Like his subjects in Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s—The Golden Age Of Paranoia, author Francis Wheen (How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World) sees conspiracy everywhere, which weakens the argument uniting the historical and cultural incidents over which he places his lens. But it’s hard to complain about being taken for a ride when the trip is so entertaining.
Wheen ushers in the decade of mistrust with the emblematic image of the mid-term President Nixon, who had taken pains a few years earlier to remove the in-office recording system his predecessor LBJ used, quietly installing his own as a bulwark against the enemies he now believed were everywhere. The Nixon tapes proved an enormous embarrassment to his friends, who knew the recordings would pick up their silent assent to his wild plans, and sow the country with a distrust beyond even the heights of countercultural suspicion. But it wasn’t just the government’s job to plant the seeds of paranoia with the revelations following the Media, Pennsylvania break-in: Norman Mailer did his best with the establishment of the Fifth Estate, Philip K. Dick in his writing, even British PM Edward Heath in the economic policies that shook Britain.
Even placed against the tyrannies of Soviet committees that shifted from show trials to the institutionalization of enemies of the state and the rages of Madame Mao, Wheen intends to draw parallels across the Iron Curtain to show that on both sides, there was much more to fear than fear itself. The case studies gathered up in Strange Days Indeed are wildly delightful, but their cumulative effect is murky: For the world leaders depicted in the book, their fears were mostly well-founded, though not productive. Others, like Illuminatus Trilogy coauthors Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, recognized the commercial and entertainment value of being a little vague about how much of their work was rooted in truth. Lumping these two currents into a larger social force is a dicey endeavor even before Wheen introduces Uri Gellar and the Raelian Movement into the picture. Wheen makes a crack tour guide, in spite of his disinterest in tying up loose ends; but many of the strange days captured in his book cry out for a more determined examiner.