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A brief history of bollocks

Francis Wheen talks to Brendan O'Neill about creationism, McDonald's and the new anti-Enlightenment.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books

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‘It was originally going to be subtitled “A Brief History of Bollocks” but the publishers balked’, says Francis Wheen, as he bashes open a bottle of Becks for me by hitting it against the corner of Ian Hislop’s desk. There’s no bottle opener, he explains, because not many people round here drink beer.

The dusty, stuffy offices of the satirical magazine Private Eye, where the unmistakeable whiff of five-hour lunches lingers in the air and a portrait of the late Peter Cook gazes down from the wall, may seem an improbable setting in which to raise the barricades in defence of Enlightenment values. But as well as being the Eye‘s ‘sort of deputy editor’, Wheen is author of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions (previously ‘A Brief History of Bollocks’), a jolly rant against contemporary anti-reason and the retreat of rationality before a motley crew of postmodernists, primitivists, Diana worshippers and Deepak Chopra.

Despite the title change the book is full of bollocks, all expertly attacked by Wheen. He berates postmodernists who claim there is no such thing as truth; Islamic fundamentalists who hark back to a pre-Enlightenment medievalism; rural anarchists who hark back even further, to an imagined pre-agrarian Golden Age where men hunted and were happy; cranky creationists who teach kids that God made Adam, Eve, the Earth and presumably the entire solar system 5000 years ago, and that all those pesky dinosaur bones are a conspiracy by The Man; and spineless politicians who not only refuse to criticise the creationists (‘it’s a sin to pass judgement these days’, says Wheen), but subsidise them. ‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’, Wheen whispers, between sips of fizzy white wine.

Wheen reckons we’re living through a counter-revolution against the Enlightenment, that revolution in human affairs when reason was elevated over tradition and superstition to become, in the words of one author, ‘the arbiter of truth and the foundation of objective knowledge’. ‘The Enlightenment brought us out of the dark’, says Wheen. ‘Now we seem to be heading back in.’ In his book he celebrates the Enlightenment’s gains – how it led to the ‘waning of absolutism and superstition, the rise of secular democracy, the transformation of historical and scientific study’. The Enlightenment put us centre stage, says Wheen, as the makers of history and destiny. ‘Yet now, 200 years later, there are people who believe their Tuesday mornings are determined by the alignment of the planets’.

As a good God-fearin’ atheist and some time contributor to the New Humanist magazine, Wheen is especially aghast at the apparent rise of the creationist movement. ‘Those people’, he says, as a full sentence, to indicate that he doesn’t much care for the likes of the Christian fundamentalists who in 2002 took control of a state-funded school in north-east England intending to ‘show the superiority’ of creationist beliefs in their classes. ‘Why don’t we have schools that teach children there is a tooth fairy or put Santa Claus Studies on the national curriculum, and be done with it?’

Wheen was most struck by prime minister Tony Blair’s response to revelations of a creationist takeover of a state-run school. When Lib Dem Jenny Tonge asked Blair if he was ‘happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in state schools’, the prime minister said: ‘In the end, a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children.’ ‘A simple “no” to Tonge’s query would have sufficed’, says Wheen, ‘and perhaps shown that the prime minister of the United Kingdom believes in reason. This is a man whose mantra is “education, education, education”. He ought to know better.’

Listening to Wheen talk about crazy creationists who spin yarns about the beginnings of mankind and politicians who ought to know better begs a question: who’s driving the anti-Enlightenment? Is it outside forces, virulent strains in the body politic like creationists and other assorted anti-modernists and sects? Or has there been a corrosion at the centre itself, a loss of faith in the ‘gains of the Enlightenment’ among the political elite and intellectuals which has allowed irrationality to flourish?

Wheen writes of an ‘incongruous coalition of postmodernists and primitivists, New Age and Old Testament’, the leaders of which have been ‘remarkably effective over the past quarter-century’. He says he would have liked to have called his book ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, except that Victorian journalist Charles Mackay ‘bagged that title’ back in 1852. Popular delusions and mad crowds? Are they what are driving the retreat of reason? He tells me that one reason why politicians refuse to pass judgement on creationists is because they’re afraid they will lose votes from…creationists. So politicians hold back from defending reason and rationality because they feel beholden to the unreasonable and irrational masses?

‘I’d say it’s a dual process’, says Wheen. ‘There are doubts about Enlightenment values at the political centre and that does allow these irrational forces to come up. There has certainly been a trahison des clercs. I mean, look at Cherie Blair.’

