19 May 2010

Strange Days Indeed

Francis Wheen identifies the 1970s as "the Golden Age of Paranoia." Strange Days Indeed is his selective history of that fascinating decade, global in scope but with an emphasis on Wheen's native Britain. There the context of paranoia was a feared social breakdown that makes today's anxieties look unwarranted. A one-two punch of the Arab oil embargo and a relentlessly militant coal-miners' union reduced the UK to three-day work weeks and scheduled power outages by 1974. It was beyond the power of Prime Ministers to control, and an illuminating aspect of Wheen's book is its demonstration that British leaders had gone nearly as mad as their American [Nixon] and Communist counterparts. The Labour premier Harold Wilson succumbed to paranoia that was at least partly justified by a right-wing conspiracy, paranoid in its own right, determined to prove that he was a KGB agent. But whether Labour or the Tories ruled, 10 Downing Street seemed to be a perpetual madhouse during the Seventies.

It actually seems that the paranoid tide began to recede before the decade ended, at least in political circles. Ford and Carter were improvements on Nixon, while in China anything was better than Mao, and in Britain James Callaghan was apparently of sounder mind than his predecessor. But by 1976, the year of Wilson's resignation and Mao's death, paranoia had permeated much of western culture, fueled in America by regular revelations about FBI and CIA skullduggery and exacerbated by conspiracy-mongering on the subject of JFK's assassination. At the same time, Sixties experiments in altered consciousness reaped their consequences in new waves of credulity regarding UFOs, "ancient astronauts," and the powers of Uri Geller. Paranoia seems linked to an oppressed consciousness of power influencing our lives, despite a greater awareness of disorder in society and the world. Or it may be based on the belief that some Will must lay behind tumultuous events that disrupt our lives and traditions.

Wheen identifies a surprising key text for understanding the Seventies: Frederick Forsyth's novel The Dogs of War. He describes this story as a thinly-disguised account (with a revised ending) of a real conspiracy to overthrow an African government, in which Forsyth himself may have taken part. Some of the novel's characters were real people, and in reality those mercenaries used the novel as a blueprint for later, successful coups d'etat in other countries. Forsyth's fiction includes a bit of political science: the nations most vulnerable to toppling by mercs are those with weak governments with power concentrated in a tyrant. The novelist meant nations that could be revolutionized by a simple decapitation strike, but if we broaden the survey we might see why rulers in objectively stronger nations that still suffer from crumbling infrastructures, social breakdowns, cultural demoralization, etc., might also feel vulnerable to overthrow by conspiracies of all kinds. Surveying the world, Wheen finds leaders everywhere who feel most certain of their own control when oppressing those closest to them while causing little but chaos outside of government precincts.

I sometimes look back on the Seventies as a golden age of pop culture, but Wheen reminds me that it was often a desperate time in the real world. It should remind every reader that we have a long way to go now before we reach the worst of the Seventies, when left-wingers were planting bombs all over America and reactionary hard-hats were beating up antiwar demonstrators. I have to ask, however, whether the next decade will surpass the Seventies on the paranoia meter. Hostility toward political power and power of all kinds seems to be rising again, and by embedding ourselves more completely in 24/7 social networks we're probably more likely to grow more paranoid towards each other or ordinary people in general. Paranoia as a social phenomenon may be a reaction to an overwhelming awareness of everything out there and how little control we as individuals or in our traditional groupings can exert over it all. While it may get worse during hard times like we had in the Seventies and may see soon, the rapid evolution of social technology since Wheen's Strange Days may make our collective reaction even worse even if the times aren't as bad as they were forty years ago. But that may just be me being paranoid....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I think of the 70's, I think more in terms of kitsch. In terms of movies, I can agree with a "golden age", but otherwise I don't care much for the pop culture of the 70's...(disco, the advent of arena rock, bad tv, etc.) Politically, it was definitely an era of paranoia.