That way madness lies

  • By Jill Lawless / Associated Press
  • Saturday, August 7, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

LONDON – Throw away that horoscope, leave your inner child unattended and put your stockbroker on hold.

Francis Wheen would like to strip you of your illusions.

Wheen’s witty new book, “Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons and the Erosion of Common Sense,” takes on horoscopes, self-help books, New Age therapies, Reaganite “voodoo economics,” the dot-com bubble and the death of Princess Diana – all ingredients in what he sees as a tide of unreasoned sludge overtaking the world. (His book was originally published in England as “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions.”)

The skeptical British journalist says that as the 21st century unfolds, many of us are forsaking a 200-year-old commitment to reason, progress and science – Enlightenment principles that produced the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man – for a diet of hokum, superstition and bunk.

According to Wheen, the age of unreason was heralded by two events in 1979 – the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by an Islamic revolution and the election of Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister.

Both, he believes, represent “a reaction against modernity, against the world as it had evolved in the 20th century: mixed economies, trade unions, welfare states. There was a desire to abolish the 20th century and get back to Victorian values.

“Obviously, Thatcher did not want to go back as far as the ayatollah, or Osama bin Laden, who wants to go back about 1,500 years,” says a bookishly rumpled Wheen, nursing a glass of red wine in a London pub. “But the rejection of what was seen as the modern world was common to both.”

Wheen, deputy editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye and author of a highly regarded biography of Karl Marx, says we fail to learn from previous centuries’ collective manias. He cites the 17th-century “Tulip Fever,” which saw Dutch merchants paying vast sums for a single flower bulb, or the speculative South Sea Bubble that ruined many British shareholders in 1720 as events that could have helped people prevent the dot-com boom and bust of the late 1990s.

He recalls “hooting with laughter that anyone would be foolish enough to entrust their life savings to these mad companies putting out prospectuses saying, ‘For an undertaking of great advantage, no one to know what it is.’ Then lo and behold we get to the end of the 20th century and we have the dot-com mania and people do exactly the same thing.”

People take the same irrational approach to our inner lives, Wheen says, gorging on books promising spiritual uplift, financial gain – or both, as in the memorably titled “God Wants You to Be Rich.” The author worries that the desire to get in touch with our feelings has become pathological; he recalls his discomfort at the mass public mourning – verging on hysteria – that followed the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

“The level of public ululation and howling that went on seemed to me strange and actually scary after a while,” he says.

World leaders are not immune, he argues; his book recounts with horror the emotional excess of “empathy junkie” Bill Clinton and a “Mayan rebirthing ceremony,” reportedly enacted by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, on a Mexican beach in 2001.

Wheen has a seemingly inexhaustible list of targets, including self-help gurus, lotteries, alternative medicine, UFOs and “the flood of books about angels, fairies, Inca secrets, Egyptian rituals and secret Bible codes.”

“Idiot Proof” was published in Britain in February to generally good reviews.

But John Gray, professor of modern European thought at the London School of Economics, criticized by Wheen for his antipathy to the Enlightenment, dismissed the book in The Independent newspaper as a “rambling and bilious tirade” by an author “baffled and unnerved by a world in which his judgments lack authority and his hopes are mocked.”

Others have accused Wheen of taking a sledgehammer to such innocuous institutions as lotteries and astrology.

In uncertain and often frightening times, Wheen doubts that reason will win out anytime soon, but he appears to relish the role of voice in the wilderness. He cites one of his favorite books, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” by Victorian journalist Charles Mackay.

“Mackay says people ‘go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one,’” Wheen says.

“All one can hope for is a defense of values of thinking straight, of reason. But it’s a slow business. In writing the book I’m trying to contribute my own small bit.”

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