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How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

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What characterizes our era? Cults, quacks, gurus, irrational panics, moral confusion and an epidemic of mumbo-jumbo, that's what. In How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Francis Wheen brilliantly laments the extraordinary rise of superstition, relativism and emotional hysteria. From Middle Eastern fundamentalism to the rise of lotteries, astrology to mysticism, poststructuralism to the Third Way, Wheen shows that there has been a pervasive erosion of Enlightenment values, which have been displaced by nonsense. And no country has a more vivid parade of the bogus and bizarre than the one founded to embody Enlightenment values: the USA. In turn comic, indignant, outraged, and just plain baffled by the idiocy of it all, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World is a masterful depiction of the absurdity of our times and a plea that we might just think a little more and believe a little less.

354 pages, Paperback

First published October 4, 2004

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About the author

Francis Wheen

30 books78 followers
Francis James Baird Wheen (born 22 January 1957) is a British journalist, writer and broadcaster.

Wheen was educated at Copthorne Prep School, Harrow School and Royal Holloway College, University of London. At Harrow he was a contemporary of Mark Thatcher who has been a recurring subject of his journalism.[citation needed] He is a member of the 'soap' side of the Wheen family, whose family business was the long-established "Wheen & Sons", soap-makers, as was revealed in the gossip column of the Daily Mail on 26 March 2007. He was married to the writer Joan Smith between 1985 and 1993.

He is the author of several books including a biography of Karl Marx, which won the Isaac Deutscher prize. A column for The Guardian ran for several years. He writes for Private Eye and is the magazine's deputy editor. His collected journalism – Hoo-hahs and Passing Frenzies won him the George Orwell Prize in 2003. He has also been a regular columnist for the London Evening Standard.

Wheen broadcasts regularly (mainly on BBC Radio 4) and is a regular panellist on The News Quiz, in which he often referred to the fact that he resembles the former Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith. He is also one of the more frequently recruited guests for Have I Got News For You.

Wheen wrote a docudrama, The Lavender List, for BBC Four on the final period of Harold Wilson's premiership, concentrating on his relationship with Marcia Williams, which was first screened in March 2006. It starred Kenneth Cranham as former Prime Minister Wilson and Gina McKee as Williams. In April 2007 the BBC paid £75,000 to Williams (Baroness Falkender) in an out-of-court settlement over claims made in the programme.

Francis Wheen is a signatory to the Euston Manifesto and a close friend of Christopher Hitchens. In late-2005 Wheen was co-author, with journalist David Aaronovitch and blogger Oliver Kamm, of a complaint to The Guardian after it published a correction and apology for an interview with Noam Chomsky by Emma Brockes. Chomsky complained that the article suggested he denied the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. The writer Diana Johnstone also complained about references to her in the interview. The Guardian's then readers' editor Ian Mayes found that this had misrepresented Chomsky's position, and his judgement was upheld in May 2006 by an external ombudsman, John Willis. In his report for the Guardian, Willis detailed his reasons for rejecting the argument.

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Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,178 reviews9,210 followers
April 11, 2013
I was looking for a review to revive to mark the passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher of Finsbury Circus and I couldn't find one, so this will have to do. I note that the BBC are in earnest discussions whether to allow a song to be played which has just shot into the top ten here - they think it might be some kind of tasteless comment or something, can't see why. It's the old one from Wizard of Oz called "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead."

A review

Chapter 1 : this pours contempt upon Thatcherism and Reagonomics – I might agree with this but on the other hand what economics theory can't you pour the Hollandaise sauce of contempt over – they're all bonkers; no one understands what's going on. This book was written in 2004 when the Blair-Brown government had officially abolished boom and bust, and we have seen how that turned out (they were boomed and busted by forces beyond their control, beyond anyone's control, because no one is in control). So this chapter is shooting fish in a barrel and then the fish turned out to be imaginary, as was the gun shooting them. (Huh?)

Chapter 2 – this pours contempt upon all the life gurus who wrote books like The Seven habits of Highly Effective Leaders, Awaken the Giant Within, Men are from Mars etc – I love these titles… Living on Thin Air, Lions Don't Need to Roar , Swim with the Sharks without Being eaten Alive. I think I'll write one: Eat Your Own Head Before I Do. Anyway, so this chapter is feeling the fear of shooting fish that could have made you a millionaire in a barrel but you did it anyway.

Chapter 3 – this pours contempt upon the clash-of-civilisations vs end-of-history theories; really not that mumboish, what do you expect historians to do, not have theories about history? So the fish aren't in the barrel in this chapter, instead they flick their tails and cause a fetching gossamer shimmer in the air as they cavort near the ocean's surface. (Huh?)

Chapter 4 – this pours contempt upon the demolition merchants of reality. You know, Derrida and the Derridettes. This is the anti-post-structuralist chapter, you knew there would be one. In which terrible French intellectuals use brainwashed American and British academics to destroy our noble universities. Louis, round up the usual suspects. That would be Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Sokal, Eagleton and de Man. In this chapter only certain people can see there is a barrel with fish in it. Other people deny the existence of metaphors. Language is power, power corrupts, you do the math. Still, Mr Wheen blasts away.

Chapter 5 – this pours contempt upon The Catastrophists. This is how a lot of people like to believe in complete bollocks, such as UFOs, homeopathy, Mayan rebirthing techniques, crystals, the illuminati, the Da Vinci code, and all that new age argy-bargy. In this chapter the barrel is medium sized and the fish are so big that even I could hit them.

Chapter 6 & 7 – this pours contempt upon everything the author sees – the Christian church, the CIA, oh my God – everyone is in this vast conspiracy to drown the world in mumbo jumbo. It seems Francis Wheen is the Last Sensible Man. I'm getting kind of tired of him.

Chapter 8 : this pours contempt upon Candles in the Wind. This is about the outrageous exploitation of sentimentality in public life – example of Lady Di who milked her sad situation to become Queen of Our Hearts and then was martyred by the paparazzi so we could become demented with grief. The irrationalism flowed like wine in those days. I remember it well. In this chapter there are two fish in the barrel, Al Gore (strangely) and Lady Di and both end up thoroughly dead.

