A Disgression on ‘ How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions‘, by Francis Wheen.
I’m reading a genuinely scary book: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen. It’s a catalog of the absurdities and errors which, according to the author, characterize the thinking of modern Western man: post-structuralism, catastrophism, Reaganonimcs, alternative medicine, &c.
Two years ago, this book would have made me feel smug. I suffer from none of the pernicious un-reasons which afflict the men and women in this book, despite the fact that many of them are actually smarter than I am. I try to be empirical, and I think I largely succeed (but, then, again, obviously, everyone thinks they’re empirical).
Two years ago, I would have read How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World and shaken my head in self-satisfied dismay about how stupid and gullible other people are. But that was before I took a spin class.
I’ve taken one spin class, a little over a year ago. I really enjoyed that one spin class I took, although I would never describe it as pleasant. It was in a small dark room filled with bikes armed with excruciating sharp little seats. The music was thumpy and very loud and there was an extremely fit woman in the front shouting at us.
But it was encouraging shouting. This woman with insanely muscular arms kept yelling at me that I was beautiful, that I was killing those hills, that I could definitely do another, that I was looking really great today.
These were all lies, or at least, none of these things were objectively true. I didn’t look beautiful or even great – I looked horrible, like a sweating person in bad pain who wasn’t going to be able to sit comfortably for a week. And I was not “killing” the “hills” – I was lurching up them in near-despair.
Nevertheless, I believed everything the woman screamed at me that day. Somehow the dark and the music and the numbing pain and the arms and the yelling combined to make me love that shrieking woman, and I would have followed her into battle if she had asked me. Yet I remember that somehow, in the dank thrumming spin room, it managed to occur to me how cultish my feelings were.
I didn’t care at all – I was having a blast. But it was humbling: I was susceptible to spin class-level manipulation, which is not, let’s face it, super-sophisticated. And I knew I was being manipulated, and it still didn’t matter to me: feeling pumped in that moment was worth more than occupying my precious intellectual high-ground.
I don’t think I betrayed the Enlightenment by enjoying my spin class. But we all abandon the strict precepts of reason every once in a while to make our world a little more comfortable. That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it admirable: ideally, we would all be empirical all the time. We would be data-driven: we would not believe what is not true, and when we do not possess sufficient data, we would remain agnostic.
But someone who actually did that would be insufferable. We must act on what we believe we know and we must, in a world of contradictions, at some point choose to believe something: I chose to believe in that moment that I was a hill-crushing goddess. I think that the best that we can reasonably do is change our minds when new information requires it: when I saw myself in the mirrors in the hallway after class, I quickly revised my estimation. We’re all going to turn out to have been wrong about much of what we believe, whether we like it or not – in the meantime, we might as well spin.
Title quotation by Thomas Jefferson. Featured image, from Thomas Paine’s Age Of Reason, taken from rationalrevolution.net.