Usually, responding to requests to do phone-in shows is a pleasure; but increasingly this is an experience that has gone sour, particularly when it comes to dealing with terrorism. Inevitably, there is the caller who – with the same breathless pride of a toddler announcing that he has just gone to the potty by himself – tells me that “The real terrorists are the United States”. At least the toddler’s pride is understandable. Usually Mr. “US is a Terrorist” is followed by some other idiot who cites Noam Chomsky in the sadly mistaken belief that any deconstructionist must be some kind of intellectual worthy of respect. As like as not, some member of the handwringer brigade soon trails them, with the inevitable wail that all would be well if we only all tried to get along.
If fuzzy thinking was a disease, our society seems to be caught in a severe epidemic.
Others have noticed this epidemic too. Francis Wheen is the author of How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. The book is an excoriating attack on a lot of what passes for thinking nowadays, and deserves much more attention that what it has received so far. But then, Mumbo Jumbo is a widespread ailment, and a lot of, oh, book reviewers and talk-show hosts seem to be infected too.
Interestingly, on correcting a book store clerk who placed Wheen’s book in the humor section, it appeared that it was catalogued by the distributor to be placed there. How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is sarcastic, not satirical, and is intended by the publisher (and rightly so) for placement in those shelves dealing with thought, political science, etc. Those who intend to acquire the book should be advised to look for it in the right place.
Those who consider themselves to be ‘Right Wing’ or conservative; or who still think of themselves as being ‘Left Wing’ should receive an additional warning: Wheen happily slaughters sacred cows from both sides of the pasture. It is also true that sacred cows make a delicious barbeque.
Western civilization is the product of long and painful centuries of intellectual progress – culminating in the Enlightenment. The heritage we have from that era included (until recently) the waning of absolutism and superstition, the rise of democracies with secular or neutral institutions to encourage individual freedom, rapid increases in our knowledge of history and science (particularly the natural world), liberal economics, and that balance of freedom and law achieved by those two masterworks of the Enlightenment: The British Parliamentary System and the American Constitution.
The achievements of the Enlightenment have always been under attack: The Romantic Era of the early 19th Century was the first such attack, and its more poisonous legacies led directly to Bonapartism, Communism, Nazism and a host of other murderous ideologies. The current threats to our Enlightenment inheritance are more subtle but in their own way are just as dangerous.
The first target in Wheen’s book is our trust in the market and the free-enterprise market system. Now, normally these do very well for us and remain institutions that are well worth preserving, but periodically the market goes insane. Charles Mackay’s classic study from 1841, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, begins with the Mississippi Scheme and the South Sea Bubble back in the early 18th Century. Are we so sure the Dotcom bubble was so removed from these classic sprees of irrational thought? The economy needs rational thinkers in positions of leadership and too many of them are infected with Mumbo Jumbo.
Those invisible hands at the tiller of the market also appear to be spending considerable money on snake-oil salesmen… the pitchmen of ‘Greed is good’ and ‘If it feels good, do it’ and similar mantras aimed at turning business into a religion of sorts, but which has an immoral message. Even more irritating are those who make a living out of selling common sense as something ‘visionary’ and ‘new’. The end result of these supposed thinkers are those flashy companies with ‘New Visions’ and ‘Mission Statements’ who redefine success by jiggling with the books – corporations like Enron and other saboteurs of the market.
However, these sins of the market pale in comparison to those of academia. The barbarians of Wall Street are nothing compared to the vandal hordes of deconstructionists who infest our ivory towers. Of them, Barbara Ehrenreich (herself a traditional Leftist) writes:
“Students taking courses in literature, film, ‘cultural studies,’ and even, in some cases anthropology and political science, were taught that the world is just a socially constructed ‘text’ about which you can say anything you want, provided that you say it murkily enough… One of my own children, whose college education costs us about $25,000 a year, reported in some classes you could be marked down for using the word ‘reality’ without the quotation marks.”
Nor do the Dervishes of Jacques Derrida (who is the first of the true postmodernist deconstructionists) restrict their demolition work to the arts or foreign policy. The blame for these clowns goes back to the early days of the Soviet Revolution, and then to their political partisans in the West who had to bend over backwards to apologise for Lenin and Stalin without appearing to actually do so. It was a neat trick, and during these exercises, the old Marxist Left learned that, with enough intellectual juggling, war does become peace, freedom transforms into slavery and ignorance indeed becomes strength. Orwell warned us what this could lead to, and now we know. The deconstructionists that rose out of this tradition have a strength that is now great enough to march through the institutions of today’s great universities and overthrow history, the arts, the wisdom of centuries, and even challenge science.
