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Francis Wheen's Strange Days is a very funny but deeply personal and therefore idiosyncratic look at the 1970s. As the subtitle suggests, he takes as his starting point the premise that the defining characteristic of the decade was paranoia and proceeds to demonstrate that a number of people were indeed afflicted by it. Necessarily, he begins with Richard Nixon and his administration but also profiles such characters as Philip K. Dick, Uri Geller, Frederick Forsyth, Norman Mailer, Charles Manson, Carlos the Jackal, Chairman Mao, the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, Idi Amin, etc. The details of their varied psychoses make for very amusing reading. It's only when you step back from the series of sketches that you realize the overall picture doesn't jibe.

On reflection, there are several fundamental flaws with his thesis. To begin with, as the old joke goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't they're not after you. My freshman year in college, when he was on his book tour for Will, G. Gordon Liddy came to Colgate for a lecture. He was arrogant, bombastic, unapologetic and very, very funny. He took obvious pleasure in goading liberal listeners and they reacted exactly as he hoped, making for an entertaining spectacle. At one point, two co-eds stood up and complained that he kept referring to them as ladies rather than as women. His response: "I assume that you are ladies until your behavior demonstrates otherwise."

He said one thing though that always struck me as somewhat poignant and, while not a justification for the vile Richard Nixon, at least an insight into how the Administration got itself into such a mess. He said that he did what he did because he genuinely felt like the institutions of the country he loved were under assault and that he needed to be as extreme in their defense as his opponents were in their attacks.

Mr. Wheen is so enthusiastic about making paranoia and extreme behavior seem the norm of the times that it's hard to see how he could disagree with Mr. Liddy's conclusion. The various paranoiacs may have been locked in a closed loop of action and reaction, but they were certainly attacking one another, some with more justification than the others.

Second, while a president of the United States is undeniably a significant figure, Richard M. Nixon was warped, twisted little man with a towering inferiority complex long before the 1970s. No matter when he achieved power he was going to misuse it. Most of the rest of the figures in Mr. Wheen's drama though were pretty marginal. The Symbionese Liberation Army had to kidnap an heiress before anyone ever heard of them and Mr. Dick was never more than a pulp novelist. Even Idi Amin may have led a nation, but it was one few Americans could find on a map.

And the inclusion of such disparate lunatics as Dick and Amin may represent the biggest problem. The writer was no less crazy, but he was rather harmless, whereas the dictator was a mass murder and ethnic cleanser. For that matter, it's all well and good to make Nixon the poster boy for the decade, but he got in trouble for a "third-rate burglary" while Mao was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his countrymen. The differences in scale of the disordered souls discussed here is simply too great to justify lumping them all together.