Chapter 9 : this pours contempt upon Tony Blair, so only one big fish in the barrel. The strange story of Britain's twisted relationship with Tony Blair deserves a review of its own, so I will refrain from comment here.

Chapter 10 : this pours contempt upon globalisation and economic migration, which is clearly a vast subject and really, I don't detect much mumbo jumbo here at all, given that globalisation is not a theory but a name given to a thing which has happened already and is continuing to happen. So Mr Wheen finds himself barrelless and fishless in the end.

Now I pour contempt upon this book. Conclusion – this is a tiresome book which crams in way too much and reads like Bill Bryson's nastier, more political and much sneerier younger brother. Francis Wheen clearly needs to lie down in a darkened room and listen to The Carpenters (but - oops - skip the track Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft!)
Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,239 reviews2,227 followers
October 28, 2018
Definitions of Mumbo-Jumbo:
‘Language or ritual causing or intended to cause confusion or bewilderment’ – Oxford English Dictionary

‘Words or activities that seem complicated or mysterious but have no real meaning’ – Cambridge Dictionary

‘If you describe ideas or words, especially religious or technical ones, as mumbo jumbo, you mean that they are nonsense’ – Collins English Dictionary

Well, it is very clear: mumbo-jumbo means nonsense. A common synonym all the dictionaries suggest is gibberish.

According to the author, Francis Wheen, mumbo-jumbo is currently ruling the political, cultural and religious discourse in the modern world – and no, he is not talking about Trump. This book was written in 2004, when Trump was just a crooked real-estate tycoon and ‘post-truth’ was still not a thing. And I must say he makes a convincing case.

The author starts off with two seemingly dissimilar and unconnected events in different parts of the world – the rise of the Ayatollah in Iran, and the ascension of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Then he connects these two with the common thread of mumbo-jumbo: religious on the one hand, and neoliberalist on the other.

Immanuel Kant wrote in 1784:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolve and courage to use it without another’s guidance. Sapre aude! Dare to know! That is the motto of enlightenment.

Unfortunately, however, it seems that Kant’s optimism was misplaced – instead of becoming increasingly rational, the world started on a roller-coaster ride to irrationality. Starting with the postmodernist concept of the narrative – where ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ are just points of view, and scientific facts are just opinions – it has slowly but surely sunk into a morass of conflicting stories, and no way to distinguish between the right and the wrong. So everyone spins their own tale.

We have the self-help gurus like Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra et al; we have the people who establish the end of history as we know it (Francis Fukuyama) or reduce it to a clash of competing civilisations (Samuel P. Huntingdon); we have the merchants of doom predicting the end of the world based on esoteric readings of religious texts and Nostradamus... and a gullible people, driven by emotion, seeing the world as ‘Us vs Them’ on both sides of the religious and geographical divide. And who is winning? Why, those neoliberals who sold us the pup in the 1980s, about the inevitability of capitalism and how the world is going become a veritable paradise under all those benign tycoons, who when allowed to amass their fortunes without government interference, will allow enough to trickle down so that those at the bottom will be able to subsist comfortably. (We all know what happened to that now, don’t we?)

On the other side, we have the kooky fundamentalists of all colour, who yearn to go back to a “golden age” when things were all hunky-dory; and the leftists including eminent scholars like Noam Chomsky who turn a blind eye to Islamic fundamentalism with the assumption that “if it’s against USA and Capitalism, it must be good”. And in this morass, the oil companies, the armaments manufacturers, and all those multinational corporations (some of whom are larger than many nations) are laughing all the way to the bank, many of them riding on the backs of shares which have no physical value.


Do I agree with the author? Well, partially. I agree totally with his concept of gibberish which has swallowed our political and fiscal narrative, and the rising right-wing fundamentalism all over the world. However, I disagree a bit about the postmodernist narrative – there are certain things which are relative in science and history too, which has so far looked at the world only through an Occidental and patriarchal lens. While we must learn to accept scientific facts, it is high time we changed our perspectives.

But those disagreements don’t take away from the importance of this tome. In the current post-truth world governed by fake news and despots, we need such brutal takedowns of the popular story being spread about the human condition: something as colourful as a Bollywood movie, and just as fictitious.
Profile Image for Tristram Shandy.
691 reviews197 followers
August 23, 2020
“The Profitability of Piffle”

Francis Wheen does not like piffle, or mumbo-jumbo, or hogwash, and like some people profit from it. Instead he wants people to think for themselves, based on rationality and reason, on Kant’s conception of Enlightenment, and so to come to their own conclusions rather than pass on the cud of mumbo-jumbo. All that is fair enough, I’d say.

In How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. A Short History of Modern Delusions, which was published in 2004, the author runs the whole gamut of what he thinks are examples of snake-oil vendors at work, and he sees the retailers of this so-easy-to-produce commodity both on the left and on the right sides of the political spectrum. He even goes far beyond politics, looking into people’s everyday lives and denouncing the writers of how-to-books that warm up truisms and clichés – I instantly had to think of How to Win Friends and Influence People there –, the gurus and adepts of horoscopes and similar nonsense, and many other “alternative” modes of thinking (my favourite example here being homeopathy, a kind of shamanism I have often wondered how anyone can take it seriously). Lots of Wheen’s examples are from economics, for example when he talks about the infamous “trickle-down-theory” with which Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan wanted to defend their neoliberal politics, but he also has a bone to pick with intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum, as when he unveils the despicable “I’ll be right in the end” charades of Noam Chomsky, who, of course, would defend the regime of Pol Pot against all proof of its genocidal politics, which killed 20% of the Cambodian population. As long as one lives in the U.S., save and snug, however, one can praise the progress and humaneness of socialist states, knowing well that one won’t have to depend on them. Another virtuoso of intellectual window dressing, definitely on the same level as Mr. Chomsky and targeted by Wheen, is Thomas Friedman, who can only see the good sides of globalization and would probably award the Nobel Peace Prize to Ronald McDonald.

