Idiot Proof

Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons and the Erosion of Common Sense by Francis Wheen (Public Affairs, 2004)

One of the minor pleasures of being an Anglo-American book critic is trying to decipher why publishers change the titles of books when bringing them across the Pond. Christopher Hitchens’ oddly named Orwell’s Victory was altered, for the US market, to the equally inappropriate Why Orwell Matters (reviewed here February 2003). A few weeks ago, in the UK, I picked up Francis Wheen’s highly entertaining How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, subtitled A Short History of Modern Delusions, only to find that the item had been retitled over here to the indigestible formation above. By now you probably know what this book is about, but the confusion shown by its publishers reflects an uncertainty over the author’s message. (And did they feel that an American readership would feel threatened by the word ‘mumbo-jumbo’?)

When Wheen is on target, he is witty and incisive. He picks apart a broad set of hucksters and bamboozlers who have, whether with malice or not, beguiled their victims, such as management gurus and new-age therapists, de-constructionist intellectuals and Internet stock peddlers, champions of creationism and consultants in astrology. He analyzes the tendency of people to become hoodwinked by such nonsense as transportation in UFOs by aliens, conspiracy theories, and rebirthing rituals such as those undergone by Tony and Cherie Blair. His description of post-modernism encapsulates his overall thesis: “A paralysis of reason, a refusal to observe any qualitative difference between reasonable hypotheses and swirling hogwash.” He is equally merciless with the failures of free-market capitalism as with government bureaucracies trying to regulate it in favor of their own paymasters; he is as critical of US neo-imperialism as he is of the blinkered leftists who treat the US as the real agent of evil.

Maybe Wheen’s intention is to hint: “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone were like me, a rational man of the Enlightenment who can spot fraud a mile off?”. But his own intellectual compass is a little elusive. There is a world of difference between superstition and sophistry, and as the author’s presumably rational views on political economy (itself a pseudo-science) are enigmatically unspoken, one wonders what he really stands for. Moreover, each age has its variations on perennial fads and superstitions: just turn to Mencken’s debunking of similar lunacies in vogue seventy-five years ago.

Significantly, what the author provides as the anchor of his argument constitutes a major weakness. He identifies the arrival to power of Margaret Thatcher and Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 as heralding his twenty-five year Age of Delusion, and claims they both wanted to take their countries back in time (although with vastly differing agendas, of course). But ranking free-market libertarianism with Islamic fundamentalism seems a major categorical error to me. Wheen goes on to lay the blame for the stock-market excesses of the 1990s and such disasters as Enron and Global Crossing at Baroness Thatcher’s door, which is rather like blaming Marx for Stalin’s purges. Yes, the Iron Lady got carried away later in her reign (I mean ‘period in office’), but the UK in the 1970s was going the way of an East European Workers’ Paradise until she came along.  Maybe he is too young to remember that time, but Wheen shows that he has fallen victim to his own breed of mumbo-jumbo by demonizing Thatcher and her allies – that of the complacent intellectual who is happy to enjoy all the fruits of free enterprise while slamming the system that creates them.

This book appears to have had two US publishers: the edition by Public Affairs has partially corrected mistakes in the UK edition, and introduced new ones in an expanded index. But it has refreshingly few such errors, and is written with an engaging and fluid style. There is surely something in it to delight and offend everyone, and during my transatlantic flight home its three-hundred-and-thirty pages kept me glued to my seat (not a difficult task with today’s airline travel, admittedly). Only those of a highly superstitious and credulous disposition will not enjoy it.

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