How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

The retreat from Enlightenment values has been a disaster for the left. Johann Hari cheers on a polemicist who's got postmodern pretension in his sights
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The Independent Culture

Francis Wheen is revered (and feared) for his casual yet deadly exposés of charlatans and imbeciles - the journalistic equivalent of drive-by shootings. The jokey title of this book suggests that it is a collection of more of the same. The fans who expect this will not be disappointed - he annihilates targets as varied as Milton Friedman, Princess Diana and John Pilger - yet this book is far more than this. It is a fierce defence of the Enlightenment, and its corollaries: rationality, science and progress. Wheen argues that, for at least the past quarter-century, the Enlightenment has been abused. The emancipatory philosophy of the 18th century - the font of modernity - has been torn at by a mob of post-modernists, Islamic fundamentalists, New Agers and market fundamentalists. The very people who should have defended it, the left, have been too busy chattering about deconstructing the latent racism or sexism of the Enlightenment to notice.

Francis Wheen is revered (and feared) for his casual yet deadly exposés of charlatans and imbeciles - the journalistic equivalent of drive-by shootings. The jokey title of this book suggests that it is a collection of more of the same. The fans who expect this will not be disappointed - he annihilates targets as varied as Milton Friedman, Princess Diana and John Pilger - yet this book is far more than this. It is a fierce defence of the Enlightenment, and its corollaries: rationality, science and progress. Wheen argues that, for at least the past quarter-century, the Enlightenment has been abused. The emancipatory philosophy of the 18th century - the font of modernity - has been torn at by a mob of post-modernists, Islamic fundamentalists, New Agers and market fundamentalists. The very people who should have defended it, the left, have been too busy chattering about deconstructing the latent racism or sexism of the Enlightenment to notice.

Wheen makes it clear that he is not defending some of the most naïve assumptions of the Enlightenment. He admits that science and progress will only ever yield partial truths, and that we must always interrogate our use of reason to ensure it has not become contaminated by prejudices or by obesiance to existing power structures. He gives an excellent definition of a defensible Enlightenment: it is "not so much an ideology as an attitude - a presumption that certain truths about mankind, society and the natural world could be perceived, whether through deduction or observation, and that the discovery of these truths would transform the quality of life". Later, he lists the intellectual traits shared by most Enlightenment thinkers: "an insistence on intellectual autonomy, a rejection of tradition and authority as infallible sources of truth, a loathing of bigotry and persecution, a commitment to free inquiry, and a belief that (in Francis Bacon's words) knowledge is indeed power".

Once he has established this remit, he casts his net for enemies of the Enlightenment wide. Although the sections rubbishing astrology and the national lottery are a joy to read, they seem trivial next to his real targets. The most exciting passages are those which most directly address his thesis - and the best of all is his chapter about post-modernism, entitled simply "the demolition merchants of reality". He describes how, since Michel Foucault's writings captured the intellectual mood in the early 1980s, many students in the humanities have been taught "that the world is just a socially constructed 'text' about which you can say just about anything you want, provided you say it murkily enough." He quotes the left-wing American Barbara Ehrenreich, who explains that her daughter was marked down for using the word "reality" without quotation marks.

The Enlightenment was just a tool used by rich white men to impose their values, under the guise of "progress"; value judgements were a form of repression to be deconstructed into air. One after another, "academic disciplines took a 'linguistic turn' as the steering wheel was grabbed by theorists who insisted that fact and fiction were indistinguishable. Everything from history to quantum physics was now a text, subject to the 'infinite play of signification'." Wheen traces the rise of this philosophy on the left to strange mixture of utopian elation and despair that followed the Parisian eruptions of 1968. Unable to subvert state power, activists turned in on themselves, and fantasised that, without leaving the academy, they could subvert the real basis of power: the structure of language itself. They began to see coherent belief systems of any kind as their enemy.

This led to an insane form of relativism and folly. Michel Foucault's praise for the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran (which would have happily decapitated him for being homosexual), and his apologism for it on the grounds that it does not have "the same regime of truth as ours", is a particularly grotesque example. My own favourite from this book, however, is postmodern priestess Luce Irigaray's attack on E=mc2 as a "sexed equation", since "it privileges the speed of light over other less masculine speeds."

Far from being the source of oppression, the Enlightenment provides the oppressed with the only effective tools to fight back. It provided the philosophical basis for the anti-slavery movement and for liberation movements across the globe today.

"Why," Wheen asks in response to Theodor Adorno's claim that the Nazis represent the culmination of Enlightenment rationality, "are we so shocked by the Nazi atrocities? Because they are an outrage against human rights. And who developed this concept of human rights, which has been proclaimed again and again to the great benefit of mankind, whether by the American founding fathers or Amnesty International?" The thinkers of the Enlightenment, of course.

Postmodernism was, and remains, a historic mistake for the left. Wheen explains why: "For two centuries, progressives had championed science against obscurantism. The sudden lurch of academic humanists towards epistemic relativism not only betrayed this heritage but jeopardised the already fragile prospects for a progressive social critique, since it was impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity ceased to have any validity... If rationality is itself a form of oppression, there is no reason why scientific theories should be 'privileged' over alternative interpre-tations of reality like religion or astrology." As the historian Professor Richard Evans put it, "Auschwitz is not a discourse."

Wheen's attacks on resurgent pre-modern philosophies are almost as bold. In the early 20th century, the advance of Enlightenment values seemed assured. In fact, almost the opposite has happened. Woodrow Wilson, asked in 1922 for his thoughts on evolution, replied that "Of course like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised." Eighty years later, his successor as President of the United States publicly suggests the absurd superstition of creationism might be true, and a majority of his countrymen come down on his side.

Wheen also takes down those who wish to strike a devil's bargain with Islamic fundamentalism, the most aggressive anti-Enlightenment force in the world today. Building on what might be dubbed the Nick Cohen-Christopher Hitchens-Francis Wheen school, he damns the fact that "since the Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Tehran [to rule in 1979], the left has mostly preferred to apply the my-enemy's-enemy principle... [Yet] Islamic terrorists don't bother to call themselves freedom fighters, unlike their secular predecessors. Their only ambition is to exterminate infidels and establish the dominance of shariah law."

At times, Wheen exceeds his remit. I agree with his critique of Noam Chomsky, who has, he explains, persistently "given the benefit of the doubt to 'anti-American' regimes such as those of Pol Pot or Slobodan Milosevic, strenuously downplaying the scale of their terror and doubting even the most carefully verified evidence". But Chomsky is, for all his faults, a vigorous defender of the Enlightenment tradition, and far from an irrationalist. On occasions like this, Wheen mistakes disagreements within the Enlightenment tradition for irrationality. The danger - avoided through-out most of the book - is that he appears to be describing anybody who disagrees with him as guilty of a delusion. His argument is too important for it to be worth risking that.

I expected a fun book about "mumbo-jumbo". This is, in fact, a manifesto for rescuing the greatest philosophical movement of the past millennium. You have a choice: either read it, or pre-emptively shred your brain in anticipation of the coming darkness.

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