How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World turns up in secondhand bookshops regularly. It’s also widely available for nowt from local libraries. This copy was bought for £2.49 from Oxfam in Carlisle. Bookcase also sells secondhand books in the city, while Waterstones offers new ones.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World turns up in secondhand bookshops regularly. It’s also widely available for nowt from local libraries. This copy was bought for £2.49 from Oxfam in Carlisle. Bookcase also sells secondhand books in the city, while Waterstones offers new ones.

The political landscape has changed in the decade since Mumbo-Jumbo’s publication. The terror that opened a second front in Iraq has been replaced by a horror at a backlash from ISIS. In the UK, the growing disillusionment with the blurring between the two main political parties has been replaced by a rejuvenated interest in politics since the rise of UKIP and the Scottish nationals. Changes like these show how Wheen’s book captured a zeitgeist by discussing its expression.

Today it smacks of the turn of the Millennium. Remember how interest grew in the occult, flying saucers, Nostradamus etc.? One chapter unpacks intellectual retreats from which the onus for proof is placed upon the sceptic: UFOs, quack therapies, and astrology to name but a few. It’s easy, if you’re an atheist and a rationalist like myself, to sympathise with this (unfortunately rare) critique. When someone fails to convince me of mysterious ‘healing’ or ‘energy’, inevitably, I’m the one with the problem: ‘unreceptive’ or ‘resistant’ to the unobservable and unmeasurable as I am, closed-minded as I am too, what with my demand for that oh-so-tiresome work that goes into providing evidence that can be corroborated by method and measure. My disappointment with Mumbo-Jumbo is therefore that it didn’t take a fuller exploration of the industries that profit from the invisible. This would have made for a richer discussion because of how difficult it is to say how far any disdain should go. For example, should we condemn the arts for their ambiguity and incompleteness? And when does the demand for an evidence-base for public funding compromise independence and ‘intrinsic worth’?

To its great credit, Mumbo-Jumbo does explore the growth of religious interference in politics, obfuscation in academia, and occultisms in general. These chapters fit the book’s billing, and would have benefitted from the addition of a chapter about the use of mystifying language as a tool for convincing people, gaining power, etc.

However, Mumbo-Jumbo overly joins the 1990s rise in New Age-ism with the smoke and mirrors to political life. Many chapters quickly deviate into attacks on either right-wing politics or left-wing politics that has mutated into right-wing politics. These passages make for thoughtful invective, however, I couldn’t help but wonder what they had to do with mumbo-jumbo. The term seems to be employed as a label for political views that Wheen disagrees with. This makes for a cheapness that doesn’t square with the author’s erudition: it’s easy to accuse people of irrationality when you disagree with them.

For example, the chapters on left and right politics split into 1) attacks on the lack of clarity over what left and right politics are anymore, 2) examples of politicians (unacceptably, in Wheen’s view) changing their minds, and 3) the tendency for politicians to take up moral issues while religious leaders take up political ones. There is an attempt to glue this all together by explaining how it turns away from the Enlightenment epoch. Yet for all the sympathy I have for this, I kept finding myself hitting points at which I’d ask ‘what’s this got to do with mumbo-jumbo?’ Then I’d flick backwards a few pages, wonder the same thing, and then settle for ‘oh, I see, you find weaknesses in their arguments, therefore they are irrational, therefore … they must be speaking mumbo-jumbo?’ This seemed a question because it’s often hard to fathom what exactly Wheen’s driving at in the midst of his disagreements. Is he saying that the world would be a better place if we all spoke clearer? If so, how might we institute universal agreements on clarity? Or does he suggest that we should find acceptable limits to what should lie beyond rational understanding? If so, how can a rationalisation of something beyond rational understanding be understandable?

Yet for all my gripes the book is a lot of fun. The gags are subtly intermixed with seriousness as you’d expect from a satirist. The density of the ideas and prose is also compelling. Most importantly it gives you as much to argue with as to laugh at. It’s quite an achievement then that a discussion so historically steeped can maintain its relevance a decade on.

Extract from p.51/2:

So what are the seven habits of highly effective people? How do we awaken the giant within? The short answer is: never overestimate the intelligence of your audience. ‘Did you ever consider’, Stephen Covey asks in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), ‘how ridiculous it would be to try to cram on a farm – to forget to plant in the spring, play all summer and then cram in the fall to bring in the harvest? The farm is a natural system. The price must be paid and the process followed. You always reap what you sow.’ The echo of Chauncey Gardener, the idiot savant who dispensed horticultural wisdom in Jerzy Kosinski’s satire Being There, is presumably accidental.

Anthony Robbins prefers to take his imagery from the kitchen rather than the farmyard. ‘A nice metaphor for the components and use of strategies is that of baking,’ he observes in Unlimited Power (1986). ‘If someone makes the greatest chocolate cake in the world, can you produce the same quality results? Of course you can, if you have that person’s recipe . . . if you follow the recipe to the letter, you will produce the same results, even though you may never have baked such a cake before in your life.’ This weary analogy clearly had a profound effect on at least one reader. ‘There is no better metaphor for the products of the knowledge economy than the recipe,’ the British guru Charles Leadbeater writes in Living on Thin Air: The New Economy (1990). ‘Think of the world as divided up into chocolate cakes and chocolate-cake recipes . . . We can all use the same chocolate-cake recipe, at the same time, without anyone being worse off. It is quite unlike a piece of cake.’ Tony Blair, in turn, was deeply impressed, hailing Leadbeater as ‘an extraordinarily interesting thinker’ whose book ‘raises critical questions for Britain’s future’. Another Labour minister, Peter Mandelson, described Living on Thin Air as ‘a blueprint for what a radical modernising project will entail in years to come’.

The man ultimately responsible for all this lucrative twaddle is Dale Carnegie, and most of his successors stick pretty closely to the formula (oh, all right, recipe) devised by the pioneer. It was certainly Carnegie who cottoned on to the selling power of animal analogies, peppering his prose with such eternal verities as ‘no one ever kicks a dead dog’ and ‘if you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive’. Studying the titles on display in the management section of Borders’ bookshop, you might assume that you’d stumbled into the natural history department by mistake: Lions Don’t Need To Roar: Stand Out, Fit In and Move Ahead in Business, by Debra Benton, Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten, Alive by Harvey Mackay and Teaching the Elephants to Dance: Empowering Change in Your Organisation by James A. Belasco. Charles Handy’s The Age of Unreason has a picture of a leaping frog on its front cover. Why? ‘If you put a frog in water and slowly heat it, the frog will eventually let itself be boiled to death,’ he explains. ‘We, too, will not survive if we don’t respond to the radical way in which the world is changing.’

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