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THE EXAMINED LIFE

In the dark

WHEN MADONNA, whose "Reinvention" tour arrives at the Worcester Centrum today, announced not long ago that her Kabbala teachers had renamed her Esther, Francis Wheen was not impressed by the pop star's Old Testament stylings. "The proliferation of obscurantist bunkum, from Madonna-style Kabbalism to managerial mumbo-jumbo, in the past 25 years is not only depressing but alarming," says Wheen, author of the newly published "Idiot Proof: Deluded Celebrities, Irrational Power Brokers, Media Morons, and the Erosion of Common Sense" (PublicAffairs), a witty jeremiad against superstition, relativism, and hysteria in public life. Ideas telephoned Wheen, who is deputy editor of the satirical British magazine Private Eye, as he kicked off his US book tour in New York.

IDEAS: Why do you date our contemporary idiocy to 1979?

WHEEN: Early that year, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and inaugurated a radical Islamist effort to turn the clock back to medieval times. A few months later, Margaret Thatcher's Tories were elected in Britain, and Ronald Reagan was elected in November. Thatcher and Reagan also wanted to retreat from the 20th century -- to the 19th century, in their case, a time innocent of welfare states, regulated economies, or interventionist governments. In the quarter-century since, the Enlightenment insistence on rejecting tradition and authority as the infallible sources of truth has taken a bashing in both America and Britain.

IDEAS: Did Reaganism and Thatcherism really have anything in common with New Age and other counter-Enlightenment trends?

WHEEN: Remember how Nancy Reagan cleared every major decision her husband was about to make -- including the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987 -- with Joan Quigley, an astrologer from San Francisco? Well, neoliberalism entails a faith in the free market, an equally imaginary cosmic dispensation whose methods are also beyond challenge. George H.W. Bush himself called Reaganomics -- which was merely the return of supply-side economics, an old, discredited superstition -- "voodoo economics."

IDEAS: Several of the peddlers of bunkum you criticize -- including Deepak Chopra and Samuel Huntington -- have some affiliation with Harvard University.

WHEEN: It's hard to forgive those who really ought to know better for betraying the Enlightenment. Chopra, a Harvard-trained endocrinologist, has earned millions flogging "alternative medicine" -- when there's no such thing. As he is well aware, when a healing technique is shown to have curative powers in controlled tests, it ceases to be an alternative -- it simply becomes medicine. . .. As for Huntington, his "Clash of Civilizations" theory is fatalistic. It claims that humanity's fate -- conflicts between so-called civilizations -- is preordained. But what history teaches us is that nothing is inevitable.

IDEAS: You characterize America today as a hotbed of antiscientific relativists, economic fundamentalists, radical postmodernists, and New Age mystics.

WHEEN: It's tragic, because America is the biggest, boldest, and most successful Enlightenment project. Those who strive to discredit rationalism consign us all to a life in darkness.

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