Nonetheless, while the book fails as matter of coherent argument, it works well as a string of vignettes about the craziness of the time.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Francis Wheen Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Francis Wheen
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Francis Wheen (
    -BIO: Francis Wheen (
    -BOOK SITE: Strange Days (Harper Collins)
    -GOOGLE BOOKS: Francis Wheen
    -ESSAY: It can't go on like this (Francis Wheen, 22 May 2008, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: Francis Wheen's top 10 modern delusions (, 3 February 2004)
    -ESSAY: Crystal Balls, Primal Screams: Francis Wheen on the monsters of Downing Street (Francis Wheen, Summer 2003, New Humanist)
    -AUDIO EXCERPT: Francis Wheen Reads from Strange Days Indeed (Feifei Sun, February 25, 2010, Vanity Fair)
    -ESSAY: The poet of dialectics: Karl Marx's Das Kapital is a ground-breaking work of economic analysis. But, argues Francis Wheen, it is also an unfinished literary masterpiece which, with its multi-layered structure, can be read as a Gothic novel, a Victorian melodrama, a Greek tragedy or a Swiftian satire (Francis Wheen, 7/08/06, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The spy left out in the cold: Francis Wheen on the hounding by the authorities of MI5 whistleblower David Shayler (Francis Wheen, 8/25/99, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Diary (Francis Wheen, 16 February 2004, New Statesman)
    -AUDIO: Marx's 'Das Kapital' Lives On in Capitalist Age (Francis Wheen,November 28, 2007, NPR)
    -AUDIO ESSAY: Free Speech and Religious Hatred (Francis Wheen, July 14, 2004 , NPR)
    -ESSAY: Gurus and gibberish: Francis Wheen on the snake-oils and quacks of our age (Francis Wheen, Jan/Feb 2004, New Humanist)
    -REVIEW: of John Wilkes by Arthur H. Cash (Francis Wheen, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Lost Orwell ed by Peter Davison (Francis Wheen, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of On Rumours: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done By Cass R Sunstein (Francis Wheen, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies By Andy Beckett (Francis Wheen, Literary Review)
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: Voodoo Histories with Francis Wheen and David Aaronovitch
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Francis Wheen on Strange Days (Skeptic)
    -INTERVIEW: Britain's own Watergate scandal (shurely shome mishtake? Ed): Francis Wheen tells Ian Burrell of a decade of paranoia when all journalists dreamed of being the next Woodward and Bernstein (Ian Burrell, 14 September 2009, Independent)
    -PROFILE: A life in writing: 'It seems that whatever subject I pick, no matter how obscure, by time of publication it is absolutely of the moment' (Interview by Nicholas Wroe, 8/29/09, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Strange days with Francis Wheen (Independent, 6 January 2010)
    -INTERVIEW: A brief history of bollocks: Francis Wheen talks to Brendan O'Neill about creationism, McDonald's and the new anti-Enlightenment. (Brendan O'Neill, 5/26/04, spiked)
    -INTERVIEW: In the dark (Joshua Glenn, June 27, 2004, Boston Globe)
    -INTERVIEW: Idiot Proof with Francis Wheen<./a>< (NPR, June 23, 2004)
-AUDIO ESSAY: IN OUR TIME'S GREATEST PHILOSOPHER: Karl Marx (1818-1883) (advocated by Francis Wheen, In Our Times: BBC)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Broadcaster and author Francis Wheen (Presenter: Steve Austin & Alan Bonsall, 28 September 2005 , ABC Queensland)
    -ARTICLE: Wheen: show me the Kapital to make 'Karl Marx the Movie' (Oliver Duff, 27 February 2007, Independent)
    -ARCHIVES: wheen (Independent)
    -ARCHIVES: wheen (New Statesman)
    -ARCHIVES: Francis Wheen (The Spectator)
    -ARCHIVES: "francis wheen" (Daily Telegraph)
    -ARCHIVES: "francis wheen" (Times of London)
    -ARCHIVES: "francis wheen" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Days of Paranoia by Francis Wheen (Anthony Daniels, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (David Aaronovitch, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Dominic Sandbrook, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Christopher Hart, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Anthony Holden, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Nigel Farnsdale, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Peter Carlson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Todd Gitlin, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Andrew Anthony, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Andy Beckett, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Denis MacShane, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Christopher Hirst, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Simon O'Hagan, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Brendan O'Neill, American Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (Ellen Wernecke, AV Club)
    -REVIEW: of Strange Days (W. Scott Poole, PopMatters)
    -REVIEW: of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (Ferdinand Mount, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (John Gray, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (Johann Hari, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (Suzanne Moore, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (Philip Hensher, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (Will Cohu, Daily Telegraph
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (Noel Malcolm, Daily Telegraph
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (Colin MacCabe, Open Democracy)
    -REVIEW: of Mumbo Jumbo (Julian Wilson, Socialist World)
    -REVIEW: of Books that Shook the World: Das Kapital by Francis Wheen (Ziauddin Sardar, Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Das Kapial (Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Das Kapital (John Gray, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Das Kapital (Paul Hamilton, Workers' Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of Das Kapital (Toby Saul, New Humanist)
    -REVIEW: of Who Was Charlotte Bach? by Francis Wheen (Dot Wordsworth, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Charlotte Bach (Michael Bywater, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Charlotte Bach (Paul Bailey, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx: a Life by Francis Wheen (Anthony Flew, The Freeman)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (Sylvia Nasar, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (Simon Evans, Birmingham Post)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (William Leith, Sunday Herald)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (Andrew Merrifield, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (Rob Stout, CE Review)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (Tariq Ali, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (London Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx Peter Morgan, International Socialism Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (TONY SAUNOIS, Socialism Today)
    -REVIEW: of Karl Marx (Jenny Diski, London Review of Books)
    -TV REVIEW: of Lavender List by Francis Wheen: The truth about Wilson's 'lavender list' (Joe Haines, 28 Feb 2006, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Tom Driberg: His Life and Indiscretions by Francis Wheen (Christopher Hitchens, London Review of Books)

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