Wheen generally wields a sharp pen when he deals with the mumbo-jumbo masters and their disciples and he neither spares Thatcher nor Blair, neither Reagan and Bush nor Clinton and Al Gore, whose hypocrisy he is particularly keen to lambaste. Nevertheless, for all his humour and keenness of observation, the numbers of examples he gives by and by weakened my attention and also my interest – all the more so since there is no real structure in the book, apart from a very rough one, and we find Wheen start a chapter on one particular thing and then go on to another, seduced by wilful association. Thatcher, Blair and the economy seem to be his pet peeves, and that’s why he returns to them in one of the last chapters even though one would have thought that he could have finished them all off in the chapters dedicated to them in the first place.

Another reason that made me regard the book with only a short-lived interest is the fact that Wheen most often merely describes and denounces, but hardly ever bothers to deal with the mechanisms lying behind these phenomena of mass stupidity. Only in one instance does he scratch a little deeper than the surface: When dealing with the orgy of sentimentality and bosh in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, he implies that beyond a sheer interest in sensation the prurient mawkishness that was displayed and revelled in on this occasion might be a sign of modern people’s inner isolation and emptiness, since they don’t seem to have a lot else in which they could rally and develop a sense of communion. I found this thought quite convincing and would have wished for more of this from Mr. Wheen, but there wasn’t.

Apart from that, there were instances when the author simply seems to mix up inductive thinking with Enlightenment as such, making it the only acceptable method of arriving at knowledge on and understanding of reality. This actually makes him – believe it or not – find fault with a sociologist like Huntington for using what could be termed as ideal types, as in the following passage:

”While admitting that ‘actual personalities, institutions and beliefs do not fit into neat logical categories’, he [i.e. Huntington] nevertheless insisted that ‘neat logical categories are necessary if a man is to think profitably about the real world in which he lives and to derive from it lessons for broader application and use.’ Without abstraction, generalisation and simplification there could be no understanding.”

One could have found fault with Huntington for his attitude on the military regime in Brazil or his stance on apartheid in South Africa, but surely not for a common technique among historians and sociologists – the use of theories and types in order to transcend a merely descriptive level of their subject-matters, and to enable their readers to measure their work against the background of their premises made explicit. History without such models is not history but simply chronology.

There were other instances when Wheen’s conception of Enlightenment seemed rather naïve to me – as for example when he tried to imply that religion as such, not just in regard to what certain people at a certain time in a certain situation made of religion, is nothing but mumbo-jumbo. As far as I know, Kant was wise enough to resort to agnosticism instead of adhering to the dumb idea that the limits of man’s reason must be the limits of the world. Wouldn’t that be another variety of piffle, quite in line with a particularly narrow-minded Roman who would think that everyone everywhere does just as the Romans do?

To conclude, I would not really recommend this book although it has its good sides. I just picked it up because it was mentioned by Roger Scruton in his infinitely superior book The Uses of Pessimism.
Profile Image for Steve.
190 reviews
January 31, 2012
Unfortunately, I cannot assign this book 2.5 stars because it lies just below "like" in my opinion, but a bit better than "ok"

First, what I liked about this book. I do very much like how he demolishes loony ideas of both the Left and the Right, and in fact he casts scorn rather more on the former than the latter. I relished his blast against Noam Chomsky, a person for whom I feel an ever increasing lack of intellectual respect. (It is difficult to discover Wheen's own political position, although it seems to be somewhat left, but not conventionally so.) I also admire his proclaimed devotion to the ideals of the Enlightenment. His critiques are trenchant, and his writing style is both urbane and accessible. I think Wheen serves as an example that there are divergent voices out there that don't buy into the shibboleths of the Left or the Right.

However, what I did not like about this book was his borderline fanaticism which led to a lack of critical self-reflection. I have an issue of the SKEPTIC magazine that was published as a tribute to the life of Stephen Jay Gould. I have kept it because in reading it, I had a profound sense that its authors were nearly as fanatically against UFOs and other questionable ideas as the supporters of these ideas themselves. Much the same holds for Wheen. I too admire the Enlightenment, and like Wheen, I regard pomo (post modern) "philosophers" as charlatans. However, as a sociologist, I am devoted to *understanding* social phenomena even if I personally think they are bizarre and/or stupid.

This book is only an angry jeremiad that seeks to tear down received opinion. As such, it can only persuade those who are already critical. It does not seek to understand why people hold these ideas, it simply deplores that they hold them at all. I find this unsatisfactory because one cannot figure out why something is the case until one "gets inside the problem" and figures out what makes it work. When Kant said that Enlightenment is about "man" escaping his own self-imposed immaturity (paraphrase), he was talking, I feel, about creating critical understanding. That is, to seek to really understand what makes people and things "tick".

Wheen, by contrast, is holding not to this interpretation of the Enlightenment but a rather more chauvinistic one that disparages religion and indeed anything that is not purely a product of rationality. However, as Garry Wills has argued, "The learned have their own superstitions, prominent among them a belief that superstition is evaporating." (Wills, Garry. 1990. Under God: Religion and American Politics. Simon and Schuster) Wheen strikes me as profoundly conservative in this respect, wanting to bring back the 1950's and 1960's intellectual viewpoint of an ever secularizing society.

What this means is that Wheen does not attempt to penetrate the phenomenology of the various "superstitions" he criticizes. Instead he seeks to make anyone who holds these ideas seem ridiculous. While I agree that many people are "blithering idiots", I am not satisfied that this constitutes a sufficient explanation for the continuation of strange ideas in society. While I am devoted to scientific realism (the view that there is a real world out there that we can understand through science), I am also persuaded that human knowledge cannot escape processes of social construction, not even for the most scientific positive researcher. We develop knowledge socially and that often means adherence to particular ideas even when the facts seem contradictory. We can overcome bad ideas through critical analysis, but we can never escape the social component of knowledge entirely.

