The sleep of reason

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: a short history of modern delusions

Francis Wheen <em>Fourth

There are a lot of stupid people in the world, but Francis Wheen is not one of them. He admirably demonstrates this every time he puts pen to paper to debunk some nonsense or another. Fans of Wheen who have enjoyed his biography of Karl Marx as well as his journalism have a treat in store with How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.

This book is enormously ambitious, and its jokey title does not do it justice. It is a forensic attack on fundamentalism (religious and economic), on cultural and scientific relativism, on postmodernists, on pagans, on New Agers and everyone else whom Wheen identifies as belonging to the coalition seeking to undermine reason. Wheen is passionate about reason and furious that so many forces in modern life conspire to destabilise the sane and the rational. It must be very frustrating for him. We do indeed live in a culture where some are dumb enough to believe that they might win the lottery, that their horoscopes are true or that Princess Diana was murdered. They may also believe in helping themselves through that mad get-rich-quick scheme called the stock market or in spiritual ways involving crystals, rebirthing and feng shui. Some of these idiots even go so far as to believe in supernatural forces like God.

Yes, the sleep of reason has brought forth monsters everywhere. Look at Deepak Chopra and those silly celebs who believe that God wants you to be rich and that ageing is just learnt behaviour. Look at the success of the patently wrong "End of History" Francis Fukuyama. As one of his colleagues asked, "How exactly do you get ahead by making one of the worst predictions in social science?" Then there is the nihilism of postmodernists and deconstructionists and their "tyranny of twaddle", their despicable denial of reality which in itself has become a kind of theology. Wheen parries this with a memorable quotation from Professor Richard Evans: "Auschwitz was not a discourse."

Then there is the awful religiosity of the great American public, the majority of whom don't even accept the secular account of evolution. And surely nothing is worse than the pompous faith of George Bush and Tony Blair, which Wheen astutely describes as being a "postmodern relativism to justify appeasing pre-modern zealots". And so it goes on, the list of those whom Wheen despises for being mad, bad and irrational. He doesn't like John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, any more than he likes John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the LSE and NS essayist. He doesn't like Noam Chomsky, Harold Pinter, John Pilger or me because I said that Diana would have an afterlife. In fact, it's quite hard to come up to scratch.

Yet Wheen is often absolutely right. His critique of the madness that led to two major stock market meltdowns is compelling. How did people come to believe that all was well when Wall Street prices bore no relation to actual economic conditions? Why did any of us fall for the myth that internet technology and the dot- com boom represented a "new paradigm" which would reverse traditional laws of financial gravity? The delusions fostered by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were still alive and kicking in the 1990s, and Enron was their illegitimate offspring. Privatisation had paved the way for rapid IT expansion. Deregulation made it possible to buy up utility firms all over the world. The ethos of the company was like a religion. Unfortunately, the fact that Enron was the model of the new, post-regulation, corporate, weightless economy also meant that its earnings turned out to be fictional.

Wheen's account of how so many were fooled by economic gurus is exemplary. But on softer targets - New Agers, postmodernists, emotional hysterics - he is less persuasive, possibly because he is so disdainful. Yes, some postmodern theorising is nutty, but there has been a consistent critique of it, both within and without the academy, for a long time now. Surely the only people who still believe in Deleuze and Derrida absolutely are first-year students. As for dissing the New Agers, for an old hand like Wheen this is like taking carob-covered candy from a baby.

The reason Wheen never tries to understand why people believe the daft stuff they do is because of his innate faith in argument and reason. If he knows something is nonsense,why doesn't everyone else? But isn't what he calls delusion what we used to call false consciousness? And hasn't that proved something of a problematic concept? It seems that a great many of us are perfectly capable of holding contradictory thoughts in our head at the same time. We are perfectly rational about some things, but not others. Wheen believes that if we are suddenly shown the truth, then the scales should fall away from our eyes. But that doesn't happen.

This is the problem for enlightened, secular liberals such as Wheen. Their world view simply does not describe all the vagaries of human experience. People find themselves resorting to what he calls "mumbo jumbo" to try to express what they feel reason cannot. By excluding the irrational we exclude much of the human race, never mind part of ourselves as well. This is not Wheen's purpose or his problem, but it is mine. It is hardly surprising that he is so dismissive of the feminisation of discourse or the confessional mode of modern politics - many interesting, middle-aged males are.

The Grumpy Old Men of the pop intellectual world, whether they are George Walden, Frank Furedi, the Hitchens brothers or Rod Liddle on a good day, do not much care for contemporary life. Like the men in the TV show of the same name, these guys are not even old. They are smart, funny, well-connected and powerful. But what they share is an innate social conservatism. They don't much like the present. Their sense of loss is palpable. Loss of what? Control? Nothing makes sense any more and it bloody well should. Wheen's indignation is righteous and well worth reading. It will greatly appeal to those who are as reasonable as him. I'm not, and that's probably because I am a different star sign. Everyone should live in Wheen's world. The shame of it is that most of us are clearly just not worthy.

Suzanne Moore is a columnist on the Mail on Sunday

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2004 issue of the New Statesman, NS Special Report - The killing fields