:: Article

The Paranoid Style

By Max Dunbar.


Strange Days Indeed, Francis Wheen, Fourth Estate, 2009

There’s nothing less interesting than being subjected to other people’s childhoods, and it seems that every generation since that decade has had to suffer through the nostalgia of men and women who grew up in the 1970s. Younger readers – that is to say, people under the age of thirty-five or so – were irritated and bemused by the series of badly written novels featuring the adolescent trials of painfully sensitive author surrogates, interspersed with in-jokes about flares, gas shortages and punk music (whatever the fuck that was). Nostalgia tends to obscure rather than illuminate, and it’s curious that despite all the retro dramas, comedies and cultural essays we don’t get a true picture of the times beyond Kerplunk and fondue pots.

In their 1999 television series Stewart Lee and Richard Herring satirised the tendency of comedians to mine old times for easy material (‘The humour derives from the fact that many everyday customs of the 1970s seem absurd in retrospect,’ Lee explains). When Lee tries to discuss the political and social developments that took place over the decade, Herring shouts him down with inane cultural references: eventually he simply screams: ‘January 1 1970! Ahahaha! January 2 1970! Hahahaha! I’ve got another 3648 of these babies, Stew!’

Given all this, the 1970s seemed a potentially tedious subject for Francis Wheen’s new book, but I was confident that if anyone could make nostalgia interesting, Wheen could. In his last book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, Wheen argued that the Enlightenment was under attack from two powerful irrationalities: resurgent Islamic fanaticism and freemarket dogmatism. In 1979 we had seen:

…the Iranian revolution and the election of Margaret Thatcher: the new Islamic fundamentalists wanted to turn the clock back about 1,500 years; the market fundamentalists’ atavistic project, only slightly less ambitious, was to re-establish the ‘Victorian values’ of self help, private philanthropy and laissez-faire.  

Strange Days Indeed is a kind of prequel to that book: ‘how we got there, and what a bizarre journey it was.’

And that is an understatement. Why do writers and comedians go on about Abba and tank tops, I kept thinking, when there were public-school mercenaries overthrowing African dictators, Nazi fetishists planning to honeytrap the President’s enemies, the sexual life of Rupert the Bear discussed at the Old Bailey! The 1970s were ‘the golden age of paranoia’, Wheen explains, and he has some fantastic material on the Kennedy conspiracies and the crimes of far left terrorists in Europe and America. It’s easy, often necessary, to laugh at pseudo-radical delusions, but the laughter has a nervous edge because there really were government conspiracies. The point about the paranoid style of politics is that it infected not only the fringes but also the mainstream. Wheen uses the definition of historian Richard Hofstadter:

I have neither the competence or desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to people with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.   

This is the significance: insane expressions and actions from people who are completely sane.

Watergate was not the half of it. Third Reich admirer G Gordon Liddy, of the Committee to Re-elect the President, unveiled at one meeting a range of outlandish plans for political opponents, including kidnapping, drugging and a ‘commando raid’ on the Democratic convention. The FBI monitored and infiltrated any activist group deemed even remotely subversive and wiretapped senators’ conversations: in addition, there was a list of 26,000 Americans ‘who should be rounded up and interned in the event of a ‘national emergency”. The CIA kept stockpiles of Bond-style weapons including ‘dart-launchers disguised as fountain pens, canes or umbrellas, a car engine-head bolt that gave off a toxic substance when heated, a device hidden in a flourescent bulb that released a biological poison when the light was switched on.’ 

The American 1970s are embodied for me in the figure of Hunter S Thompson, a political journalist clinically paranoid and apparently insane – and yet right as often as he was wrong. His portrait of Richard Nixon is complemented in Strange Days Indeed. The thirty-seventh President comes off as boorish, chippy and resentful, permanently wrecked on insomnia and alcohol, and – like many world leaders at the time  – as paranoid of his enemies as they were of him. It’s interesting to note that Nixon’s willingness to talk with Mao Tse-Sung has been seen in retrospect as evidence of his diplomatic liberalism, when in fact the friendship was genuine: both were swivel-eyed monsters who were more interested in crushing internal dissent than fighting their supposed ideological nemeses. Nixon’s craziness was exemplified by his compulsive self-taping. He thought that those hundreds of hours –  rants about intellectuals, hippies, blacks and Jews – would make history exonerate him.

Like many great non-fiction books, Wheen’s reads like a novel: there’s no sense of connectedness, the times were too insane for that, but Wheen’s gentle, clubbable style ensures that the book barrels along like an afternoon in the pub with an entertaining friend. It’s only at the end of Strange Days Indeed that Wheen addresses what the reader has been experiencing throughout: ‘flickering glimpses of déjà vu.‘ A annihilated economy, political discourse dissolving into a riot of extremes, state monitoring of citizens, the craziest and silliest ideas gaining power and life – it looks like we are heading for another golden age of paranoia. To quote Wheen’s introduction: ‘Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.’


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 5th, 2009.