Hence, for me, the interesting question is why, for example, various New Age beliefs exist. Rather than see these as some sort of "betrayal" of science, I would seek to ground these ideas in particular social processes. I suspect that the answer to the question I have just posed might indict chauvinistic views of the Enlightenment as a partial cause of the move towards pseudoscience. But at the very least, I try to have a somewhat sympathetic understanding the views that people have. Whereas Wheen disdains the supernatural, I prefer to invoke the sociologist of religion Peter Berger, who pointed out that the existence of dreams are a key component of the supernatural. My point is not to say that dreams are supernatural - I am rather more convinced that they have a conventionally scientific explanation - but that for all of us, the nature of existence is rather precarious and science does not have historically deep roots. Until one develops real sympathy for why people might feel that "superstition" has the answer, one can never really understand the existence of religion, belief in crystals, UFOs, and the like. And that to me is the *real* point of science and Enlightenment - understanding.

Post Script: Upon some reflection, I am apt to think that Wheen shares many aspects with his friend, the late Christopher Hitchens, who likewise was highly adamant, difficult to pin down politically, and who was remarkably unsympathetic to the notion of religion. I suspect that Wheen is somewhat more moderate, however, there is a certain resemblance.
Profile Image for Baba.
3,525 reviews785 followers
April 12, 2020
Well thought out - a look at 'mumbo-jumbo', such as religious fundamentalism, Reaganomics, New Labour, alternative medicine, Lady Diana = Peoples' Princess, 20th century free marketing, blind anti-Americanism, communist and Stalinist apologists, Thatcherism, dot-com bubble, etc. etc. 9 out of 12!
Profile Image for Palmyrah.
256 reviews57 followers
May 31, 2022
Although he duly skewers UFO abduction tales, postmodernist irrationalism, New Age quackery and dotcom madness, Wheen's primary target is the mumbo-jumbo of both the Right and Left (or rather what passes for the Left) in contemporary politics. It is not always clear, however, that what he identifies as mumbo-jumbo isn't, from time to time, a political prescription that works. But at least he's fair-minded; both sides get an equal dose of the rod.

Wheen's basic thesis is that modern western civilization, the product of a worldview born of the Enlightenment--a period that gave us science, the concept of human rights, secular polities and much of the other social and intellectual furniture of our world--is now threatened by a popular reaction against rationality and common sense, a reaction that politicians, the media, public 'intellectuals' and others with a profit motive are happy to capitalize on--and catalyze.

A good read, certainly, although it's getting rather old now. Since its publication in 2003, mumbo-jumbo has gone from strength to strength. Irrationalism is now rampant and widespread, particularly in America, a nation with a historical weakness for it. This book, written by an Englishman with a transatlantic outlook, could profitably be issued in a new edition that covers the madness of the last few years: the housing-price bubble, creationism, and so on. It could also profit from a broader survey of the landscape of American delusions.
Profile Image for M.G. Harris.
Author 18 books90 followers
March 17, 2012
Did we just imagine the Enlightenment? Because according to Francis Wheen, its enduring power to persuade might be on the wane. This is a riveting account about the 'rise' of emotion-led thinking versus rationality, as evidenced by phenomena such as the fascination with alternative medicine, happy-clappy business gurus, the enthusiasm with collective grief at the death of Princess Diana. The darker side to this is the rise of religious fundamentalism. Written in 2004 whilst the world was still reeling with shock from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this book stands the test of time. In fact it seems rather prescient. The swivel-eyed thinking of the financial markets are touched upon, but even Francis Wheen didn't anticipate how far and how disastrously 'mumbo jumbo' thinking would go on to affect the world. Read it and weep...
Profile Image for Mike.
511 reviews130 followers
January 4, 2014

In the back of my mind, I have been thinking that this book might spark controversy as the story about the people living on Pitcairn Island did. (Not that my review of that book, Lost Paradise by Kathy Marks, did, but I mean the topic in general.)

Mumbo-Jumbo. I know what it means to me, but I suspect that the phrase represents vastly different things to different people. It immediately conjures up thoughts of the occultism and spiritualism that was rampant at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries.

      First, I think of Arthur Conan Doyle’s embarrassing entanglements with fairies (the magic kind!) and his apparent gullibility for the entire spectrum of quackery. To know that the creator of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes was susceptible to these things is abhorrent to me.

      In almost the same millisecond, I think of Harry Houdini, famed escapist and magician, who debunked mystics and spiritualists while honestly searching for a way to communicate with his dead mater. These charlatans wasted his time and thus made him want to expose them.

      I also think of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Church of Christ the Scientist (aka Christian Scientists), whose magnificent tomb sits less than a mile from my home in the lovely Mount Auburn Cemetery. The legend goes that said tomb was erected with a working telephone inside so that she could call back from the other side. The telephone company eventually had to make the number unlisted to eliminate crank calls to it.

As a person that enjoys and believes in the hard sciences and mathematics, I tend to lump all of the paranormal and unexplained phenomena of this ilk into the category of “Mumbo-Jumbo”. This is despite my hope that some of this stuff is real (and my enjoyment of The X-Files). But, I sit firmly in the camp of the rationalists and consider The Enlightenment to have been a very, very good thing. So, I am probably a perfect audience for this book.

True Confession Time: As a person who was brought up in a religion and gave it up voluntarily, I personally lump the world’s religions into this category. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who have faith, it just means I don’t share your beliefs – any of you. (This includes Mr. C.S. Lewis whose phrases now often adore the local public transit buses.)

Having written that prelude, I must admit that as I worked my way through it, I was in agreement with much that the author stated and appreciative of how he constructed his arguments. At several points he took up some of my own hobby horses much to my satisfaction, but at others I found the topics to veer away from the key elements that I felt were the central idea.

In keeping with my general tendency to not give yet another summary of a book when hundreds await you on the Interweb, I’ll forgo the chance to describe most of the contents. I’m also protecting myself from ugly backlash: there are a couple of points that I firmly believe, but am decidedly in the minority on. In fact the populist view is so dim-witted on these that any statement against them often leads to extreme reactions. So, I won’t subject myself to it. (I’ve already had half a nasty discussion with a drunken friend half my size on New Year’s Eve. Someday, I’ll let her take up the mantle of her convictions when she is good and sober.)

