Idiot Proof

This entry started as a book review published at Blogcritics, and has turned into an essay. The book in question was written by Francis Wheen, an English columnist and writer. It was published in England, in 2004, as How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. In the US it was titledIdiot Proof. The dust jacket described the subjects and scope of the book as “Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons and the Erosion of Common Sense”.

Wheen has brought together diverse stories from business, economics, politics and popular culture. His stories are about people who persuade other people to accept dubious truths, and people who let themselves be persuaded to make bad decisions, people who obey or enrich ruthless, greedy and grandiose people, people who are drawn into mass hysteria. Part of the value in the book is the collection of stories, and part of it is the sheer glee he takes in exposing the vanities and the gullibility of people across the overlapping spectra of class, education, wealth, power and intellect.
Most of Chapter 4, “The Demolition Merchants of Reality”, deals with the increasing popularity of post-modernism in academic settings. He discusses Sokal’s hoax and various excesses of post-modernism. He explains the intellectual weaknesses of post-modernism and the inversion of post-modernism, which has turned from being a skeptical process to a set of arguments to support pluralism of theories in the sciences. He makes (as did Wendy Kaminer in her book “Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials“) a reasonable point that post-modernism has become foundational to the claims of creationists to offer “alternative” theories of geology and biology in the public schools of America. However he ends with an anachronistic discussion of the Scopes trial as an example of post-modernist assertion of the emotional needs of religious people, invested in their personal understanding of the world, against the facts of modern science and needs of the state for an educated citizenry.
He has a good chapter on the public response the death of Lady Diana and the contorted efforts of various intellectual feminists to recreate her as a metaphor of repressed femininity in modern society. He has some insights into the absence of great unifying social myths and rituals in modern society and the fascination with celebrities and other seemingly random transient mass events. He has good opening and closing chapters which address the way Thatcher and Reagan promoted their economic policies, by sheer persistence, repetition and power, and how the media were complicit in lulling the public into accepting the logic of dishonest arguments as if they were fundamental economic truths. There is another somber chapter on the way that globalization has become a an irrational rationale for letting global economic policy be driven by the capricious and irrational mass moods of the world capital markets, which is not especially good for global justice. Wheen is well-read in politics and business, and he brings his knowledge to bear, comparing the and Enron bubbles to the South Sea bubble and other manic swings of the capital markets.
His book is driven by a powerful moral sense of truth and justice, and sense of outrage at the exploitation of human frailty by charlatans and tricksters. He identifies people who avoid the truth and moral obligations in their work. Corporate ad men and executives artists hire entertainer-writers like Thomas Peters, Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra to facilitate corporate solidarity, sell products and raise capital. In fact these entertainers have become apologists for corporate values of consumption and self-gratification, and, like various sports and entertainment celebrities, minor deities in the pantheon of capitalism. Politicians, like corporations, dabble in the New Age and alternative practices to project an image of sensitivity and modernity – and some of them seem to let it influence policy (Nancy Reagan’s astrologer, and assorted gurus tied to the Clintons and the Blairs). Advertising and entertainment are the art of illusion. Post-modernism and process philosophy have legitimized belief in improbable, artificial and illusory belief systems. People are gullible. People don’t have time to learn the truth and need to defer to credible advice. People defer to authoritative stories and believe well-packaged stories that fit their feelings and preconceptions. People get caught up in mass movements. People are prone to believe myths and stories on slight evidence and to rationalize their impulses and feelings.
The book is about truth, bullshit, humbug, mumbo-jumbo and plain lies. He tries to discuss the problem in terms of rationality and his understanding of the central ideas of the European Enlightenment, which he describes as the revolution of reason against the repression of knowledge. He refers to Roger Scruton’s essay “What ever happened to Reason?” in City Journal (Spring 1999). Scruton is a conservative philosopher and cultural critic, and the essay is a critique of post-modernism and pragmatism in philosophy, literary criticism, and the social sciences. Wheen argues that “our entire tradition of learning” is at risk in a counter-revolution by a coalition of post-modernists and primitivists, New Age and Old Testament. That goes beyond what Scruton argued in his essay, and Scruton might only agree with Wheen’s thesis with some careful qualifications.
Wheen basically adopts Scruton’s attack on relativism and postmodernism, which is powerful. Postmodernism is skeptical of legal, moral and social restraints on human actions in the pursuit of happiness. It is skeptical of restraints on freedom, whether imposed in the name of the Church, the State, society or the demands of the heart. Postmodernism tends to regard all morality, all sense of personal responsibility, as a social and cultural artifact, a collective rationalizations for systems of power that restrict human behaviour. It is, as such, an anti-social system of thought, which is probably highly symbolic of human relations in a society that worships free-market economics and hedonistic personal experiences.
Wheen seems to share Scruton’s distaste for the vulgarity of modern life and Scruton and Wheen would probably share views on New Age spirtuality, celebrity worship and other parts of popular culture. Scruton and Wheen would also seem to share an implicit hostility to the
Romantic movement, an an anti-intellectual movement that validates emotional and grandiose claims that humans are capable of making ethical choices through intuition and personal insight. Intellectuals – liberal or conservative, religious or humanist – are suspicious of arguments founded on an appeal to irrational and emotional values. Intellectuals are frustrated by people who retreat from rational discourse, and resort to Romantic justifications for their beliefs.
Scruton, in his writing on the history of ideas, treats postmodernism as an intellectual product of of the Romantic movement. In his writing on culture, he tends to identify the Romantic movement as an essentially countercultural and sentimental ideology. Conservatives criticize the myths of Romanticism – the noble savage, liberation from the restraints of culture and tradition, the truth of instinct and the heart, the will to power, all important myths of modern popular culture – as ignoble, uncouth, uncultured, unreasonable, irrational, selfish, emotional, anti-social. Conservatives expose the elements of Romanticism in liberal and revolutionary political movements, and new religious movements.
Wheen has gone off in a different direction when it comes to traditional religion. Scruton is a critic of the New Age as a trivialized inner-directed false religion. Scruton, like other conservatives, considers that religion expressing a cultural tradition, held together by coherent principles, shared within a community, is an important moral and social force.
Wheen has identified the problem of modern culture as the prevalence of the irrational, and he dismisses all religion as irrational. Scruton, a more subtle writer, makes a more subtle point:

