Balderdashing Into Doom
By Chris Lehmann,
deputy editor of Book World, whose e-mail address is email@example.com
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; Page C04
Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons and the Erosion of Common Sense
By Francis Wheen
PublicAffairs. 327 pp. $25
Both the glib title and long subtitle of Francis Wheen's new book might lead casual browsers to expect an indecorous, invective-filled rant, of the sort lucratively sent down the publishing pipelines by Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Al Franken and other outsize dispensers of televisual wisdom. Yet "Idiot Proof," while certainly given to extended bouts of polemic glee, is actually a pretty sober work of criticism masquerading as a rant -- which, when you think of it, is itself a sobering criticism of what it takes for reasoned debate to get noticed in our new millennial literary marketplace.
Wheen, the deputy editor of England's satirical fortnightly Private Eye and author of a biography of Karl Marx, is not, in the current bookish fashion, whaling on the shortcomings and character flaws of the perverse blockheads who dare to differ from his own opinions about the world. He is, rather, charting the ongoing free fall of the great Enlightenment-era virtues of reason, skepticism and social improvement, and shining a bright light on the gruesome consequences of distorting the Enlightenment's legacies for ideological purposes, or simply throwing them over for therapeutic fads or scholarly buzzwords.
Wheen opens with a brief but compelling celebration of the Enlightenment's signature "attitude": "a presumption that certain truths about mankind, society, and the natural world could be perceived, whether through deduction or observation, and that the discovery of these truths would transform the quality of life." As it played out in scores of Western outposts over the 18th century, this attitude yielded a number of more pointed political precepts: "an insistence on intellectual autonomy, a rejection of tradition and authority as the infallible sources of truth, a loathing for bigotry and persecution, a commitment to free inquiry, a belief that (in Francis Bacon's words) knowledge is indeed power." Wheen takes pains to set this last point aside from latter-day misappropriations by "Machiavellian" acolytes of political realism; for Enlightenment philosophes, Wheen notes, Bacon's injunction "was a slogan of emancipation, a declaration of war against the impotence of ignorance."
Alas, the very need for such a stipulation illustrates that Enlightenment ideals have fallen on very hard times. By now other commentators, from Christopher Norris to Terry Eagleton, have isolated the literary and philosophical roots of today's flight from reason; Wheen admirably begins his account with the twinned economic fantasias of Thatcherism and Reaganism, that "voodoo revolution," which proceeded largely from the woolly theory of the "Laffer curve," the famous napkin diagram holding that lavish upper-bracket tax cuts would magically result in increased government tax revenues. This is now so firmly installed as a first principle of conservative economic policy that few in either England or America pause to ponder its patent lunacy.
Having traced how wishful thinking acceded to the status of iron policy dogma, Wheen tirelessly tracks the many related varieties of moonshine that flowed freely in the cultural shadows of the supply-side age. We are reintroduced to Nancy Reagan's astrologer Joan Quigley and Hillary Clinton's past-lives adviser Jean Houston; we marvel at the shameless opportunism of corporate pseudo-visionaries like Tom Peters and Deepak Chopra, who incant ceaseless torrents of manifest twaddle, such as Chopra's sycophantic proclamation that "people who have achieved an enormous amount of success are inherently very spiritual. . . . Affluence is simply our natural state."
From such witless rubber-stampings of the status quo it is but a short step to the self-important skylarkings of Francis "End of History" Fukuyama and Samuel P. "Clash of Civilizations" Huntington, which continue to capture the bleak imaginations of the sinecured policy world. These big theorists are usually counterposed, toy-soldier-style, in what passes for searching debate on the foundations of American diplomacy. But Wheen insists that both thinkers are actually less-than-witting collaborators: "Because of the yearning for binary simplicity, and the obvious tonal contrast between the respective optimism and pessimism of these two academic Jumbos, few noticed how much they had in common. Both were rigidly determinist in their insistence that humanity's fate had been preordained, whether ideologically or culturally, and grotesquely reductionist in their refusal to acknowledge the complex pluralities that constitute those vague abstractions 'history' and 'civilization.' "
Wheen espies the same ignorant fatalism in the "radical" academic flirtations with post-structuralism, deconstruction, cultural studies and other such thickets of voguish jargon. Much of the headache-inducing prose that these fearless subversive intellectuals produced in their 1990s heyday professed to overthrow the Enlightenment's many oppressive and imperialist discourses, yet amounted in Wheen's judgment to a fatal "paralysis of reason, a refusal to observe any qualitative difference between reasonable hypotheses and swirling hogwash." Examples, alas, are legion, from physicist Alan Sokal's prank submission to the cultural studies journal Social Text denying any mathematical proof that reality exists to this staggeringly sweeping and idiotic claim from cultural studies professor-cum-UFO enthusiast Jodi Dean: "Argument, thought by some to be an important part of the process of democracy, is futile, perhaps because democracy can bring about Holocaust."
As is the case with many polemics, Wheen's book sometimes overreaches. It is not the case, for example, that moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is as unserious a critic of the Enlightenment as the other irrationalists justly pilloried in "Idiot Proof." MacIntyre's "After Virtue," while sometimes guilty of rhetorical excess, did point up critical gaps in the Enlightenment's own moral reasoning, which defenders of the Enlightenment tradition do well to engage and argue through, rather than ridicule and dismiss.
In the main, however, "Idiot Proof" is welcome balm to anyone who has weathered the past two-plus decades' worth of reason-free intellectual movements and social policies. And it ends, naturally but sadly enough, with an inventory of the many present-day triumphs of unreason, from the fever dreams of the dot-com bubble and the Bush tax cuts to the "coolly supercilious relativism" of leftists laying the bulk of the blame for Sept. 11 on the United States. Wheen calls this chapter "Voodoo Revisited," and it sounds an appropriately somber closing note. One is less and less sure about history, but it remains a cinch that those who do not learn from nonsense are condemned to repeat it.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company