Post-modern, pre-rational?

Submitted by on 6 March, 2004 - 12:00

'How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: a History of Modern Delusions' by Francis Wheen

This book comes with a fluffy duck on the cover and a recommendation from Nick Hornby, so I expected to find it dire. Fortunately my expectation was confounded. This is a sustained political polemic from one of the most talented polemicists alive.

The book covers the last twenty-five years, starting from the two catastophes of the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran, cataloguing the many competing and complimentary forms of irrationality which have characterised world politics since then - irrationalities of the market, of religion, of the media and of academia.

Wheen starts with a chapter on the Enlightenment, and indeed it is clear he sees himself as the defender of Enlightenment - values of empirical analysis, secularism and human capacity to control the conditions of life. Wheen attacks the Thatcherite/Reaganite approach to economics and society with his usual elan, showing up the 'entrepreneurs' so admired by both old Tories and new Labour as crooks and the pretentions of their ideologues as absurd.

Wheen then goes on to examine the effect of the resurgence of the right on 'left-wing' thought. He touches on how a feeling of hopelessness caused a turn from real struggle to 'politically correct' hair-splitting, but what he really objects to is 'post-modernists' who imagine they are left-wing. The book points out forcefully that if one denies that there are such things as 'reality' and 'meaning', one removes the foundations of socialism or indeed any kind of principled stand in politics.

Wheen shows how this led some supposedly 'left' academics into support for the neo-Nazi holocaust denier David Irving on the grounds that there could not be one 'true narrative' of historical events. Francis Wheen understandably has no time for relativism. It is through empirical research and reason - the Enlightenment method - that Irving and the rest of the contents of the sewer have been refuted.

But Wheen's call for a return to the Enlightenment is not confined to philosophy. He blames bland populist politics - Republican and Democrat alike - for creating a situation where most people in the US believe that creationism should be taught (and nearly half believe in ghosts, UFO abductions and demonic possession). He deplores the encouragement of the maniac religious right by Bush and his cronies. Even in Europe, a continent not nearly so priest-ridden as are our Transatlantic cousins, relativism can bring the left into alliance with some appalling forces.

So anti-war leftists have been happy to identify themselves with the Dark Age slaughterer Slobodan Milosevic and the MAB, the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which as Wheen points out explicitly models itself on European 1930s fascism. As the author says, identifying the MAB with the Muslim community is actually racist. It comes out of classic 'Orientalism', the idea that 'they', Muslims, have different mores and ways of organising society and that's fine; Muslims have no rights as human beings but only as 'Muslims'. In all these ways How Mumbo-Jumbo... demonstrates the blurring of the boundaries between left and right which we have seen more and more in the last few years.

Of course the book has its problems. Wheen is (as far as I can tell) pro-war and sometimes he indulges in the 'blurring of the boundaries' he accuses his opponents of: for example, he praises Woodrow Wilson for being a strong secularist (he was also a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan and would doubtless have considered himself a 'scientific racist'). And the book proposes no actual programme. But that, of course, isn't the point. As long as you don't expect a deep political analysis (which it's not intended to be) you will enjoy How Mumbo-Jumbo... It is a timely polemical indictment of the woolly irrationalism sweeping our movement just as much as our enemies; and one, moreover, which is sharply and hilariously written. Read this book.

Reviewer: Mike Rowley