thin tissue of rumor, circumstantial evidence, deliberate misreading of scientific evidence and flat-out lies. Irrational beliefs are incredibly strong when stacked up against the somewhat emaciated voice of killjoy skepticism. The weird and unlikely is more likely to sell newspapers and television advertising than the banal and carefully corroborated. Credulity is a preferable default for many people—otherwise intelligent and discerning individuals who, for whatever reason, find it easier to believe nonsense than to exercise skepticism.

But the most innocent examples of charlatanry can have unintended and drastic consequences. One of the most disturbingly effective facets of Wheen’s analysis is the ease with which he extrapolates the logical consequences of illogical occurrences. From a discussion of widespread belief in astrology and alien abduction he segues chillingly into the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh—an act at least partially fueled by the contemporaneous proliferation of irrational conspiracy theories.

But paranoia is not merely a creation of the media. There’s a deeper insecurity here, a systematic and society-wide attempt to discredit the tradition of rational inquiry, which descends to us from the Enlightenment. It is not merely the conservative right that receives a thorough thrashing. The laissez-faire economists and supply-side policy makers almost get off easy compared to the morally bankrupt radical left of postmodern academicians and Chomsky-worshipping ideologues—the implication being that although the Thatcherites and Reaganites have wreaked economic and social havoc for decades by ignoring the widespread negative effects of their policies, the traditional liberal enemies of irrational politics have gradually dawdled into irrelevancy. We see Michel Foucault’s love affair with Iranian fascism, Chomsky’s defense of Pol Pot and Slobodan Milosevic, and the continuing defense of the Soviet Union by American intellectuals through the 1980s as proof of their irrational inability to see beyond a dangerously limiting dualistic worldview. Just because Reagan was essentially right about Communism doesn’t mean he was necessarily right about anything else, and this sort of irrationality is still a hallmark of liberal thought. This does not even mention the unbelievable gall of postmodern academic attempts to deny the factual reality of the Holocaust, with every bit of the abdication of reality such a stance implies.

So the problem is deeper than simply any one layer of stupidity, deceit or willful ignorance. The problem, as proposed by Wheen, is universal:

“Cumulatively… the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilization, especially as many of the new irrationalists hark back to some imagined pre-industrial or even pre-agrarian Golden Age… those who rewrite or romanticize history, like those who rejoice in its demise or irrelevance, are condemned to repeat it.”

It’s hard to laugh at folly when it jeopardizes so much. This isn’t a funny book, despite the jocular tone. It’s quite sobering, and the only real hope for the future lies in the conviction that folly is its own reward. Unfortunately for those of us alive now, such judgments are usually the sole prerogative of history.

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//Mixed media