Human beings happen to come equipped with two hands, each of which ends in five fingers, whereupon most cultures have constructed numbers on a base of ten. On top of that, journalism trades in stereotypes. So here we have biological and cultural reasons why the habit of branding the decades with adjectives is well-nigh irresistible. No sooner does a year end in a nine than the media are already chatting about what the decade meant, what defined it—there must be a theme in any ten-year-long pudding. The ’20s roared, the ’90s were gay (the 1890s, that is). This is a game everybody can play.
But not everybody can play it as a spirited romp. Francis Wheen, one of the brighter lights in English lit-journalism these days, makes a potent and rollicking case that the ‘ ’70s shrieked.’ Paranoia was the zeitgeist. From the spring in 1970 when Nixon invaded Cambodia, to 1979, when the Islamic Revolution drove out the Shah and Mrs. Thatcher threw the Labour Party out of power, everyday order went smash almost everywhere from strike-damaged Britain to culturally revolutionary China, from Idi Amin, who while murdering 300,000 Ugandans took time out to declare himself “Member of the Excellent Order of the Source of the Nile, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire,” to Frederick Forsyth’s African coup attempt to promote a novel (or was it the other way round?). The ’70s were a horror show, a pastiche of “apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever,” a freak show as crazy-sublime as it was murderous.
The parade of crazies who took charge of vast populations is mind-rattlingly impressive. At the front of Wheen’s parade, of course, marched the mad Nixon, he of the plots against Chile and Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, the anti-Semitic ravings, and enemies lists. Mao Zedong roused millions to shake little red books against schoolteachers while his wife, Jiang Qing, drove birds and cicadas off the grounds of her Beijing estate, and Lin Biao, China’s Number Two, was so phobic about water that he refused to bathe for years. When Mao struck preemptively against Lin, Lin fled the country, only to be betrayed by his daughter, who tipped off Mao, resulting in Lin rushing off in a plane that hadn’t been refueled and crashing to his death in Mongolia. In sum, “[T]he most populous country on earth was governed by a pair of raging hypochondriacs and psychological basket cases, each plotting the other’s downfall.” Meanwhile, in Britain, Harold Wilson planned to blackmail the leader of the Liberal Party over a homosexual affair, and Wilson’s political secretary blew up at lunch, on her second day in office, because small fish were staring up at her from the plate. The reader may be forgiven the impression that the world’s sanest top leader in those years was Leonid Brezhnev—although under his guidance the Soviet Union discovered the pleasures of sending dissidents to mental hospitals because they suffered from “paranoid reformist ideas … of obstinate character.”
The opposition veered bonkers, too. The American Weather Underground, the German Baader-Meinhof “Red Army Faction,” the Italian Red Brigades, the Japanese Red Army, and other cracked and lethal warriors formed a virtual International whose savage pizzazz not infrequently aroused the enthusiasm of more sedentary cheerleaders like the British Red Mole, which, with pragmatist insouciance, found kidnappings and executions “definitely useful.”
As distresses in many flavors flooded the world, fantasies of uncanny deliverance unsurprisingly flourished. The BBC featured Uri Geller, who purported to bend cutlery with his mental powers. Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, a book maintaining that humanity was nourished by visitations from extraterrestrials, was a global best-seller, while an American astronomer founded a “Center for UFO Studies” and coined the expression, “close encounters of the third kind” in 1972. Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth is, alas, missing from Wheen’s account, and Hunter S. Thompson puts in only a glancing appearance.
But dread was only part of what drove the ’70s world to distraction. Blind, flaming rage was its indispensable complement. The Strangelovian Cold War, Vietnam, and race-based hysteria rhymed. Rulers were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Even paranoids had real animus, as Delmore Schwartz didn’t say. Thwarted, twisted, rancid hatred was the world’s currency. In the absence of the furies, screeching, unreasoning fear, if left to itself, would have driven the likes of Nixon and Mao to cringing in their respective corners whimpering for help. It was the malign alignment of fear and antagonism that was so virulent. Either some mysterious synchronicity was at work, as Jungians (and Arthur Koestler) thought, or the process was infectious. Wheen resists theorizing. I vote for the latter.
One running theme throughout Wheen’s jamboree of lunacy is the way in which life, especially power, imitated bad art, which in turn … well, you know the cascade. When CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton tore the organization apart looking for KGB moles, it was as if John le Carré was writing the script—except that perhaps Angleton went several freakouts too far over the top for the novelist (who spent the ’70s on his splendid Smiley trilogy, unmentioned by Wheen). The overdrugged sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, for example, “became trapped in one of his own novels,” writing the FBI to report that “a covert organisation involving politics, illegal weapons, etc.” was pressuring him (and other novelists) “to place coded information in future novels ‘to be read by the right people here and there.’” (He hadn’t even heard yet of G. Gordon Liddy or the shlock spy-thriller writer E. Howard Hunt.) The chain of evidence running through movies and popular books to soft minds is sufficient to put a material base under puffier, Hegelian notions of the zeitgeist.
Bad ideas traveled fast without even the benefit of the Internet. Heavy drugs helped (though Nixon didn’t seem to need anything more than alcohol). Conspiracy theories spawned theories of who benefited from conspiracy theories. There was gold at the end of Gravity’s Rainbow. Even Oliver Stone was not necessary. For example, Wheen notes, “It was A Clockwork Orange which convinced [Arthur] Bremer that he must shoot George Wallace [because he couldn’t get close to his first choice, Nixon], and Bremer’s assassination diaries then inspired Paul Schrader to create the character of Travis Bickle. So: without Bremer there would be no Taxi Driver, and without Taxi Driver John Hinckley Jr. wouldn’t have become so obsessed by Jodie Foster that, to prove himself a worthy rival to Bickle, he shot Ronald Reagan.” He’s not making this stuff up.
Wheen slathers his prose with cleverness so cheerily that you could almost forget that this was the decade of Nixon’s air war and the Khmer Rouge. Spiro Agnew was “never one to use a rapier when a misfiring blunderbuss was within reach.” Nixon was “the bugger bugged.” A White House operative remarked about an assistant attorney general who specialized in conspiracy trials that he was inclined to overreach: “Mardian didn’t know the difference between a kid with a beard and a kid with a bomb.” (This time Wheen misses the irony: the “colleague” was Tom Charles Huston, whose eponymous plan for black-box burglaries and mass surveillance was shot down as extreme by J. Edgar Hoover, who no doubt feared that the FBI would be outflanked.)
The paranoid style wears new wrinkles these days—birthers, truthers, ACORNers, death panels. Wheen knows it: “Reading about the Seventies, you may sometimes have a…hallucinatory sensation; but when you look up and gaze out at the twenty-first century you may experience something even more unsettling—flickering glimpses of déjà vu.” Those who chortle at the stupidity of the past are condemned to be very afraid.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, has published two novels among his twelve books. A third, Undying, will be published by Counterpoint.