Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, Francis Wheen

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World
Francis Wheen

I am of decidedly mixed mind about this book. Part of me absolutely loved it and wanted to stand up and cheer many times while reading it. Another part of me, though, found it meandering and somewhat unfocused. Looking at Amazon's reviews, I see they are mixed two, with an average of about 3.5 / 5 stars. I'm not all that surprised.

The subtitle of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World is "A Short History of Modern Delusions". I'm not exactly sure how I encountered this one, but it was an interesting if frustrating read. I'll divide my review into the good and the bad, as my mixed feelings above make plane.

On the positive side, Wheen tackles a bunch of sacred cows, and he doesn't particularly lean towards the left or the right. In reality, both sides are full of idiocy, and it was amusing to watch them skewered in this way. Starting with Thatcherism and Reagan, he heads into politics with no compunctions. He has direct (and I think mostly correct) things to say about both Bush presidencies (and presidents), Clinton, and various candidates from both sides, along with leaders and politicians from many other countries as well.

He similarly goes after business. He's particularly hard on everyone who thinks (or thought) that the Internet and the so called "new economy" are actually any different from the old economy and environment. He has some enlightening quotes from Keynes and others showing how people thought very similarly about the world a long, long time before computers were even invented. Some of his examples - of company founders, lauded as new visionaries who then fell flat on their faces and of companies (like Enron and Global Crossing) that were corrupt, stupid, or both - are great reading.

Some time is also spent at the end on the left's apologetics around religion and 9/11 in particular. That was interesting reading for me, and the chapter titles ("Voodoo", early on about Thatcherism and Reaganomics, and "Voodoo Revisited" about the left's irrational reactions to 9/11) were well chosen.

From my perspective, though, his best attacks are against religion. He spares no barbs here either, and I think the hypocrisy exposed is a good thing. Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade, and Wheen does so. Here, for example, is a quote from Thomas Jefferson:
Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity... Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.
You can find Jefferson's full text here, if you're curious: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/amendI_religions40.html

And some people think the US was founded as a Christian nation. Clearly not.

All of that said, there are some problems with Mumbo-Jumbo that irritate.

First, Wheen seems to have a strong belief that Keynes got it all right and every economist since has gotten it wrong. I appreciate the sentiment in some ways, and I long ago lost my faith in the completely unregulated market. All humans are actually irrational consumers at some level, and we often won't make the "economically optimal" choice even if someone threatens us with a gun should we screw up. But it doesn't follow that since Friedman was in error Keynes is the end of the story, and I'm not sure that Wheen is open to that.

More of a problem - at least for me - was the meandering narrative. There are many great quotes in here, and a lot of interesting facts and stories, but somehow they don't add up to something more. It might be compared to a museum exhibition of paintings selected from all cultures and periods of history, but where they are all jumbled together, so that no indication of the path through history is obvious. Even if all the works were definitively the greatest ever made, the viewer could walk away without learning much about art over time. In a similar way Wheen's point gets lost in the shuffle.

On a smaller scale, some of Wheen's chapters wander off topic as well. So a chapter titled "The Catastrophists" starts out discussing wacko predictions of the end of the world but also discusses things like government support for complementary and alternative medicine. Huh? An editor would have tightened up the focus of each chapter - possibly adding more chapters in the process, where the focus can legitimately change radically - and the result could have been both more directed and cohesive.

The biggest issue, though, is that there are no prescriptions here, and no real hope either. The last chapter attempts to call for a return to Enlightenment principles, but is so wound up in arguing against the far left's view of 9/11 that the message is lost. Even more sadly, Wheen's readers won't include those who need to hear his message. The first chapter - on Thatcher and Reagan - will even drive off quite a few moderates based on its tone alone.

So what can I say in summary? I learned quite a few things from How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, but I am not convinced it's the right vehicle for the author's message. It's both fun and annoying at the same time.