Thursday, 14 January 2010

Mumbo Jumbo and The Arms Trade

These are things I have been reading recently and which deserve a review. Firstly Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions which took some concentrating on but was ultimately very interesting. As with all such books, I didn't agree with everything he said and I thought on occasion he'd thrown out some babies with bathwater, but I particularly found the chapters on the Thatcher and Reagan regimes fascinating. It filled in some history for me in terms of how the US and UK interfered in politics in the middle east, in particular in Iran, and the chapters on how the economics of the time didn't add up and have led to the situation we are currently experiencing were particularly illuminating.

Wheen's main thrust is that since 1979 every institution in the west has been turning its back on the values on the Enlightenment - rational thinking, logic, open-mindedness, lack of superstition, turning away from religious faith - and turning towards the 'mumbo jumbo' of the title. There are many things he includes in his definition of mumbo jumbo, including many things which are frankly shocking, such as Ronald Reagan's use of astrologers in making US policy. He's also very much against relativism and post-modernism. His thoughts on Princess Diana were very funny. He attacked Left politics as well as Right politics.

However, sometimes the tone became a bit smug. Personally I do actually think that examining accounts of history taking into account the context in which it was written is a logical and scientific thing to do. But, a bit of balance, I do also think that there are also objective facts which can be established. Wheen seems to be saying at times that context and relativism are never useful. I'm also very dubious at his claims that alternative medicine is illogical and irrational superstition. And his assertion that conventional medicine is entirely based on logical progression in research and scientific methods is just plain ignoring many facts which spring easily to light should you pay even the most passing attention to the history of medicine. Maybe wishful thinking?

Anyway, all in all, very amusing, enlightening and wlel worth a read even if there are bits which will annoy you a bit.

The second book I want to talk about is Mark Thomas' As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela: Underground Adventures in the Arms and Torture Trade which was another fascinating, if very disturbing, book. I have to admit to not knowing very much about the arms trade, and neither do I want to. Except, that we should know about it, in order to campaign for it to be better regulated. If you know anythig about Mark Thomas and his comedy style, then you'll be able to imagine the kinds of things he does for this book - sets up fake arms companies to trap arms dealers in breaking the law, to show up the ridiculous and inadequate nature of the law, and to show how big business takes precedence over concern for human life.

I wasn't sure how many laughs could be squeezed out of such a subject, but Mark Thomas manages to make us laugh about it without ever forgetting how serious it is. This is an important book which never reduces things down to a simplistic level. Thomas manages to acknowledge the humanity and complexity even of the most repugnant and callous arms dealer, while at the same time condemning their trade. The Government (yet again!) are the ones who come out of this book the worst. And it's good to know that Thomas' actions for this book did actually prompt some real changes in the law. Another recommended book.


Kristina said...

I really like Mark Thomas, though I've not yet read any of his books. I have seen him live a couple of times and he was fantastic. He has a book out on the evils of a certain brand leading cola company I'd like to read, though from what I know of it that's pretty harrowing as well.

Liz said...

Yes, I've ordered that one from the library too. If you like his stand-up, you'll like his books.

Dawn said...

I might look out for the Mumbo Jumbo book at our library, thanks for the recommendation.

I'm a big fan of Mark Thomas books and have read the arms trade one - very good. I've literally just finished the Belching out the Devil book - again some funny bits but a very good read, as was his stand-up tour a few years ago on that company. If you like MT, you'll like this one. I'm waiting to pick up his new book out this month - Mark Thomas presents the People's Manifesto.