Recommendations – Wheen and Birmingham

 

This is the latest post in my self-imposed Recommendation Rule. The Recommendation Rule states that if I recommend a book to someone I then have to do a blog post about it.

The first one was The Strange Death of Liberal England, written up here.

This latest one is going to be a particularly efficient post for two reasons. One is because I’m going to cover more than one recommendation.

The second is that it covers two books I am always recommending to people. 

They don’t have a lot in common otherwise.

So, chances are I won’t have to do another one of these recommendation posts for a while.

(That said, there is a bit of a backlog building up. Memo to self: stop talking to people about books.)

(Yeah, like that will happen.)

 

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World By Francis Wheen (Fourth Estate) 2004.

For all those po-faced and pompous dullards who have been intoning ‘post-truth politics’over the past few months as if they have discovered something new, Wheen was there more than a decade ago. And he was less inclined to assume that this sort of thing belonged only to one side of politics.

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He is also funny and intelligent. This is a truly great book:  most of it hasn’t dated (apart from the cover-photo: today those people would be holding smart phones) and its bracing, excoriating scorn for the delusions of our age is a literary tonic.

Even the index in this book is funny E.g. “Philip, Prince: enjoys flying saucer review, 136; praised by extra-terrestrials, 137 – 8”.

Or,

 “Merton, Robert: says markets are not too volatile, 272, loses fortune because of market volatility, 273.”

“Blair, Tony: … Claims descent from Abraham, 165; explores Third Way, 226; likes chocolate cake recipe, 51…”. 

And so forth.

Wheen has a – mostly – sure eye for the follies of our age, along with the ability to write about them with a caustic if occasionally unfair wit.

But underneath the wit is a moral seriousness.

‘Even intellectuals who respect enlightenment values often seem reluctant to defend them publicly, fearful of being identified as “imperialists” or worse. The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, and the past two decades have produced monsters galore. Some are manifestly sinister, others seem nearly comical… Cumulatively however, the proliferation of obscurantist bunkum and the assault on reason are a menace to civilisation, especially as many of the new irrationalists harkt back to some imaginary pre-industrial or even pre-agrarian Golden age.’

Wheen begins in what he sees as the fateful year of 1979, with the ascension of both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Margaret Thatcher.

I think he’s a little hard on Thatcher, to be honest, even though she was never my kind of conservative (too ideological and too humourless). And most of his policy points skewer phase one of monetarism, which was ditched around 1981 because, ironically enough, the only way to restrict the money supply to the degree required would have involved the kind of fortress economy approach to capital controls more suitable to an extremely socialist economy.

He does also take some well-aimed potshots at Ronald Reagan’s rather fiscally careless enactment of supply-side economics.

And then he moves on to the whole New Age movement, the bizarre blend of all that hippy childishness and pomposity which was carefully and lucratively folded into the self-help and the management guru movement and industry.

The most important chapter I think is ‘The Demolition Merchants of Reality’ – on the rise of post-modernism, post-structuralism and all that.  Derrida, Foucault, and their addled disciples get a thorough and highly deserved going over.

‘Although much post-modernism made no sense, it is nonsense with a purpose: by using quasi scientific terminology the po-mo theologians intended to explode the “objectivity” of science itself. The fact they knew nothing about mathematics, physics or chemistry was no obstacle.’

He has much fun with Luce Irigaray who attacked Einstein’s E=MC2 as being a ‘sexed equation’ as it privileged the speed of light over other less masculine speeds.  and suggested the reason sites are not unable to arrive at a successful model for turbulence was because it viewed the concept of fluid as being feminine.

He also quotes Barbara Ehrenreich as asking, rhetorically, whether it matters if ‘some French guy’ wants to think of his penis as the square root of minus one: she answers her own question by pointing out it doesn’t matter much, really, – except that on US campuses, ‘such utterances were routinely passed off as example of boldly “transgressive” left-wing thought’.

Wheen, as a former editor of Marxism Today and a socialist himself,  identifies this kind of frivolous academic obscurantism as being fatal to the Left.

This is Wheen’s main point, I think, and it is a neat paradox that he uses humour, aggressively and effectively, to make it.

You will find few people so tediously serious as the kind of folk who come up with that type of “boldly transgressive” notion outlined above.

Yet this over-earnest self-righteousness is a carapace over something essentially frivolous, childish and irresponsible.

Wheen does the opposite. He uses humour to make a serious, grown up and responsible case for facing things as they are, rather than taking refuge in mumbo jumbo of various kinds.

This shift by academic humanists and social scientists towards such ways of thinking betray the ‘progressive’ heritage, he argues.

His star witness is Alan Sokal, who pointed out it would be impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity are no longer valid.

Sokal came up with one of the great hoaxes of the last 25 years of the 20th century when, in 1996, he contributed to academic journal Social Text a paper entitled “Transgressing The Boundaries: Toward A Transformative Hermeneutics Of Quantum Gravity”

It was entirely comprised of post-modern mumbo-jumbo and meant nothing.

The editors of academic journal Social Text who, as Wheen acidly notes, ‘must have noticed the supposedly imaginary external world from time to time, not least when the sun rises every morning’ read it with some enthusiasm and published it with acclaim.

When he revealed the hoax, he was vilified because it was felt he had betrayed his own side by showing the post-modern emperor was wandering around the nudd.

Social Text’s editors accused him of exposing them to ridicule from conservatives, which, in any point-missing championships, would be through to the finals without dropping a set.

From there, Wheen travels via the Princess Diana cult, the fraudulence of Al Gore, fundamentalist religion of all kinds, and the “Third Way” of Tony Blair and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

You do not have to read any of these academics or politicians or management gurus to read this book: their ideas are, unfortunately, embedded in the lymph nodes of our time.

But Wheen writes better than any of them, and he writes for the intelligent non-academic reader.

It is a great read. No one will read it without disagreeing, probably very strongly, with some of Wheen’s points.

It will make you laugh, it will make you annoyed,  but most of all it will make you think.

And you can’t ask anything more of any book.

The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco by John Birmingham (Duffy and Snelgrove) 1997.

‘Aristotle said if you hold your farts in you die. I’m not sure where he said that but some big university guy told me so it’s probably true. Kind of wished I’d kept it to myself though. Our place wasn’t worth living in after word got around and I had to take a long and eventful road trip t to get away from it.’

That’s the opening paragraph. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Picked this one up at Wellington airport, many years ago, before a flight to London. Got some funny looks on the LA leg of the flight as I kept collapsing in hysterical laugther.

Really. It is that good.

Okay, the humour is Aussie, blokey, and will be highly offensive to a lot of people. It contains sex, drugs, gambling, and Pauline Hanson.

There are jokes at the expense of goths, vegans, lesbians, the Queensland police force, Social Security bureaucrats, real estate agents, and people who voted for Pauline Hanson.

But it is an uproarious tale, one which accumulates in an incendiary finale which reminded me of Spike Milligan’s ‘Puckoon’ novel.

The book is a kind of sequel to Birmingham’s more well-known ‘He Died With a Falafel in His Hand’ and features a number of the same characters and/or contributors to that earlier book.

For the uninitiated, “Falafel” is that book many of us who spent formative years in flatting situations (‘share housing’ to use the Aussie term) have muttered about doing: writing a book about some of the strange people and stranger behaviour of those people.

Birmingham actually did it, in the mid-1990s, and it became a play and a film. It was though a series of episodes and vignettes.

‘Tasmanian Babes’ has a plotline, with heroes, villains, and jeopardy.

And comic relief. Bundles of it. It is very much a book to read if you need to cheer yourself up.

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