qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Wheen's Spleen

Book Review: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, by Francis Wheen
Wheen tries to be a Grumpy Old Man with a purpose, but only partially succeeds. His thesis is that Enlightenment values are being swept away by a variety of irrational causes, among them religion, New-Ageism, post-modernism, free-market economic hypocrisy, catastrophism and conspiracy theory. Wheen provides two case studies from 1979 as a prologue: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK. Perhaps this is an omen for the rest of the book, as his analysis is very mixed, conveniently packaging the root cause of all Middle Eastern problems as the United States (having propped up a corrupt regime which suppressed all internal dissent - a valid theme to which Wheen returns several times - thus ensuring "popular" support for the only available alternative, in this case an exiled Ayatollah). Wheen describes Thatcher as a purveyor of Enlightenment values (in this case, "Victorian" values) who then set about an irrational economic idealism with its consequent destruction. Again there is a case here, but tying the two of them together is a tall order.

Individual sections of the book are entertaining and convincing, but the relentless presentation is wearing, and it reminds me of other left-wing comedian-cum-campaigners such as Jeremy Hardy and Michael Moore. Wheen makes it plain that the lunatics are running the asylum, but the limitation of the book is that he doesn't really do anything other than scratch the surface. If there's a problem, Wheen ought to have researched and to explain why this came about and what to do to correct it. As it stands, he is really only preaching to the (rational) converted.

Curiously, when Wheen returns to economics I find his writing more effective. I don't know whether that is to do with his background, or whether it's his years of research on Karl Marx that have paid off. His assessment of globalisation - that there's nothing wrong with it in principle, but it is a disaster when applied to an already distorted playing field - chimes particularly with my own view. This was a good book, but I do think it was over-rated by the reviewers whose selected paeans are enscribed on the cover.
Tags: books
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