We often dislike in others what we fear in ourselves - that much is true of eras as it is of people. Particular hostility and ridicule is frequently directed towards the Seventies, but is that attitude as revealing as it is unfair?
In addition to being, in the phrase coined by James Lileks, the decade that taste forgot, the Seventies saw paranoid conspiracy thrillers become mainstream Hollywood fare and an American President condemned by the White House tape recordings that he had secretly authorised.
It was also the period during which a serving British MP, John Stonehouse, faked his own death only to be found later in Melbourne living under an assumed name. The local police who came looking for him thought he might actually be the missing peer Lord Lucan.
With wit and wisdom, English author and journalist Francis Wheen in his latest book Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia tells the story of world leaders such as Richard Nixon, Chairman Mao and Harold Wilson, tyrants like Idi Amin and mercenaries like “Mad” Mike Hoare wreaking havoc in newly post-colonial Africa. European terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Group and the IRA murdered civilians with abandon, while practitioners of the paranormal such as Uri Geller claimed to be able to bend spoons with the power of his mind.
Australia was not untouched by the pervasive feeling of paranoia and weirdness present during this era. Some claimed that Gough Whitlam’s dismissal had been engineered by the CIA, as Wheen notes, while others believed that a few years earlier Harold Holt had been snatched by a Chinese submarine while swimming in the surf near Portsea.
“Slice the Seventies where you will”, writes Wheen, “the flavour is unmistakable - a pungent melange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever”. He adds: “The world we now inhabit, and often take for granted, was gestated in that unpromising decade.”
Strange Days Indeed is the immensely enjoyable prequel to the author’s previous book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, in which Wheen brilliantly and hilariously laid out and dissected the human folly and popular delusions of the 1980s and after.
Paranoia is a kind of narcissism that makes us feel important, even if at the same time we are terrified. “One of paranoia’s beguiling charms is that it puts you at the centre of the story, whether as the victim of the shadowy schemers or as the person who forces them into the spotlight”, writes Wheen.
Political leaders are, it seems, especially susceptible to this “solipsistic pathology”. According to Wheen, key figures of the era of the Seventies spent much of their time hatching conspiracies as well as seeing spies and assassins everywhere.
Paranoia, like other forms of mass delusion, is a highly infectious mind virus. “The mixture of panic, paranoia, and pessimism that characterised the 1970s engendered a peculiar hybrid mood - gloomy yet feverish, torpid yet hysterical”.
And it wasn’t all in the mind. As Wheen amply demonstrates, real events such as the Watergate scandal seemed to confirm the truth of elaborate plots on the part of governments, their agencies and malevolent corporations. “The point about paranoid interpretations of the world - at least those that have any purchase on the popular imagination - is that they contain some seeds of truth, even if a wild jungle of nonsense then sprouts from those seeds.”
Though the look and atmosphere of the Seventies is irretrievable now except through the time travel fantasy of a TV show like Life on Mars, the mood of the decade continues to shape our world. “What do the cultural and political architects of the twenty-first century owe, for good or ill, to the Seventies?” asks Wheen. “Although some of their shiny new structures can be seen as a reaction against the baroque strangeness of that decade, many more are built directly on the foundations laid then.”
The advent of digital technology and the Internet has, if anything, made surveillance even more intrusive. The progression in technological reach may be seen when you watch the classic 1974 Watergate-era thriller The Conversation next to 1998’s Enemy of the State. Each movie features Gene Hackman in a similar role as the paranoid insider turned outsider, but the latter is a production mounted on a much more elaborate scale.
Politically, we have grown used to endless spin and accusations of cover-ups. Culturally, there is no shortage of big budget thrillers such as the Bourne trilogy to confirm fears of rogue intelligence agencies. The X Files, if not the truth, is out there.