The deconstructionists both mock science – one even denounced E=mc2 as a “sexist equation” – and yet seek to borrow its appearance to invest their own shabby constructs in stolen finery. Others have denounced physics the same way, but it is obvious they lack the courage of their convictions. We have yet to see deconstructionists leap off tall buildings while denouncing gravity as a patriarchal European construct; and can but hope that they try to do so.
Other deconstructionists now try to lard their gibbering with inserted mathematical symbols to imply that they have come out with an equation of sorts, and which therefore must be true. This is an odd approach for a school of thought that believes everything is false except for the moral purity and introspection of the deconstructionist alone. One can dress up an ass in ermine and purple, but it still is an ass.
The deconstructionists are certainly not the only modern fuzzy thinkers who despise reality: There is a huge market for New Age quackery in lieu of medicine (or for real spiritual discipline), for books on UFOs, a fascination with the Millennialism and end of the World, and, of course, for conspiracy thinking.
With conspiracy myth addicts, any refutation of their facts is only taken as further evidence of their beliefs. So how can you argue logically with them? For example, some hoaxers shot a grainy black and white film of an “alien autopsy” conducted by the US Air Force and released it as real footage from 1947. The film was immediately embraced by many “UFOologists” as proof of both the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence and of a decades-long effort by the US Air Force to conceal their existence. Enter the hoaxers with their triumphant ‘Gotcha!’, which had no effect. To the true believers, the footage must have been real, and the hoaxers’ declaration was therefore only more proof of the cover-up plot as the USAF would be obviously desperate to deny the validity of the film. If this makes sense to you, it might already be too late to get clinical help.
Crystal waving New Agers are easy targets, and Wheen certainly doesn’t pass up a chance to attack them either – lambasting Madonna, Hillary Clinton, and Cherie Blair for choice. This last, despite being a declared Catholic, saw no problem in consulting a Feng Shui ‘expert’ to place furniture in 10 Downing Street, and in using a “dowsing healer” to treat her swollen ankles with an infusion of strawberry leaves grown in the “electro-magnetic field” of his homebuilt backyard Neolithic circle. Just how is a heap of stones one puts up in their backyard a ‘Neolithic’ construct anyway? Doesn’t it need to have been in place for 4,000 years first? Hucksters of this sort have always been around, but snake-oil medicines are big money these days.
Evangelical Christians might be discomfited to find themselves squarely in Mumbo-Jumbo’s sights too. If Marxist deconstructionists have failed to jump off tall buildings to demonstrate that gravity is a social construct of the Caucasian Patriarchy, we have also failed to see Evangelicals who believe that God micromanages every aspect of their lives pulling the lighting rods from the roofs of their churches, or canceling their insurance policies as unnecessary extravagances.
What might be particularly annoying to others besides Wheen are the proponents of ‘Intelligent Design’ as a supposedly valid alternative to the ghastly horror of teaching students about Darwin’s theory of evolution and all which has sprung from it. If, according to what I hear in my church on Sundays, we are God’s children, shouldn’t we examine the processes by which our omniscient creator works – instead of being so freaked out by astronomy, biology, geology, paleontology and similar disciplines? What loving parent wouldn’t take pride in the exploring spirit of his children, and just what is time to an eternal and omnipotent God anyway? The intelligent design types seek to stuff God and all of creation into a tiny little package that they can understand and, frankly, it is embarrassing to their more rational co-religionists.
Wheen concludes his book with the following:
“Visitors to the US Archives building in Washington DC can read another of Santayana’s epigrams chiseled over the main entrance: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ He described this as the condition of ‘children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.’ But those who refuse to learn from experience, and strive to discredit the rationalism that makes such enlightenment possible – whether they be holy warriors, antiscientific relativists, economic fundamentalists, radical postmodernists, New Age mystics, or latter day Chicken Lickens – are not only condemning themselves to repeat the past. They wish to consign us all to a life in darkness.”
As for those who insist on believing that the United States is more immoral than Wahhabi Jihadists; that all the travails in the world flow from America; or that – the most pathetic fallacy of them all – there is no evil only misunderstanding, well…. The gifts of the Enlightenment are for the benighted too, but they should never expect respect for their opinions if they cannot shuffle out of the dark.