How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

Francis's working title for this book was A Brief Historyof Bollocks. The Australians are conventionally renowned for their intolerance of guff and Pommie pretension and gave Mumbo-Jumbo a ready welcome. Here is an article from the Sydney Morning Herald October 8th 2005.

"In the midst of fundamentalism, management jargon, self-help books and New-Age religions, Paul Sheehan meets a man who damns them all ...

Three years ago, Francis Wheen, pundit, author and balloon pricker - he was once described in Britain as "bullshit's enema number one" - decided to walk away from one of the best pulpits in Britain, as a featured columnist at The Guardian."I made the mistake of taking a week off," he told the Herald this week. Instantaneously, he felt a weight lifted. Gone was the constant undertow of knowing that he would soon have to have an opinion, and an argument to support that opinion, and the energy to shape that opinion. When the paper's editor heard about this change of heart he called and said, "So you're having a mid-life crisis?"

No. Wheen was 45. He had other priorities. Books. Screenplays. Travel. The first big product of this decision was a book that had far more impact than any of his columns, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. Published last year, it turned out to be a bestseller and was put out in the United States under the title Idiot Proof - A Short History of Modern Delusions.Although Mumbo-Jumbo has many riffs and many targets, it has just one message: we are moving into an Anti-Enlightenment, an age inundated with dopy creeds that fly in the face of common sense, scientific rationalism and/or the lessons of history. He is particularly worried about the widespread faith placed in free-market capitalism.

Wheen also does not like New-Age religions, Hollywood mystics, self-help books, management jargon, evangelism, angels, pervy Muslim suicide bombers, emotional populism, the International Monetary Fund, monetarism, Islamic fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, deconstructionists and "squishy progressives".

His cavalcade of conspicuous purveyors of mumbo jumbo include Princess Diana, Deepak Chopra, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Ayatollah Khomeini, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Rupert Murdoch and Anthony Robbins.

Throw in Michel Foucault and the entire crew of French deconstructionists and their postmodernist allies: "This is the enfeebling legacy of postmodernism, a paralysis of reason, a refusal to observe any qualitative difference between reasonable hypotheses and swirling hogwash. At a time when countless loopy creeds were winning new converts, it [postmodernism] gave aid and comfort to the pedlars of nonsense.'

Wheen is a man of progressive sensibilities yet this bias does not extend to tolerance towards the "Stalinist intolerance" displayed by the postmodernists once they gained power on university campuses. On the subject of Stalinist rigidities, he singles out Pilger and Chomsky for particular attention: "[For them] it is axiomatic that the West can never be right."

Among his more lurid sideswipes is his description of Chopra as someone who "offers justification for smug self-absorption that requires no effort or sacrifice". He names and blames management gurus, such as Tom "In Search of Excellence" Peters, who use "neologistic jargon to give their twee cliches an appearance of scientific method".

His opening gambit in Mumbo-Jumbo is bold: he goes back to the early months of 1979 when the British Labour government and the regime of the Shah of Iran were on their last legs. The people of both countries got far more than they bargained for - the market fundamentalism of the Iron Lady, and the Islamic fundamentalism of the iron Ayatollah:

"Hatred of the Shah, rather than universal Iranian longing for medieval theocracy, prompted the national rejoicing at the Ayatollah's coup. Three months later, in Britain, Margaret Thatcher won the votes of millions of electors who probably had little enthusiasm for (or indeed understanding of) monetarism and the other arcane creeds to which she subscribed. All they wanted was the removal of an etiolated, exhausted government that had no raison d'etre beyond the retention of office."

It's an elegant construction, but a flimsy one. Britain under Thatcher and Blair (Wheen doesn't see much difference between them) has been a bastion of freedom and economic growth while Iran entered a long winter of recession and repression from which it has not yet emerged.

So what does he want? Above all, an end to blind faith in the wisdom of markets, as if they know all and cure all. It is a subject that makes him positively nostalgic as he builds to a pitch towards the end of the book:

"There is no historical evidence for the contention that simple laissez-faire is the prerequisite for trade and prosperity … the period between 1950 and 1973 was by far the most successful of the 20th century. This was an era characterised by capital controls, fixed exchange rates, strong trade unions, a large public sector and a general acceptance of government's role in demand management. The average annual growth in 'per capita real GDP' throughout the world was 2.9 per cent - precisely twice as high as the average rate since then."

Wheen may be a progressive but he is not cut from working-class cloth. He went to Harrow, the school whose great rival is Eton. Today, a Harrow education costs $56,000 a year. The annual cricket match between Eton and Harrow is by far the oldest fixture on the calendar at Lord's. The school sport is a lawless mud wrestle known as Harrow Football, played nowhere else. Wheen is a survivor of Harrow Football. "It was compulsory."

He attended university at Royal Holloway, a college of the University of London, then got a job as an office boy at The Guardian and rose through the writing ranks quickly. His first book, The Sixties, was published when he was 25. His first bestseller and prize-winner, Karl Marx, a biography, came in 1999. Another biography followed in 2001, Tom Driberg: The Soul of Indiscretion, about the outrageous life of the British writer, politician, poet, gossip and flamboyant queen.

Wheen is a non-flamboyant heterosexual who divides his time between his "garret" in Islington, his part-time job as deputy editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye , and a country house in Essex he shares with Julia Jones, who is completing a doctorate. It's where he does his writing, which, since Mumbo-Jumbo, has been a telemovie about the life of the former British prime minister Harold Wilson, and a screenplay for the actor Alfred Molina, who will play all the roles, based on another of his books, Who Was Dr Charlotte Bach?.

Essex is as tranquil as London is rushed. "I live in a field." The closest villages are tiny and quaintly named - High Easter, Pleshy, Saffron Walden. One of his nearest neighbours is Germaine Greer. "She's very affectionate, tender and caring." She's helped endear him towards Australia, which he visited for the first time only this week."

Mumbo Jumbo infuriates some readers and delights others. So far no feedback has been received from readers in Vietnam.

Mumbo Jumbo in Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam