Book Review: Strange Days Indeed, The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen
Posted by democratist on December 24, 2010
24th December 2010,
In line with our policy of writing book reviews for titles that have already been available for some time (a result of both sloth and impecuniosity), Democratist recently acquired a copy of Francis Wheen’s excellent Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia. (4th Estate, 2009) through the good offices of www.Amazon.co.uk, and for the very reasonable sum of £0.01 (plus £2.75 post and packaging).
Strange Days is essentially a political and social history of the 1970’s, focused principally on the US and UK, which seeks to highlight the developing “mélange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever” that characterized much of the decade, as the optimism of the 1960’s came face to face with (among other things); Watergate, the 3-day week, Baader-Meinhof, the IRA, the growth of religious cults, and the popularity of conspiracy theories.
As such, the book provides an especially interesting re-introduction to the decade to those of us who were born during it but were too young to understand much about what was going on at the time (and which was considered too recent for us to be taught as history at school).
The pages dealing with the origins of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland were especially revelatory in this regard; Democratist grew up under the very real threat of IRA bombs, but was only faintly aware of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s, or the 1972 “bloody Sunday” massacre (for which the UK government has only recently apologised).
However, while Democratist strongly recommends Strange Days to our readers, from our own particular perspective, we have to say that we think the book might perhaps have benefitted from a few extra paragraphs about the role of the Soviet bloc during the period.
This is firstly because the USSR and its satellites were a political arena in which paranoia played a key role, not just in terms of the KGB’s repression of the Soviet people, or the commonly held views about capitalist/Zionist conspiracies of their senior staff (see “The Mitrokhin Archive“), but also in their tendency to pander to the Kremlin’s paranoid fears of western aggression in their intelligence reporting, culminating in participation in operation RYAN in the early 1980’s, which in turn led to tensions over the NATO Able Archer ’83 exercise, that brought the possibility of nuclear war closer than it had been at any time since 1962.
The second reason to bring the Soviets and their fellow travelers into the picture is that, in a number of cases, their hand is visible in stoking political instability in the West, as well as the fires of paranoia initially lit by Watergate (and other US intelligence abuses). The promotion of instability is clearly demonstrated in the case of Baader-Meinhof, who had extensive help from the East German Stasi after 1977. More subtlety, the KGB was involved through its program of “active measures” in the promotion of numerous conspiracy theories throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s (especially in relation to the Kennedy assassination) which did much to heighten the “conspiratorial fever” to which Wheen refers.