Thursday, October 20, 2005

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

A Book Report

I have just finished How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions by Francis Wheen. JK sent me the book a couple of weeks ago with a note which said that my blog often reminds him of this book. Thanks, JK.

I have just found that the book is being sold under a different title in the US and Canada. It is called Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense. I think both titles describe very well what the book is about, i.e. (1) how nothing makes any sense anymore and (2) how much bullshit people willingly swallow on a daily basis.

To Wheen, the beginning of the age of mumbo-jumbo was marked by the parallel rises to power of the “two messiahs”, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. The year was 1979.

The book is a series of inter-connected essays, each one with a central theme and a catchy title. Examples are “The demolition merchants of reality”, “Right is the new left” and “Forward to the past”. Wheen lampoons everything: e.g. Reaganomics, alternative medicine, the cult of Princess Diana, the Enron phenomenon, conspiracy theories, Noam Chomsky, Madonna, and the anti-globalisation movement. And he is funny. Even the index is funny.

Mumbo-Jumbo has an index of delightful lunacy, including this entry for God: ‘accepted by Newton; angered by feminists and gays; appoints American coal-owners; approves of laissez-faire economics; arrives in America; asked by Khomeini to cut off foreigners' hands; believed to have created humans 10,000 years ago; could have made intelligent sponges; doesn't foresee Princess Diana's death; helps vacuum-cleaner saleswoman; interested in diets; offers investment advice; praised by Enron chairman; produces first self-help manual.’

Incidentally, I was told by Wheen himself that his American publishers commissioned a professional, more sober index. Some people just can't see a joke.
- Philip Hensher, The Independent

Wheen opens the book’s last paragraph with the words “Truth is great and will prevail.” He must be an optimist indeed to be able to document the sheer absurdity of the past 25 years and still come to a conclusion like that.

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