I read the book in small slices; a few pages at a time. Since I was “in tune” with his writing this wasn’t a problem, but I can see how others might lose the thread of a chapter if they did the same. The book is very far-ranging in scope. It covers a lot of material and probably offends equally those Pinko-Commie-Leftists (you know who you are) as well as those Better-Dead-Than-Red NeoCons (you can have your secret handshakes) that seemingly dictate our political fortunes these days. In fact is very democracy (offending all comers) makes it much more satisfying than if it was lopsided in any direction.

In the midst of all this Loonie-bashing, one does not necessarily find the author’s own politics. Given that he is educated and obviously rational one might assume a particular bent, but the text itself seems free from overt bias. That was also refreshing to me (given the subject matter). His attacks on the body politic take on both the right and left (Tories and Labour in the UK and GOP and Dems here in the good ol’ USA). In all cases he presents historical fact to illustrate where the idiocy has been (or was 10 years ago as the book was written).

I suspect that subject matter aside, there are plenty of people that will not like his cutting, often snide style. While not diluting his message, the author takes pride (and a fair amount of undisguised joy) in pillorying those who promulgate the lies and fuzzy thinking that offends him. If you think an author should write clearly but calmly (perhaps coldly like Spock might do), then perhaps Mr. Wheen will not be to your taste. But, if you choose to pass up this little book, you’ll be missing out on a solid work that just might stretch your thinking. If nothing else it may leave you pondering why humans appear to need something beyond logic and rationality. Four Stars for premise and content, but only Three for execution: Three-and-one-half (3.5) Stars, with a firm recommendation to read it.

Profile Image for Emilia Barnes.
542 reviews97 followers
August 26, 2020
I grew up in a pretty superstitious country, where mumbo-jumbo is the order of the day. Yet, whatever gene you need to be able to read a horoscope with a straight face or attend to the wild ramblings of a fortune teller, I don't have it. When people tell me of their experiences with the supernatural, it's like with people telling you their dreams. I feel like going:

Francis Wheen seems to think that this phenomenon of people believing things even though they don't have a rational basis for them is some sort of new thing, the '90s equivalent of coronavirus, which just spread uncontrollably to every aspect of public life: from politics to academia to everyday people. He's not exactly wrong about the facts he presents to support his thesis, but he is wrong about the conclusions he seems to draw from it.

If he ever does. He seems much more interested in venting his grievances against the contemporary irrationality of his fellows, than he seems to be in the wider context of the phenomenon he is observing. This book was written in the early 2000s and reading it from my vantage point, in 2020, his concerns seem almost laughable. Give me fringe UFO enthusiasts any day over freaking alt-righters!

Perhaps at the time it was written, it offered its readers a catharsis of sorts, because Wheen is sometimes slightly amusing (not HILARIOUS as the book claims on the front cover of my edition though!) and very angry as he tears these irrationalities apart. But, again, here from 2020, it offers no such comforts. The longer we live in the 21st century, the more we realise that while we are getting ever more grown-up and damaging toys to play with, our ape-brains have not really travelled as fast in their journey to maturity. We are and always have been more prone to listen to our guts than to our reasons. We like to delude ourselves that the decisions we make are based on evidence and rational thinking but the truth is that our brains are very good at making us believe that, while they make decisions based on experience, prejudice, whether you are hungry and tired or not, your mental well-being, various other instincts and a million other factors that we are hardly aware of.

Where does this leave us? We don't freaking know! It leaves us victim to the unscrupulous and the lying and the self-interested and the malicious and the greedy and the selfish. It leaves us prey to scams and Facebook memes. Worse, it leaves us, who don't believe in horoscopes, and don't believe in ghosts or that they've been kidnapped by UFOs or that trickle-down is such a good idea with the self-satisfied assurance that it's all the others who are insane. We are the enlightened ones who would never be fooled by-

So, to sum up, where we are now in 2020, I think this book just doesn't hold much value beyond a mildly entertaining historical account of the recent past.

For more helpful reading and thinking, I recommend:
Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There
Profile Image for Aurélien Thomas.
Author 9 books102 followers
October 30, 2021
More than two hundred years after the Enlightenment, have we become any more rational? Sects and cults, crystal balls, herbs, astrology and other silly multiplying nonsense are quite amusing when they serve some of our celebrities' ego. However, when it comes to inspiring some of our politicians or being a backbone to our management culture (not devoid of some New Age theories) it becomes far less funny...

Having said that, are such proliferating superstitions a surprise?

They shouldn't be. After all, referring back to the so-called 'Sokal affair', Francis Wheen here shows that the triumphing postmodernism we are now living in could only have damaging consequences -both for abusing science (reduced to a subjective way to understand the world around us!), and, for labelling as 'Western ethnocentrism' every attempt to defend human dignity across the globe. In our time of pseudo-science (alternative medicine, creationism and ID...) and cultural relativism, one can wonder in fact where the heck is the philosophes' spirit gone, they who dared to put their sharp intellects and works at the service of Reason and against barbarism!

The topics at hand are certainly too wide, the targets too many, and, at times, maybe surprising (the author attacks also free market ideology and the 'invisible hand', I don't understand quite why -what we have now surely is a twisted version of Adam Smith's original philosophy, but Smith himself was quite rational...). Nevertheless, cleverly funny, such a slap into absurdity's face is more than welcomed!
Profile Image for Howard.
31 reviews1 follower
December 16, 2013
This is a difficult book, which took me quite a long time to read. It has a highly intellectual, philosophical style, rather than the more journalistic style which I had expected. It covers a lot of ground, from political mumbo-jumbo such as the claims about how neoliberal economics is supposed to work to the benefit of all of society, to the likes of astrology and conspiracy theories. Being a sceptical sort of person myself, but not, I hope, to the extent of having a closed mind, I was broadly in agreement with Francis Wheen’s writing here, and in places it was quite amusing, but there are some flaws which have caused me just to give the book two stars for ‘it was OK’ rather than three for ‘liked it’.

