December 17th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: The death penalty and Van Tuong Nguyen

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Contenders for the Howard succession

CULTURE WARS: Fighting to defend civilisation

SCHOOLS: Truth and beauty to exchanged for 'relevance'

OPINION: Abortion drug victimises women

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Burma, ASEAN and selective breast-beating / Latham was right / Asia for the Australians / News item

FOREIGN DEBT: Greenspan issues warning over foreign debt

PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE Private funding 'more expensive'

INTERNATIONAL POLITICS: Global significance of China-India relations

IRAQ WAR: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction

ENVIRONMENT: Ensuring sustainable agriculture

TIMOR LESTE: 'Thanks for helping East Timor'

Compulsory voting a necessity (letter)

Disabled people at risk from euthanasia (letter)

ABC insults Australia's war dead (letter)

Low pay and joblessness (letter)

BOOKS: HOW MUMBO-JUMBO CONQUERED THE WORLD: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen

BOOKS: FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy

BOOKS: THE CASE FOR DEMOCRACY: The power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror, by Natan Sharansky

Books promotion page

HOW MUMBO-JUMBO CONQUERED THE WORLD: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen

by Bill James

News Weekly, December 17, 2005
Human gullibility in the Information Age

A Short History of Modern Delusions
by Francis Wheen

London: Harper Perennial
Paperback RRP: $24.95

The author probably enjoyed writing this book. His idiosyncratic and all-encompassing employment of the term "mumbo-jumbo" meant that every negative prejudice held by Francis Wheen could be jammed into it. The end product no doubt left him in a state of exhausted but therapeutic relaxation, "all passion spent".

Wheen is a proud, self-professed and old-fashioned apostle of the self-styled Enlightenment. His attacks on faiths such as Christianity and Islam are predictable, containing little that has not been around for the last two and a half centuries. On his recent visit to Australia, he finished up on ABC radio being interviewed by Philip Adams. Who would have seen that coming?

Conspiracy theories

Wheen's shotgun diatribe, however, does fortuitously wing a number of deserving targets, however, such as astrology, the Princess Diana cult, UFOs, identity politics, environmentalist hysteria, alternative medicine, postmodernism, psycho-babble, popular conspiracy theories and New Age religion.

Don't miss the stimulating descriptions of Tony and Cherie Blair's rebirthing ceremony, or of Deepak Chopra's disciple, Hillary Clinton, channelling Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt.

While science and rationalism possess undisputed (except by obscurantist postmodernists) validity within their appropriate spheres, they can say nothing meaningful about ethics and values. This is where Wheen comes unstuck. To him, human rights are as self-evident to the unfettered intellect as the law of gravity, or e=mc2 (to postmodernists, a "sexed equation [which] privileges the speed of light over other [less masculine] speeds").

Unfortunately, within a self-enclosed naturalistic system there are no signposts to right and wrong. Feelings about good and evil are just that: feelings - subjective, arbitrary and relative.

If human beings are merely chance concatenations of atoms, what does it matter what they do, or what happens to them? Morality can only be injected into the universe from something which - or someone who - transcends it; and for Wheen and his ilk, nothing and no-one does.

It follows that there are no logically superior or inferior political systems. This is a problem for Wheen, who is a one-eyed socialist and anti-American bigot.

A substantial proportion of his book consists of stories about stupid, crooked, bobo (bourgeois bohemian, since you asked) businessmen and their fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes. The victims in Wheen's horror stories are rueful investors with burned fingers.

Of the practitioners of state-run economies, who have reduced whole nations to starvation-level poverty (Nyerere, Kaunda, Nkrumah, Mengistu, Mugabe) or murdered millions of their citizens (Stalin, Mao) or both (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il), there is about as little as Wheen can decently get away with.

Apparently communism, the most irrational and destructive phenomenon known to history, does not qualify as mumbo-jumbo. Rarely has there been a more brazen example of the dictum that capitalism gets judged by its problems, and socialism by its promises.

Despite his left-wing prejudices, Wheen does include some honest and heartwarming exposures of our era's most prominent practitioners of mumbo-jumbo.

These include Michael Moore's response to 9/11; Noam Chomsky's rationalisations for Pol Pot; John Pilger's support for Islamo-fascism; and the racists who claim that Arabs such as Iraqis are genetically incapable of coping with democracy.

For all its faults, this is a lively and, at times, very funny book.

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