Friday, July 13, 2007

How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen

This is the first book I've read out of the many that I purchased at Powell's in Portland last month. It doesn't really explain how "mumbo jumbo" took over so much as it reviews a number of disturbing trends that have brought us to where we are. Its subtitle "A Short History of Modern Delusions" is more fitting than the title.

Here's an incredible passage that I must share:
The American presidential election of 1800, in which John Adams stood against his old friend Thomas Jefferson, also happened to be a contest between two men who were, at the time, the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the president of the American Philosophical Society. The historian Henry May described this as "a coincidence very unlikely ever to be repeated in American politics," and his prediction looks increasingly solid. Exactly two centuries later, the main contenders for the presidency were George W. Bush, a genial chump, and Al Gore, a moderately intelligent liar and influence peddler -- a choice summarized by one British newspaper as "Dumbo vs. Pinocchio."
That says all one needs to know about how horribly America's democratic process has gone astray. There was a time when voters could choose between brilliant candidates rather than wearily punching their tickets for whichever candidate is "slightly less bad."

I thoroughly enjoyed Wheen's sarcastic yet spot-on descriptions of trickle-down economics, self-help gurus, X-Files believers, Princess Diana worshippers, dotcom mania, and other irrational phenomena. While many examples were familiar, Wheen also shared anecdotes from the U.K. that were new to me. I got bogged down in a few chapters discussing philosophy, but I suppose that's the price I pay for not studying the field in college.

Acknowledging that my eyes glossed over during a couple of Wheen's more philosophical chapters, I didn't feel like he really tied all the amusing yet revealing tales together into a consistent message. Sometimes he reached to include things that, though interesting, didn't fit well into his thesis. It was entertaining reading, but How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World is more about What than How. In that respect, it is as good a review of the past 50 years of popular and political culture/history as any. Anyone who likes Wheen's writing style will probably enjoy the book, even if the sections about philosophy are difficult for the uninitiated.

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