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Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia

Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia

Author:Francis Wheen
Release Date:2010

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 6/9/2010

In late 1973, a Kent teen malcontent took a train to London, intent on becoming a part of the fabled counterculture. Arriving at a hippie enclave, his "boyish enthusiasm was met by groans from a furry freak slumped on the threadbare sofa. 'Drop back in, man,' he muttered through a dense foliage of beard. 'You're too late . . . It's over.'" Thirty-six years later, Francis Wheen gets his revenge on the epoch that dashed his dreams with Strange Days Indeed.

"The mixture of panic, paranoia, and pessimism that characterized the 1970s engendered a peculiar hybrid mood--gloomy yet feverish, torpid yet hysterical," Wheen writes. "If the Sixties were a wild weekend and the Eighties a hectic day at the office, the Seventies were a long Sunday evening in winter, with cold leftovers for supper and a power cut expected at any moment." Days reminds you that the decade was an aesthetic and sociopolitical nightmare; Wheen cloaks his exhumation in cheeky whimsy, but there's no escaping the rank whiff of end-of-days ennui. "Paranoia" and its variants surface constantly, and the author locates a succubus in the person of U.S. President Richard Nixon.

Nixon's fear that everyone--loyalists, confidantes, Communists--was out to get him manifested itself in enemies' lists, illegal operations, and unhinged public appearances, eventually resulting in huge oppositional swathes that replaced the phantoms that bedeviled him. To "guarantee his historical reputation, not only as raw material for his own memoirs but also as ammunition against the memoirs of colleagues," Tricky Dick famously had a state-of-the-art eavesdropping system built in the White House; his ploy backfired, revealing him as an insane, bullying bigot. China--ruled by Chairman Mao and his deputy, Lin Biao--was no better off, "governed by a pair of raging hypochondriacs and psychological basket cases, each plotting the other's downfall."

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Ted Heath bungled his handling of war-torn Northern Ireland and taxpayer-funded witchhunts put underground newspapers on trial for reflecting sexual realities. In Africa, Ugandan President Idi Amin created absurdist diplomatic performance art--dispatching bizarre communiques, assigning titles such as "the Only True Miracle of Equatorial Guinea"--when he wasn't torturing or killing his subjects. Everywhere, gasoline was in short supply and underground movements kidnapped, bombed, and garbled polemics to make themselves heard. Mainstream filmmakers seemed to presage civil-liberty smashing and corporate nihilism even before anyone knew it was happening. Authors as opposite as Norman Mailer and Philip K. Dick assumed, correctly, that the C.I.A. was watching them.

More unsettling than the parallels readers can draw between the past Wheen examines and the topsy-turvy present is how easily the uncertainty and turmoil of the period became its normalcy: "Low-level terrorism swiftly became such a familiar background hum in everyday life that much went unreported, to the chagrin of those who perpetrated it."

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