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How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions [Paperback]

Francis Wheen
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Oct 2004

An entertaining, impassioned polemic on the retreat of reason in the late 20th century. An intellectual call to arms, Francis Wheen’s Sunday Times bestseller is one of 2004’s most talked about books.

In 1979 two events occurred that would shape the next twenty-five years. In Britain, an era of weary consensualist politics was displaced by the arrival of Margaret Thatcher, whose ambition was to reassert 'Victorian values'. In Iran, the fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini set out to restore a regime that had last existed almost 1,300 years ago. Between them they succeeded in bringing the twentieth century to a premature close. By 1989, Francis Fukuyama was declaring that we had now reached the End of History.

What colonised the space recently vacated by notions of history, progress and reason? Cults, quackery, gurus, irrational panics, moral confusion and an epidemic of mumbo-jumbo. Modernity was challenged by a gruesome alliance of pre-modernists and post-modernists, medieval theocrats and New Age mystics. It was as if the Enlightenment had never happened.

Francis Wheen, winner of the George Orwell prize, evokes the key personalities of the post-political era – including Princess Diana and Deepak Chopra, Osama Bin-Laden and Nancy Reagan's astrologer – while charting the extraordinary rise in superstition, relativism and emotional hysteria over the past quarter of a century. From UFO scares to dotcom mania, his hilarious and gloriously impassioned polemic describes a period in the world's history when everything began to stop making sense.

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How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions + Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia + Karl Marx
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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (4 Oct 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007140975
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007140978
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 2.4 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 184,085 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Francis Wheen is an author and journalist who was named Columnist of the Year for his contributions to the Guardian. He a regular contributor to Private Eye and is the author of several books, including a highly acclaimed biography of Karl Marx which has been translated into twenty languages and the bestselling How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. He recently wrote the screenplay for The Lavender List, a biopic of Harold Wilson's last days in government. His collected journalism, Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies, won the George Orwell prize in 2003.

Product Description


'A brilliant, eccentric book.' Observer Book of the Year

‘Wheen has a Swiftian relish for exposing the cant that attends the 'new rationality'…bullshit's enema number one.' Tim Adams, Observer

'Hugely enjoyable…delightful reading.'
Ferdinand Mount, Sunday Times

'Lightly and often hilariously told as it is, this book does make it clear that respect for truth and reason is retreating and mumbo-jumbo has a new confidence everywhere…This amusing, intelligent and elegantly argued book is as good a demonstration of the values it defends as could be imagined.'
Philip Hensher, Spectator

‘This book is a manifesto for rescuing the greatest philosophical movement of the past millennium. You have a choice: either read it or, pre-emptively shred your brain in anticipation of the coming darkness.' Independent on Sunday

About the Author

Francis Wheen is an author and journalist who was named Columnist of the Year for his contributions to the Guardian. He a regular contributor to Private Eye and is the author of several books, including a highly acclaimed biography of Karl Marx which has been translated into twenty languages. His collected journalism, Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies, won the George Orwell prize in 2003.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
94 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A small voice of reason 17 Mar 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
From the first page this book promises a great deal: Francis Wheen sets out to show how society, both Western and Islamic, has determinedly squandered the benefits of the Enlightenment and has developed an astonishing hostility towards contemporary science and rational thought.
Wheen paints a picture that is both amusing and chilling: our citizens and leaders are in the thrall of hocus and spin; educated people consume with gusto the diet of drivel served up in the media; an entire nation loses its grip after the death of a Sloaney princess; and post-modernists conjure with words to question the reality of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.
This would have been a better book if Wheen had built on its early momentum and resisted the lure of diatribe, but there is such a surfeit of material to support his thesis, and so much nonsense routinely peddled by famous people who should have known better, that he seems unable to stop. The result is erudite and funny, but in the end this is a string of good journalism, rather than the serious manifesto that it might have been.
I recommend this book, and I hope that Wheen will soon produce another edition that not only updates us on the progress of this human ship of fools (which seems daily to surpass itself in its vainglorious stupidity) but also lingers more on the questions why, and what needs to be done.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered Francis Wheen 18 Jan 2013
This is an OK sort of book and actually Francis Wheen is excellent when he focuses his mind on the more abstract aspects of the 'history of thought'. The problem is that Wheen cannot help misusing or misapplying the term 'mumbo-jumbo' to people or things generally that he doesn't like, as opposed to bona fide mumbo-jumbo (which is to say, things that are obscure in meaning or content, or both). In fact, some of the things covered here aren't mumbo-jumbo at all. I suspect this book began as a genuine attempt on Wheen's part to cover aspects of contemporary life, including recent events, that are mumbo-jumbo or in that rough category, and to explain in theoretical terms how we arrived there. That would have been a worthy topic and there are lots of real examples of mumbo-jumbo that Wheen could have cited, but there is very little coverage of mumbo-jumbo in this book, despite its title.