…intellectually speaking, the Enlightenment project, as Alasdair MacIntyre has called it–the project of deriving an objective morality from rational argument–is as much a reality for us as it was for Kant or Hegel. The problem lies not in giving rational grounds for morality or objective principles of criticism. The problem lies in persuading people to accept them. Although there are those, like John Gray, who tell us that the project has failed, the failure lies in them and not in the project. It is possible to give a reasoned defense of traditional morality and to show just why human nature and personal relations require it. But the argument is difficult. Not everyone can follow it; nor does everyone have the time, the inclination, or the requisite sense of what is at stake. Hence reason, which stirs up easy questions while providing only difficult replies, will be more likely to destroy our pieties than to give new grounds for them.
What is wrong with the Enlightenment project is not the belief that reason can provide a trans-cultural morality. For that belief is true. What is wrong is the assumption that people have some faint interest in reason. The falsehood of this assumption is there for all to see in our academies: in the relativism of their gurus and in the misguided absolutism–absolutism about the wrong things and for the wrong reasons, absolutism that excludes all but the relativists from their doors.

Wheen, in dismissing all religion as irrational and destructive, makes an argument that was made by many of the writers of the Enlightenment. That school of thought – call it modernist or liberal – tended to idealize politics as rational, while criticizing religion as an irrational project, which has the social effect of making people tolerate intolerable conditions to gain emotional comforts and rewards. It sees Romanticism as a cultural movement that makes people vunerable to the emotional appeal of conservative political movements Racism, ethnic nationalism, and fascism having been driven, in the 19th and 20th Centuries by irrational and demagogic forces. Modernists and liberals tend to see the Romantic movement as a manifestation of the Dionysian impulse to make choices on emotional, superstitious, irrational and self-gratifying grounds. They claim reason and logic as the property of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment’s attack on authority was tied to the Romantic movement’s celebration of the irrational and the personal. The former underwrote the debasement of scientific and technical knowledge, and the latter is foundational to the rejection of traditional morality. The Enlightenment and the Romantic movement liberated people from the power of priests, kings, and intellectuals. Wheen’s effort to claim the rational and intellectual high ground is a predictable move, and a superficial one. Most of the people he criticizes and mocks are sane, educated and generally honest people and some of them are fairly intelligent. The problem isn’t that they are irrational. The problem is that they rationalize. In some areas they rationalize the unknowable, in some areas they rationalize their own needs, in some areas they rationalize superstition, and in some areas they rationalize bullshit.
In the last couple of decades, post-modern and relativist arguments have been employed in the service of rationalizing, instead of exposing the abuses of money, power and ambition. Some of the abusers employ a postmodern epistemology to disable criticism of projects of personal self-fufillment – usually through materialism, sex, drugs, spirituality, and personal dramatics. Others use postmodern arguments to justify immoral business ventures or corrupt political programs. The Romantic movement and post-modernism can be blamed for creating a new vocabulary, an new rhetoric, a new discourse. Whether this discourse is instrumental in liberating the powerful, the persuasive and the dishonest from objective standards of accurate discourse in their dealings with the rest of humanity is open to question. We should simply lay the blame on the greedy, the ambitious, and the powerful. They are skilled in adapting any convenient form of rhetoric to disguise, dignify and rationalize their projects.
It’s an entertaining book, and a useful one, in spite of some fuzzy thought.