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How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered Francis Wheen
on 19 September 2015
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. In fact, one point about the whole Diana affair that Wheen and others missed, and still overlook, is that much of the emotional reaction was driven by a very strong belief among ordinary people that the newspapers and media in general are disrespectful and intrusive. In effect, the emotional spasm was a form of political protest, an inarticulate but keenly-felt expression of rage and anger mixed-up with the feelings and confusions that Wheen identifies. I would suggest that the media during this period worked cynically and reactively to control public opinion and present what, in effect, was a mass public protest as instead a paroxysm of vicarious grieving. The problem is that journalists such as Wheen only recognised and commented on this phenomenon at the surface and failed to identify the true reasons for the strong emotional reaction, i.e. that many of the public believe the media should have greater respect for human dignity. Wheen and others criticised the emotional dominance, believing that in doing so they were engaged in a kind of 'dissent', yet they were only reacting to the media's own narrative and their dissenting views simply extended the media's cynical agenda by embodying its antithesis.
This book is really for the smug. If you enjoy sneering at 'unsophisticated' people who might lay flowers at the grave of a dead celebrity, then you'll enjoy this. Wheen has not explicitly written in that spirit, but that's his constituency. For those with a genuine interest in mumbo-jumbo, skepticism and how people generally believe in odd things, I would recommend serious writers on this subject like James Randi, Richard Wiseman and Michael Shermer, not to mention Mungo Park's own travel journal that popularised the phrase 'mumbo-jumbo'.