Unfortunately, I found that the many changes of subject in each chapter left me floundering a bit, as it was difficult to get a coherent feel for any kind of theme. I know they are not the done thing in this kind of text, but some subheadings would have helped.

I felt that Wheen’s ‘a plague on all their houses’ point of view seemed rather slippery in the end. Although this is the premise of Private Eye magazine, for which Wheen writes, exposing ‘humbug’ and hypocrisy, wherever it comes from, in the context of a 300-page book consisting of long essays, a more concrete, affirmative viewpoint would have been appreciated.

Finally, the references at the back were too sparse. Many of the points made were not referenced. This is in stark contrast to Naomi Klein, a very different kind of journalist, who rigorously attaches footnotes to almost every claim that she makes. I do not deny that Wheen is correct in his assertions, just that it would be nice to know the sources of some of them.
Profile Image for Jennifer Ozawa.
152 reviews66 followers
December 3, 2018
Great concept, but the middle section where Wheen talks about economic theory made my eyes glaze over. Was hoping for more discussion about how pop culture has become dumbed down.
Profile Image for Mark Love.
96 reviews8 followers
October 16, 2012
I first read this book in about 2005, soon after it came out. In the post-9/11 world during the dying days of Blairism and it was a refreshing broadside against the bland meaningless language that politicians and commentators effortlessly spewed to justify their actions and inactions. Reading it again now in the wake of the financial crisis, and in an age of Tory austerity it has depressingly familiar feel.

Wheen's thesis is that we are slipping back from an age of rational enlightenment into a post-modern age of moral relativism where 'all views and interpretations are valid'. And whether it's allowing the teaching of creationism in schools, homeopathic medicine, or anti-Americans justifying Al-Quaeda this is a worryingly regressive step, and one that can directly be traced back to the election of Margaret Thatcher and the return of Ayatollah Khomeni to Iran in 1979.

Francis Wheen has a mighty intellect and forensic talents for spotting contradictions and u-turns by journalists and public figures, with which he is able to rapidly fill pages in Private Eye ('over lunchtime' according to Ian Hislop) and this book has it in spades. Hugely funny, enlightening and impressive in turns, it lays into nearly everyone - including a devastating critique of the revered Noam Chomsky in the final chapter.

The trouble is that the thesis feels like a flimsy cover for Wheen's skillful storytelling, and that consequently the book doesn't really flow, or reach much of a conclusion. Politicians and businessmen have always used spin and lies and I'm not sure there ever was a true age of enlightenment - rationalism has always had to battle the realities of power, politics and commerce to get it's voice heard, and these days are sadly no different.
Profile Image for Paul.
815 reviews44 followers
February 15, 2018
Francis Wheen is the master of killing off sacred cows with his brilliant insights and his deadly cleverness. I'm glad to have found him. This book is both brilliant and hilarious, and a lot of it was over my head and beyond my understanding. The parts that were under my head I found full of wisdom, skewering modern-day beliefs/systems/worldviews. I loved his dismissal of modern-day self-proclaimed gurus; I totally didn't understand his view on postmodernism, although I have always thought of it myself as academics lobbing screaming emails at each other, usually consisting of abstract term upon abstract term. I adored that he compared it to the emperor's new clothes, so I can dismiss it for the rest of my life.

This man is brilliant and funny. He is so much of both that it exceeds my ability to capture or understand either. The parts I could understand, like the cult of Princess Diana, he nailed absolutely. My only disagreement with him was him hating on Noam Chomsky, who is one of my heroes, doing his best to straighten out a world gone completely mad.

This book came out in 2004, and I don't know why it isn't more famous than Green Eggs and Ham. It's a fabulous book, one that bears at least a second reading.

I'm just happy to know that Francis Wheen exists. What a writer!

I saw at the end of the book that he has written a hilarious biography of Karl Marx, which I can't even imagine, but which now makes me interested in Marx for the first time enough to maybe even read about him. Maybe Marx is the opioid of the masses. We'll see.

I'd recommend this book to all intelligent, open-minded searchers of the truth. There's a lot of truth in it.
Profile Image for S..
Author 5 books66 followers
December 15, 2014
finally, I was looking for a readable work to deal with whatever nicotine-amyls sequences are passing through my cerebrum. lots of books from six months ago are now unbearable, but somehow, Wheen's defines of just common sense attitudes against New Age claptrap and/or Sokal-affair academic cant has hit the spot. nothing like soothing relaxing text from a newspaper-trianed writer. definitely 4/5 at least. only keeping away the 5/5 due to the changes in re-readability in text here and there
Profile Image for Mykolas.
16 reviews
May 3, 2019
Nope, didn’t like this book at all. Can’t remember the reason why I bought it, but I didn’t find it hilarious or interesting at all. The subject matter is unoriginal, unconventional and frankly rather dull. Not something I expected.
28 reviews1 follower
May 24, 2013
How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World links some major movements in politics, belief and commerce/economics from 1979 to the present day that defy the reason and rationality that was established by the Enlightenment several hundred years ago.

The Enlightenment was an attitude rather than an ideology. Its foundations come from the likes of Francis Bacon, John Locke, Newton, Thomas Jefferson and David Hume. There was of course different strands in thought and different options between say the continental philosophers and say the empiricist approach but there was also figures like Kant that tried to reconcile the two approaches. However certain principles were common and accepted by all, such as intellectual freedom and a commitment to free inquiry (i.e. not influenced by authority such as the Church or monarchs). Recently it is these common principles that have been under threat in today's world.

Firstly there was Post-modernist thought that infected universities in the USA and UK. Students in literature, film and cultural studies were taught that the world is just a social construct about which one can say anything provided it is said obscurely enough.

