It’s no secret that I have devoted considerable space to discussing the close connection between the collection of topics loosely grouped as “fringe history” and the alt-right and other extreme right groups. These connections were comprehensively documented by the sociologist Michael Barkun in his book A Culture of Conspiracy (2006, rev. 2013), a volume that made the case that extreme rightists had purposely and purposefully infiltrated ufology and related fringe fields in order to use them as a recruiting tool for extremist ideology. These connections became only more obvious in wake of the rise of Donald Trump, with Trump supporters such as Alex Jones, Jason Reza Jorjani, David Wilcock and others spouting a range of ancient astronaut and anti-government conspiracy theories that circle around white nationalism, anti-Semitism, and extreme conservative politics.
But some are unhappy with the association of ufology with the extreme right. One conservative writer recently argued that ufology and ancient astronauts and all of the related detritus of fringe history are really a liberal belief, while a leftist author is upset that the right is claiming ufology and wants to reclaim it for Marxism.
Frontpage Mag is a conservative publication founded by rightwing provocateur David Horowitz. In a recent article, a rightwing hack who specializes in Islamophobic and anti-leftist articles, claimed that UFOs are a delusion of the left and that Democrats are susceptible to a foolish belief in space aliens because they have lost faith in the United States. Horowitz tied his article to Democratic apparatchik John Podesta’s appearance on Ancient Aliens several months ago, and the article contains no new information.
He cites his claim to a 2013 Huffington Post/YouGov poll showing 58% of Democrats believe UFOs could be alien spacecraft, while 37% of Republicans agree. The poll found that 58% of self-identified Democrats polled either believed strongly or slightly in alien visitation. It also found an equally significant correlation between education level and UFO belief, which Horowitz ignored. In the survey, 60% of people with a high school diploma believed in UFOs while 37% of those with a college degree believed. Those numbers are nearly identical to the party affiliation number and therefore equally significant. But not to Horowitz.
Horowitz seized on the party ID to link Democrats to what he claimed were leftist “conspiracy theories” about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, meddling that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies and officials including the speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, a Republican, and even Pres. Trump, under duress yesterday, agree occurred:
It’s natural for them to believe the worst of a country they already distrust. The left’s core beliefs are a series of conspiracy theories about class, race and gender. These conspiracy theories explain everything from crime rates to poverty to social problems. Most leftist programs are geared toward fighting a conspiracy by white people, by men, by the wealthy and the middle class that doesn’t exist except in the minds of the left.
Certainly, there is irony in Frontpage using UFO conspiracies as a justification for a hackneyed irrational conspiracy theory that liberals are mentally deranged, irrational, and hateful.
On the other side, A. M. Gittlitz, a leftist writer of a Marxist bent, recently published a piece asserting that there was a long and proud Marxist tradition, mostly among Trotskyites, of embracing ufology as a cosmic alternative to capitalist reality. He outlines many of the efforts of Soviet and Russian writers, and their stooges in Europe, to promote space aliens as interstellar communists, including such familiar names to us as Peter Kolosimo, the Italian communist who made use of Soviet propaganda in his books and pretended that H. P. Lovecraft’s science fiction stories were true dispatches from the stars.
Glittiz, however, notes that in the United States, the loudest voices in ufology are rightwing nuts who rant about anti-government conspiracies and promote what I have described as racist and anti-Semitic views under the cover of ufology. All of Glittiz’s examples of leftist and Marxist ufologists date from the 1960s and 1970s, when there was still a utopian streak in American thought that mirrored, to an extent, the stated (if never honored) Marxist goals of equality for all. In those days, aliens were often imagined as alternate versions of human society, cosmic teachers who might show us a better way to live, and the province of hippies and utopians who had big plans for the Space Brothers. Today, we see aliens mostly as anal invaders and toothy monsters terrorizing the economically disadvantaged. There were and are exceptions, of course.
Glittiz is right that there was a Marxist ufology in the 1960s, but I think he is entirely too cheery in assuming that it was due to Soviet and communist love of science and a desire to find space comrades. The fact is that the Soviet Union produced most of its ancient astronaut material for Western consumption, published in English-language and French-language Western-facing magazines like Sputnik, even after the government began to crack down on the idea internally in the late 1960s. The Soviets carefully seeded the West with ancient astronaut material, providing “scientific” articles about ancient astronauts to writers like Kolosimo, Robert Charroux, and Erich von Däniken—who even traveled to Moscow to receive Soviet propaganda, despite being an ardent anti-socialist. These men happily cited Soviet scientists as allegedly credible alternatives to Western scholarship.
This brings me to what is perhaps the most important point: There are many leftists, liberals, Democrats, Marxists, and communists among the ranks of ufologists, ancient astronaut theorists, and believers. We could make a long list of them: Giorgio Tsoukalos of Ancient Aliens is an avowed liberal, and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid, who funded the Pentagon’s UFO program, are all Democrats. Kolosimo was a communist. Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier were socialists. Dozens of celebrities have embraced Ancient Aliens.
Ufology, as a field, was once populated by younger men, who grew older and more conservative over time. Similarly, there is no one political orientation for an ancient astronaut theorist.
But that doesn’t change the fact that the ancient astronaut theory is structurally conservative, with a small “c.”
I will use an example to help illustrate this. In my 2008 book Knowing Fear, I explain that the horror genre is structurally conservative. The premise of a horror story centers on the violation of the status quo and an effort to restore that status quo ante, thus going back to the way things were before the disruption. The element that violates the status quo, by definition, represents change, and therefore its suppression is an expression of the conservative desire to resist change. More often than not, this takes the form of the narrative “punishing” liberal behaviors, especially those revolving around sex and substances, or “punishing” efforts to discover new knowledge. Tradition and conformity are rewarded in the typical horror narrative.
There are of course exceptions. Get Out was an explicitly liberal horror movie, though it accomplished this by differentiating between small-c conservatism (keeping things the way they are) and capital-C Conservatism, the political ideology increasingly associated with white revanchism.
But the structural conservatism of horror doesn’t prevent the genre from being populated by decidedly liberal writers, like Stephen King, or from it being enjoyed by audiences that are primarily young and often liberal.
Similarly, ufology is a field that, on cable TV at least, attracts a young and liberal audience to messages that are produced, increasingly, by old, white conservatives. The ancient astronaut theory is structurally conservative because it reinforces traditional hierarchies under the grace of semi-divine aliens, asks us to view traditions and myths just as literally as our ancestors did, and attempts to reinvigorate the emotional and spiritual power of ancient traditions.
In both the ancient astronaut and horror fields, we see the result of structural conservatism manifest in a tendency toward racism—ancient astronaut theories denigrate the accomplishments of native peoples, while horror films are infamous for killing off the black character first—and an implicit acceptance of the idea that things were better / stronger / faster / more advanced in the past, which is in this conception the source and font of all tradition and power.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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