The prime minister’s wife is a favourite punchbag of Wheen’s, and it isn’t hard to see why. Despite being a practising Catholic, a practising barrister and, whether she likes it or not, part of the British state machinery, Mrs Blair has become infamous for her dalliances with New Age nonsense. She reportedly wears crystals to ward off the evil effects of computers and telephones, and in summer 2001 took part in a sweaty, muddy Mayan rebirthing ceremony (with Tony) while holidaying on the Mexican Riviera, revisited in glorious detail in Wheen’s book. For Wheen, Cherie symbolises how weakness at the centre plays a role in the rise of irrationalism; even her apparent devout Catholicism, it seems, is not enough to keep her away from crystal bollocks – which doesn’t say much for today’s Catholic Church.

Wheen is strong on ridiculing those who have ‘abandoned Enlightenment values’, but not so strong on explaining how the anti-Enlightenment came about. His book is a riveting read – Thatcher, Bin Ladenites, conspiracy theorists, catastrophists, the Blairs and creationists (of course) all incur his witty wrath. But while it has plenty of sparkle, it has a little less substance. It never fully answers the question of why, over 200 years after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, we have a prime minister who once covered himself in crap and screamed like a lunatic while surrounded by lizard symbols in Mexico to symbolise the pain of rebirth. Consequently, it sometimes feels as though Wheen is taking potshots at fairly easy targets.

‘I wanted to alert people to some worrying developments’, he says. Yet there is mumbo-jumbo that is far more mainstream than creationism or Mayan rebirthing. What about environmentalism, which holds that humanity should know its place on the planet? Forget the Enlightenment belief that man should rise above nature and make his own destiny – green-minded writers argue that humans are a virus sucking the planet dry, that, in the words of John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, we are a ‘plague’ on the planet. What about anti-globalisation, which calls for a return to small-scale production as an alternative to big corporations – something that Marx, the greatest Enlightened thinker and the subject of Wheen’s previous book, certainly wouldn’t have supported?

Wheen says he doesn’t want to be ‘nasty’ about greens or anti-capitalists, though he certainly lays into them in his book. ‘They are a menace but I’m not sure they are a wilful menace’, he says. ‘I expect most of them are well-meaning…. I respect Monbiot [as in George, the Guardian‘s green-fingered columnist], though I recognise that he works very much within the system.’ This is the same Monbiot who once argued that ‘flying across the Atlantic is as unacceptable…as child abuse’; who said the hundredth anniversary of the Wright brothers taking to the skies celebrated earlier this year ought to have been an ‘international day of mourning’ because planes are ‘killing machines’; who wails that ‘the world is dying and people are killing themselves with laughter’.

Yet Wheen says that when greenish groups ‘get McDonald’s or someone to change the way they act and what they sell, I like that’. That’s a bit of a comedown, isn’t it? From defending the gains of the greatest moment in human history to celebrating the availability of a chicken Caesar salad at a madeover McDonald’s?

Wheen hands me another beer across a desk strewn with material for the forthcoming Private Eye – scribbled notes, cartoons, a very cheeky letter written by old Tory journo Peregrine Worsthorne to the Daily Telegraph regarding its former owner Lord Conrad Black and a possible prison sentence, which the Telegraph declined to publish. Wheen assures me that Private Eye has a cleaner, ‘though it doesn’t seem to make much difference’.

I can’t help but wonder what the Eye makes of Wheen’s Enlightenment values. The last time I checked, Private Eye was one of the few remaining publications to give credence to Dr Andrew Wakefield, the leading protagonist of the idea that there’s a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism. Despite a lack of evidence, and the fact that Wakefield’s original 1998 Lancet paper that launched the scare has been repudiated by 10 of its 13 co-authors, Private Eye continues to defend Wakefield against what it considers to be an underhand political campaign against him. I notice that on the wall behind Wheen there is a framed letter written by satirist Jonathan Miller to the editors of the Eye in the 1960s, upbraiding them for making a mistake in one of his articles. It begins: ‘You stupid irresponsible CUNTS….’ Perhaps the same description could be extended to the current Eye for its coverage of the MMR crisis.

Wheen, for one, recognises that anti-science sentiment today is sometimes expressed in ‘scares about this and that, a kind of irrational fear’. And ‘certainly I am in favour of scientifically testing things and proving whether they are true or not’, he says, in our foray into science and cynicism. The subject changes again, and we end up in a heated debate about the Iraq war, which Wheen ‘kind of, sort of, a little bit supported’. ‘Hold on’, he says, nipping out for a second bottle of the fizzy white.

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World is published by Fourth Estate. (Buy this book from Amazon UK.)

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Topics Books

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