28 July, 2009


How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World
by Francis Wheen

     Rather an annoying book, at times, this. Not, i fear, in the way that Wheen probably intended for it to be annoying to certain people (those at whom he is poking fun), but annoying in the way that he has written it. The design is to explore how people turn off their minds and fall for all sorts of evident nonsense for assorted reasons, especially because it makes them feel good or meets some ulterior motive.
    There are several problems with the book; one is that i don’t think Wheen is quite certain of what he wants to do ~ or, rather, he is certain of his ultimate goal, but not so sure of the means he ought to use to attain that goal. He would like to destroy the foolishness of other people’s minds and obsessions; he is not sure whether ’tis best done through humour or argument, and thus he uses both, and neither to its full effect. Jeremy Paxman has made his choice: On the cover his one word review is quoted, “Hilarious”; evidently he has been able to overlook the parts of the book which are not hilarity-provoking, which do not even approach the humorous, and focus on what amused him. I cannot. Interestingly, neither did the writer of the back cover blurb, who calls it both “hilarious and [a] gloriously impassioned polemic”.
    Another problem i have is that Wheen is not, in the passionately polemical sections, an especially good arguer. One simple example suffices: Wheen gives a quote often attributed to Chesterton which he then argues against. First, though something like the quote as he gives it is universally attributed to GKC (though no one seems to know from where), Wheen uses a form somewhat different from that usually given ~ “When a man ceases to believe in God he does not believe in nothing; he believes in anything” as opposed to something like “The danger when a man ceases to believe in God is not that he will believe nothing, but that he may believe anything” ~ now while with an untraceable quote one may be free to use any form, the fact that the one Wheen selects is different from and has a slightly different meaning to the usual form is significant. More significant is that he then equates anything and nothing which, even in the form he has quoted, clearly are not the same thing. He then suggests that the aphorism would be better phrased as, “If you believe in God, you’ll believe anything” which is stupid on so many levels that i find it hard even to start to criticise it.
    A third problem i found is that, despite my frustration with both Wheen’s style(s) and argumentative capacity, i agree strongly with what he wants to say. At the time, for example, i found the whole Princess Diana fiasco an embarrassing (even for a Briton in America) reflection on mindless emotionalism; much of the chapter entitled “Us and Them” which ponders the younger President Bush’s world-view as an example of much of America’s, is highly relevant to the way the nations and peoples of the world views themselves and each other. That is frustrating, a problem for me, because i agree with Wheen, and find myself asking why he couldn’t have done better on such important and interesting issues.

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