Monday, March 14, 2005

Many thanks to Robert Duquette, aka Duck of the Daily Duck for the excellent picture of Think of England's argumentative alter ego "Brit".

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Defence Against the Dark Arts of Mumbo-Jumbo

On the Guardian website, the columnist Francis Wheen lists his Top Ten modern delusions, beginning with

1. "God is on our side"
George W Bush thinks so, as do Tony Blair and Osama bin Laden and an alarmingly high percentage of other important figures in today's world. After September 11 2001 Blair claimed that religion was the solution not the problem, since "Jews, Muslims and Christians are all children of Abraham" - unaware that the example of Abraham was also cited by Mohammed Atta, hijacker of the one of the planes that shattered the New York skyline...

2. The market is rational
Financial sophisticates in the 21st century smile at the madness of the South Sea Bubble or the absurdity of the Dutch tulip craze. Yet only a few years ago they scrambled and jostled to buy shares in dotcom companies which had no earnings at all nor any prospect of ever turning a profit. To justify this apparent insanity, they maintained that such a revolutionary business as the internet required a new business model in which balance sheets were irrelevant. In short, they thought they had repealed the laws of financial gravity - until they came crashing down to earth.

3. There is no such thing as reality
Hence the inverted commas which postmodernists invariably place round the word. They see everything from history to quantum physics as a text, subject to the "infinite play of signification". But if all notions of truth and falsity cease to have any validity, how can one combat bogus ideas - or indeed outright lies? There is, for instance, a mass of carefully empirical research on the Nazi extermination of the Jews. As Professor Richard Evans points out, "To regard it as fictional, unreal or no nearer to historical reality than, say, the work of the 'revisionists' who deny that Auschwitz ever happened at all, is simply wrong. Here is an issue where evidence really counts, and can be used to establish the essential facts. Auschwitz was not a discourse."

You can read the rest here.

I recently read Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.

Ostensibly a defence of Enlightenment and Reason, it’s a sort of modern follow-up to MacKay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and I can thoroughly recommend it as an entertaining and well-argued polemic against what the author sees as a rising tide of nonsense in the modern world.

It’s unlikely that anybody could agree with everything Wheen says, since he aims poisonous barbs at pretty much everything going. As he says himself, there’s something in it to offend everyone.

Wheen is left-leaning in his politics, but is commendably even-handed in dishing out his acerbic abuse.

Some of his targets are admittedly soft: Diana-mania, Nostrodamus-fever, post-modernist critical theory, Communism-apologists, religious fundamentalism, anti-science ‘alternative’ medicine, creationism, management/business jargon, the culture of self-help gurus, horoscopes, etc.

But he also tackles right-wing Reagan/Thatcherite ultra-laissez faire ‘voodoo economics’ and ‘trickle-down’ theory; while simultaneously laying into left-winger Noam Chomsky’s ridiculous and self-contradictory political ramblings.

He treats both those two opposing venerated political tomes – Fukuyama’s The End of History and Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations ­ just the same: as baseless, evidence-less imposters. And on Iraq he has great fun with nonsense spouted by both the hawk and peacenik camps.

It rattles along at a riotous pace and is well worth a read.

Amazon are virtually giving it away for £3.50.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The distracting devils

Tracey Emin, recalling Madeline Basset, described birds as "the angels of this earth".

I prefer Ted Hughes’ take on them:

by Ted Hughes

Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,
More coiled steel than living - a poised
Dark deadly eye, those delicate legs
Triggered to stirrings beyond sense - with a start, a bounce, a stab
Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing.
No indolent procrastinations and no yawning states,
No sighs or head-scratchings. Nothing but bounce and stab
And a ravening second.

Is it their single-mind-sized skulls, or a trained
Body, or genius, or a nestful of brats
Gives their days this bullet and automatic
Purpose? Mozart's brain had it, and the shark's mouth
That hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own
Side and devouring of itself: efficiency which
Strikes too streamlined for any doubt to pluck at it
Or obstruction deflect.

With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on horseback,
Outstripping his desk-diary at a broad desk,
Carving at a tiny ivory ornament
For years: his act worships itself - while for him,
Though he bends to be blent in the prayer, how loud and above what
Furious spaces of fire do the distracting devils
Orgy and hosannah, under what wilderness
Of black silent waters weep.

As anyone who has to make up words for a living (or has ever tried to write the perfect letter, or school essay, or note in a colleague’s birthday card) might recognise, this is really a poem about the horrors of writer’s block.