Then there was the huge growth in alternative medicine. Despite there being no evidence that it has any medicinal benefits at all Homoeopathy and other alternative health treatments are a massive industry. Wheen quotes a 1998 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that the use of Homoeopathic preparations almost doubled between 1990 and 1997 in America. In Britain by the end of the 20th century Britain’s 36,000 GPs were outnumbered by 50,000 alternative health practitioners. Americans spend around £26 billion a year on alternative healthcare.

Turning to economic theories, non nonsensical in different ways, America and UK have been guided by monetarist economic policies since the 80s. The idea was that prosperity trickles from the “top down” as opposed to the “middle out”. However since the 70s employment income for all but the richest 10% of households grew in America. Now middle-income families are facing falling real wages and higher debt to keep up with rising household bills. Much the same things have happened in Britain although we at the moment, at least, still enjoy free healthcare and greater employment rights than in America. Although some of these things are changing in the UK.

There were other economic affects: between 1895-1980 the USA showed a trade surplus but in 87 the US trade deficit was 340 billion dollars. On Black Monday the Dow Jones lost 22.6% of its total value almost twice the 1929 plunge which precipitated the Great Depression. Later there was the dot-com boom, then the credit crunch and the situation we're in now.

Part of of the economic narrative in the 80s came from a proliferation of management books, then books on personal growth and mysticism. There was a mantra from the 80's that unless Britain learned to love wealth creators it was doomed to become an economic backwater. Figures like Jonathan Aiken (Conservative MP), Gerald Ronson (British Businessman and establishment figure). However some of these people were not all that they seem, Aiken was later jailed for perjury and Ronson was jailed for an illegal shares operation.

Companies such as Enron were also lauded for their achievements. It was created from the merger of two medium sized national pipeline companies. Sales rose from around $4 billion in 89 to $40 billion ten years later. The company though went bankrupt at which point we started see the true picture. Losses were transferred to off-shore companies off-balance sheet and investment capital was shown as profit. These tactics kept the share price high attracting more funds and enriching its directors.

Then there are monetarist policies that have been implemented on other part of the world through the America dominated IMF. In 1997 “Asian Tiger Economies” like Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines initially implementing the IMF rules of deregulation and privatisation found themselves trashed by foreign investors. Interest reached around 80% in Indonesia. People's lives can be changed at the whims of a group of investors and one should always remember that 1.3 billion people live on less than a dollar a day.

There is so much in this book but it is well worth the read as there is a lot of knowledge and considered option in it. You can also return to read it in chunks. Overall it is also presented humorously despite making some serious points. I hope my brief summary does it some justice.
281 reviews3 followers
January 12, 2011
Very intersting take on some of the political changes over the last 20 yrs. Main point is a death of rationalism at the knife of cultural relativism and post modernism. Very cool read.