For the purpose of this review, let's examine one example of what Wheen considers to be 'mumbo-jumbo': the popular reaction to the death of Princess Diana. Wheen focuses on the fake sentimentality and self-pitying qualities of Diana as a public persona and the highly-charged and emotional - and irrational - reaction at her death. To that extent, his observations are accurate, but there is an important aspect to the Diana affair that he overlooks. Yes, the general public reaction to Diana's death was neither classy nor sophisticated and much of the behaviour we witnessed at the time, on the part of the public and journalists alike, was pretty odd, not to mention that a pile of treacly sycophantic nonsense was said and written on TV and in the newspapers. But that doesn't add-up to mumbo-jumbo.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Satire passed off as a scholastic work. 22 Feb 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this book after listening to Wheen speak at the Melbourne writer's festival and I was interested to learn more. As other reviews have stated, Wheen starts off well, targeting quacks, snake oil merchants, post modernists and the like to much amusement. The first half is entertaining but it loses its way about half way through and ends up failing to answer the main question. After it all, you'll have some glib remarks but you won't know how mumbo jumbo conquered the world, just that Wheen says it did.

The trouble with the book is 2 fold. Firstly, Wheen gets into areas about which is passionate but no expert and makes a lot of very smart remarks about men like Noam Chomsky & others which are clearly the result of cherry picking isolated statements. These comments don't stand up to any scrutiny if you've read their works or follow Wheen's own references. By the end of the book he was just firing shots at anyone and everyone who happened to have two sound bites which could be shown to be at odds if you ignored the context. Some of it is accurate (Thomas Friedman gets some scrutiny) but much is just satire passed off as logical argument. He's clearly a sharp journalist rather than a scholar deconstructing an argument.

I say he's no scholar as the second issue is that the book does not at all say HOW mumbo jumbo conquered the world, just that in Wheen's view it did. If he submitted it in support of a PhD the very academics he derides would throw it out. Not for failing to use high sounding language which doesn't mean anything, but for the simple fault of not pulling it all together and answering the question that it proposes. It leaves the book with no thread and you'll be no wiser about how we let our leaders get away idiocy or as a society fall for homeopathy, just that we do. I had hoped for some idea, given the title.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More funny than informative. 12 Jan 2008
I thought long and hard about this review before making up my mind. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing since it appealed to my nihilistic nature, but it left me somewhat disappointed. It pokes fun at all the right targets - lefties without any discernable critical faculty, self-serving politicians, the relious dingbats, heartless big business, philosophers with all the common sense of a dead whelk and vacant-minded new agers - but somehow it seemed to miss the bulls eye. I suppose because it fails to offer any answers. Yes, mankind is superstitious, ill-educated and, for the most part, incapable of original thought, but the question remains - what can be done about it? My own feeling is that the answer is nothing, but if you're going to write a book on the subject then some sort of conclusion should be attempted. All we get is a sort of advertisement of Mr. Wheen's availability as an after-dinner speaker. I kept thinking about Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long in his novel "Time Enough for Love" - the story of an immortal who spends much of his time getting as far away from his fellow man as possible. Anyone want to sign up for the first colony on Mars?
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars The Smug leading the Smug: the cock of the clippings file struts his...
Brit aims for the Michael Moore demographic! Nutritional advice: this product contains 1/5 political and economic meat (chapters 9-10) and 4/5 sheer frippery. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Simon Barrett
5.0 out of 5 stars How Mumbo Jumbo conquered the World
This is a fascinated read and well worth buying - it opens one's eyes to the goings in high places.
Published 7 months ago by J. H. Kinsley
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant.
Confirms ones worst fears that emotion rather than logic rules the world. Wonderful lot of research. Original mind. Can we have another?
Published 11 months ago by Dr. Peter Barbor
4.0 out of 5 stars Good fun, and often spot on, but a bit patchy
Francis Wheen is a left wing journalist and columnist who here sets out with gusto to slaughter several sacred cows of both the right and left. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Guy
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive and true
It is not a page turner by any means but it is a brilliant critique on the on going linguistic attack that quacks, pseudo scientists, post-modern types and politicians are... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Kasilas Dracon
1.0 out of 5 stars Mumbo Jumbo indeed
very rarely have i had the misforture to unnearth such poorly written political rubbish.
Hilarious it was not Mister Paxman.
Published 20 months ago by racingsnake101
2.0 out of 5 stars Easy targets missed
I'd previously read "Strange Days Indeed", having heard rave reviews on the radio, but came away disappointed - it read more like a good essay by a 6th former from a decent school... Read more
Published on 18 Jun 2012 by C. CARBERRY
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Expose of the Silly Aspects of Modern Life
I had to stop reading this book on the Tube as I was laughing so much at times that people must have thought I was mad! Read more
Published on 1 May 2012 by Kate Hopkins
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read but some factual mistakes?
I was reading this and liking it a lot as it attacked commonly believed nonsense like the myth of free markets, postmodernism and other silly stuff. Read more
Published on 23 April 2012 by Charles
5.0 out of 5 stars A venomous snake bite to snake oil sellers.
The Dark Ages prevail. It never ceases to amaze me how millions continue to demonstrate the complete inability to process situations, events, and general quackery with rationale... Read more
Published on 2 April 2012 by Snaggletooth
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