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Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, by Francis Wheen

Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia is a rollicking adventure set in the Seventies.  The title should give the reader a clue to the tone of the piece.  Calling the Seventies “the Golden Age of Paranoia” with tongue firmly set in cheek, Wheen brings together everything from global politics, literature, and film.  Bouncing between the drunken paranoia of President Nixon to the science fiction of Philip K. Dick and the lunatic butchery of Idi Amin, one gets the impression that indeed “the world [is] on the edge of a nervous breakdown.”

Wheen’s work captures the Zeitgeist of the decade.  He occasionally adds his own memories combining with a journalist’s knack to create a feeling of immediacy.  From his British perspective, he offers stories and figures not well known to those readers across the pond.  Included are the strange behavior of former Prime Minister Edward Heath and the farce of the Oz decency trial.  The latter seems like an odd addition to a book chock-full of political paranoia and conspiracies.  However, it does illustrate how paranoia became an everyday feeling, with proper bluestocking shocked that longhaired hippies would publish a magazine espousing an “alternate lifestyle.”  All the more ironic since society had no problem with business suit-clad entrepreneurs churning out far worse in pornographic magazines.

Besides politics and pornography, Wheen also examines the literature produced in the decade.  The seminal postmodern novel Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was released at the height of the Watergate hearings.  Conspiracy theories abounded, most notably in The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea.  Prolific science fiction author Philip K. Dick, whose fiction in the Fifties contained paranoia and identity crises, finally went insane.  The copious psychotropic drugs made for a deadly combination, especially when he thought his fiction was becoming reality.  With the FBI spying and infiltrating leftist groups, Dick and the paranoid hippies were actually telling the truth when they thought they saw FBI agents behind every mailbox.

In the heady atmosphere of conspiracy, people begin seeing patterns that may or may not exist.  Besides elements of the far right thinking Edward Heath and Henry Kissinger were KGB agents, one only has to look as far as Gerald Ford to connect the dots.  As a congressman, Ford participated in the Warren Commission, presenting to the public a lone gunmen and “a magic bullet.”  Nearly a decade later, following Nixon’s resignation, he promptly pardons the disgraced president.  To some, Ford epitomizes government whitewash.  The constant refrain of the conspiracy-minded is “Only connect.”  Or in the memorable words of All the President’s Men, “Follow the money.”  Depending who you talk to, there exists ironclad evidence of conspiracy and intrigue.  To others, the events can be explained away as coincidence.  Wheen lets the reader make up his or her own mind.

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