From Publishers Weekly
British columnist and satirist Wheen presents an exhaustive but ultimately exhausting full-frontal assault on the past 25 years of "Counter-Enlightenment idiocy." His fencing dummies include Margaret Thatcher, Reaganomics, the Iranian Revolution, the Christian Coalition, Deepak Chopra, post-modernism, Francis Fukuyama, creationism, conspiracy theorists, people who believe in UFOs, astrology, the military-industrial complex, Cherie Blair and Hillary Clinton's fondness for New Age philosophy, Noam Chomsky, Enron, suicide bombers and much, much more. Wheen skewers his targets with the kind of rapier-like wit the world has come to expect and enjoy from British masters of the vituperative arts. But there's an awful lot of bloodletting here, and much of it is directed at bestselling authors, whose sales numbers Wheen bitterly notes as a way to quantitatively measure the reading public's stupidity. Worse, he burdens his book, which is best read as a series of essays, with a to-hell-in-a-handbasket hypothesis that the level of attack on Enlightenment rationality has increased dramatically in recent years, going so far as to assign a date to the inflection point: 1979, when Thatcher and the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Some readers may bristle at Wheen's idea that right-wing economic policy is inextricably tied to anti-rational, religious fundamentalism, and the author's increasingly stretched attempts to prove this relationship begin to slip into the same realm of conspiracy theorizing he mocks in others. As an exercise in knocking down sacred cows left, right and center, this book proves that at the end of the satirical road lies nihilism.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker
Looking back on the last quarter-century, Wheen, a British journalist, sees a disturbing recrudescence of irrationalists, including "holy warriors, antiscientific relativists, economic fundamentalists, radical postmodernists, New Age mystics." American politicians routinely resort to "intense sentimentality" to sway voters; C.E.O.s lure investors with talk of "faith" in place of assets; Christian evangelists opine that September 11th is "probably what we deserve" for allowing feminists and the A.C.L.U. to flourish. In perhaps the silliest example, a consultant advises British civil servants to wear different colored hats for different tasks: red for developing hunches, yellow for cheering, black for questioning. It's hard to quarrel with the foolishness of some of Wheen's targets. But his larger thesis—that Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher spearheaded a retreat from the values of the Enlightenment back toward those of the Middle Ages—is so thinly reasoned as to seem to warrant its own entry in Wheen's encyclopedia absurdica
Profile Image for Chinook.
2,242 reviews19 followers
March 5, 2011
Another book that I picked up with an expectation that wasn’t realized was “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World” by Francis Wheen. I thought it was going to be about language, instead it was about the rise in non-rational thinking in the past twenty years or so. While it wasn’t what I expected, I found it interesting. He discusses the emotional populism of recent politicians, like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and mentions one of my favourite quotes: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Charles Mackay. He talks of Thatcher’s claim that her principles represented nothing more than common sense, the application of normal rules of domestic economy and good housekeeping on a grand scale, by pointing out that she must have lived in a very chaotic household, kept awake by the noise of Torschlusspanik, which I learned is the word that describes the frenzy as people fight to rush through a door before it is slammed in their face. Sums up Thatcherite politics rather well, doesn’t it? I learned about the concept of category mistake, a term invented by philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe the yoking together of two incompatible concepts, as in ‘love is a rectangle’ or ‘Thursdays are purple’ and how he feels that applies to Islamic governments. I also discovered that Noam Chomsky is the most frequently quoted living intellectual, according to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index.
Profile Image for SHUiZMZ.
201 reviews1 follower
April 12, 2017
I can definitely recommend this for those that enjoy reading about politics in regards to finance, history, war, government, religion, sociology, and pretty much any sort of topic that would generally lead to a shouting match between two people with opposite viewpoints. Politics have always been a difficult subject for me to sort out. I can't even really say which end my personal viewpoints on politics lean towards. They literally change depending on the situation on hand I am looking at and usually I tend to think that I don't know enough about what is going on in current events to have an educated and rational opinion on the matter, hence why I generally enjoy reading about history and even current politically books a little bit later making them less current. Politics sometimes give me a massive headache when dwelling on them too long. Regardless, there is a lot of satire and humor in this book, as well as some really interesting bits on conspiracy theories, aliens, UFOs, and I particularly enjoyed the many quotes and books referenced throughout. Again, so many new books I am curious to read from reading this book. I also see an X-FILES marathon coming up in the near-future.
Profile Image for Owain Lewis.
178 reviews9 followers
January 18, 2013
Pretty good but to be honest I can't remember all that much about it, apart from the last chapters about Friedmantite neoliberalism and the hypocrisy and general failiure thereof. Even so I seem to remember thinking that most of what I read seemed to be a reasonable analysis of the various situations and subjects tackled, whatever they were. It's quite research heavy, which considering the focus of the book is only a good thing, but I don't remember ever finding it boring. In fact I do remember laughing relatively often, although I've no idea why or at which parts. Jeez this is probably the vaguest review I've ever written but that's probably to do with the fact that I broadly already agree with most of the points he is making. But has mumbo jumbo really conquored the world? I'm not so sure.
Profile Image for Kathleen (itpdx).
1,157 reviews20 followers
September 25, 2017
Wheen says that reason is in retreat. This book was published in 2004 and it is interesting to read it knowing about the Great Recession, the endless Iraq and Afghan wars and Trump. Trump is mentioned several times in the book as "the ostentatious 1980's mogul" and "the gloriously vulgar property developer".
Wheen takes on religion, economics, politics and shows how far off-base they have wandered from the Enlightenment ideals. But he fails to acknowledge that the US's founding fathers were not the average colonists of the time and there was a lot of superstition and fuzzy thinking going around then as now. But at least the leaders were rational.
I saw another reviewer say that she would give this book a 2.5 and settled on a 2, so I assigned a 3 and our average will be 2.5 which is about right.
Profile Image for Pinko Palest.
822 reviews39 followers
June 30, 2016
I really don't know why I reread this. Probably to punish myself. There is very little about mumbo jumbo here, but there is very much about the author's hatred towards most strands of left-wing thought. He does throw in a few pieces about the mumbo jumbo sprouted by business-people, or by Blair and Clinton, but his main attack throughout is on the Left, from post-modernism to anti-imperialism. Wheen does mention the giants of Enlightenment (such as Voltaire and Diderot)thought as a counter-weight to modern leftists, as if they belonged to different traditions, and even tries to separate modern Leftists from Marx. But he doesn't even really make the case, since what he really presents are caricatures
193 reviews7 followers
July 30, 2009
I'm always in the market for books debunking crackpottery, and I enjoyed this one. Its main problem is that Wheen attacks a vast range of targets which tends to weaken the focus a bit. He certainly gets around: postmodernists, Muslim fanatics, politicians of various stripes, economists, management gurus, Diana cultists... Then again, there are many kinds of nuts, and in the current climate of value relativism they get way too much acceptance not only from the gullible, but also from those who ought to know better. So carry on, Mr Wheen!
Profile Image for Simon.
735 reviews24 followers
September 29, 2010
The "wacky" cover design and "Hilarious!" quote from Jeremy Paxman had me expecting a Grumpy Old Man-style rant, but it's better than that. Wheen takes on all those who, in his view, have betrayed the principles of the Enlightenment, from New Age quacks to postmodernist critical theorists to free market evangelists. It is funny, but also erudite, passionate and informative. Some of the economics stuff went over my head, and some of the targets are all too easy (astrologers and homeopathists), but it's still a worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Jayne  Gray .
95 reviews10 followers
June 13, 2008
I really enjoyed this book. Wheen argues strongly against the modern trend of relativism and believes that we need to get back in touch with Enlightement thinking when we still thought there was truth to be had.

It was refreshing to see Enlightenment ideas of certainty and truth propounded so clearly. Having been educated in the post modern tradition myself, it was a bit of a surprise to see how so much of this can be utter mumbo jumbo. Interesting and educational.
Profile Image for Doug.
91 reviews2 followers
October 14, 2007
I read it a few years ago and I really loved it. I knew Wheen from his admirable bio of Marx, and this book is essentially a celebration of rationalism and enlightenment values. He brutally (and quite wittily) dissects postmodern cultural theorists, free marketers, religious fanatics, Deepak Chopra and many other Charlatans. Hysterical.
Profile Image for Lukas Dufka.
39 reviews9 followers
August 8, 2016
An eloquent and darkly-humorous book which describes our culture’s distressing abandonment of reason and its replacement with cultural relativism, emotional sentimentalism and feel-good fictions. Quite prescient a warning, I must say, coming before, as it did, the appearance of Donald Trump, the Kardashians, trigger-warnings, colouring books for adults, the Brexit and the selfie-stick.
Profile Image for Ana.
2,346 reviews317 followers
September 26, 2017
Had I read this during the height of my Christopher Hitchens faze, I know for a fact that I would have liked this book a lot more. It's snarky and well written, but at times it lays the blame on too thick and I just can't help but feel that the author is too annoyed with certain things and just gets derailed. But the book is really well written and far-ranging in scope.
1,524 reviews22 followers
July 5, 2022
Brilliant, intelligent, funny and a book oh so worth reading - I beg you to get this book and just revel in the insights and splendid prose. I cannot stress how good an experience reading this book was.
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