Book review: 'Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia' by Francis Wheen

By Peter Carlson
Sunday, March 7, 2010; B06


The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia

By Francis Wheen

PublicAffairs. 344 pp. $26.95

Some historians believe in the great man theory of history. Not Francis Wheen. In "Strange Days Indeed," Wheen advances what might be called the "crazy man theory of history." And it makes perfect sense because he's writing about the 1970s, when world leaders exhibited astonishing levels of lunacy.

Wheen revels in stories of leaders going bonkers: Richard Nixon rants about Jews, gays and liberals, and late one night he takes his valet to the deserted House of Representatives and orders him to make a speech. Mao Zedong -- who never bathes, preferring to be rubbed clean by a servant with a hot towel -- purges his harem, banishing three women he suspects are fans of his rival Lin Biao, who also avoids bathing because he's deathly afraid of water. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, pops tranquilizers to calm her fear of noises and gets so stoned that she falls off her toilet and breaks her collarbone. Convinced that Lin Biao poisoned her pills, she orders her doctors interrogated while the Politburo watches. Wheen's not making this stuff up, folks. It really happened! He dutifully footnotes his sources and they are perfectly respectable works of history, biography and autobiography that the rest of us somehow missed.

In Africa, President Francisco Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea executes his rivals in a sports stadium while loudspeakers play the song "Those Were the Days, My Friend." And Ugandan dictator Idi Amin proclaims himself "Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea" and forces British businessmen to carry him into a cocktail party in a sedan chair.

Meanwhile, in jolly old England, deposed Prime Minster Harold Wilson summons two reporters to his home and urges them to investigate a nonexistent plot to overthrow the British government. "I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room," Wilson mumbles. "Sometimes I speak when I'm asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet, I might tell you to go to the Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. That blind man may tell you something, lead you somewhere."

Whew! If you judge a book by how many exclamation points you scrawl in the margins, "Strange Days Indeed" is a masterpiece indeed, a mind-blowing work of nonfiction black humor.

Wheen, a veteran British journalist, does not confine his narrative to the nuttiness of the era's rulers. "The insanity was contagious," he writes, and it spawned urban guerrillas who murdered and kidnapped in the name of idealism -- Germany's Baader-Meinhof Group, Uruguay's Tupamaros and, in the United States, the Symbionese Liberation Army, which killed a school superintendent, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst and concluded its communiqu├ęs with the goofy slogan "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people." Wheen shows how pop culture reflected the paranoia of the '70s in Thomas Pynchon's paranoid novel "Gravity's Rainbow" and a slew of conspiracy-themed movies: "The Conversation," "Chinatown," "Executive Action" and "Three Days of the Condor." And let's not forget the bizarre '70s bestseller "Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past," which theorized that the human race was spawned by the ancient mating of apes and aliens -- a theory that certainly could help explain the '70s (and every other decade).

"Is there one plot going on between the scenes in America? Are there many plots? Is there no plot?" asked novelist Norman Mailer in a drunken 1973 speech in which he announced his plan to form a "people's FBI" to spy on the FBI and the CIA. Mailer admitted that he was "very paranoid," but maybe his fears were founded in fact. After his death in 2007, the FBI released its file on him, which revealed that the G-men were poking around in his mailbox and knocking on his door, posing as deliverymen.

Wheen doesn't explain what, if anything, all this madness means, but somehow that didn't bother me, perhaps because his anecdotes are so jaw-droppingly delicious. I do have one quibble, though: I don't believe the subtitle. Were the '70s really "The Golden Age of Paranoia"? What about the '30s, with Stalin's purges and Hitler's rages? Or the '50s, with McCarthyism and duck-and-cover drills? Or, for that matter, the decade we just exited, with its secret prisons, its birthers and truthers, its suicide bombers, shoe bombers, underwear bombers?

Obviously, the Golden Age of Paranoia shows no sign of ending. That's why we need Francis Wheen to keep reminding us that humans are a loony species and that much of history is a record of the various forms of lunacy arising in different eras. I suggest that some great university endow a Distinguished Chair of Paranoia Studies and invite Wheen to sit in it while he continues his delightfully hilarious and frighteningly serious work.

Peter Carlson is a columnist for American History magazine and the author of "K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist."

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