Serious Fun

Counting Back the Years

The mordant wit of Brit Francis Wheen zeros in on that lame and sickly decade, the '70s.

Book Cover Two (excellent) reasons to read Francis Wheen’s at times hilarious, other times scary Strange Days Indeed: The 1970’s: The Golden Age of Paranoia (Public Affairs) are Wheen’s mordant humor and high intelligence, and that he is dead on in his assessment of that historical sinkhole known as the seventies (OK, OK, that’s three reasons).

If you missed his previous tome, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, you would do well to remedy that lapse posthaste (take my word on this one):
By the end of the twentieth century, almost any unorthodox business method could be justified as a paradigm shift, even if it seemed uncannily similar to an ancient scam that had been perpetrated at regular intervals for several centuries. “When you see reference to a new paradigm,” John Kenneth Galbraith said in 1998, “you should always, under all circumstances, take cover…There was never a paradigm so new and so wonderful as the one that covered John Law and the South Sea Bubble—until the day of disaster.
Strange Days Indeed is not only (almost) a comprehensive catalogue of nouns and proper nouns (I forgive Wheen’s failure to include the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever in this temporal inventory) that I am prepared to consign to amnesia, but a well-considered explication of that decade’s zeitgeist(s) and a reminder that no epoch or era has a monopoly on nut jobs:
The paranoid style exemplified by Nixon and [Harold] Wilson—and Madame Mao and Harry Caul, Idi Amin, and Bobby Fischer, the Rev. Jim Jones and the Baader Meinhof Gang, Taxi Driver and Gravity’s Rainbow—saturated the 1970s. Conservatives feared that the very fabric of the state was under imminent threat—whether from communists, gays, dope smokers, or even rock stars. (Elvis Presley warned Nixon that the Beatles had been ‘a real force for anti-American spirit’; John Lennon was duly added to the President’s enemies list and put under surveillance by the FBI.) In Britain, retired generals formed private armies to save the country from anarchy, industrial moguls plotted coups against the government, and malcontents in the security services bugged and burgled their way across London in a quest for proof that the Prime Minister was employed by the KGB.
Francis Wheen lives in England where he is deputy editor of Private Eye and the editor of Lord Gnome’s Literary Companion, Private Eye’s compendium of book reviews. Among other accomplishments, he has written a well-regarded biography of Karl Marx—apparently making him one of the rare political leftists who has actually read Karl Marx. Wheen occasionally (but not frequently enough to suit me) contributes to American media, and joins Barbara Ehrenreich, Joe Bagneant, Christopher Hitchens, Gail Collins, and Joe Conason and Robert Sheer as commentators whose work I always read with relish and gusto.
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