Remember that (still ongoing) discussion about why it was wrong for Scott Wolter to claim an honorary master’s degree? Well, this morning I received an email from a clinical psychologist who told me that “with a BA in Fine Arts, your opinions on Scott Wolter have marginal weight […] your posting of scientific opinions and judgments is […] inappropriate.” I informed the psychologist that my BA is in archaeology, just like Wolter holds a BS in geology, and if it’s inappropriate for me to render judgment, then so too must it be wrong for Wolter. As you might gather, the assumption of legitimacy through appearances in the media and claimed credentials turns into a cudgel to stifle opposition—which is frankly amazing to hear from a supporter of Scott Wolter given Wolter’s own repeated claim that any interested amateur should be given equal standing in rewriting history.
But that wasn’t the worst part of the morning: I also learned that shortly before his death last year the late Philip Coppens was planning a children’s show to “educate” children on ancient mysteries and extraterrestrials!
I discovered this on the Intrepid Magazine blog where it was discussed in the context of a three-decade-old French children’s cartoon that explored ancient astronaut themes. Called Once Upon a Time… Space, the show featured planets where ancient Earth astronauts mated with and fathered alien races, where Greek gods were actually aliens, and where ancient astronauts, Atlantis, and psychic powers sit uneasily together. The Intrepid blogger credited this show with inspiring his love of ancient history, and he took to task skeptics who express outrage at the bizarre ideas of Ancient Aliens:
…as an adult I can appreciate how this old French cartoon & its predecessor infused in me a fascination with ancient history at an early age, by teaching me to apply a long-view perspective to cultural events; all this while expanding my horizons with the promise of what the future had in store for us, if only we entertained the notion of “What if…”
I find that a false notion. Are we seriously to believe that ancient history can only be fascinating when it is cloaked in lies? When I was eight, I developed an interest in ancient history and world cultures because of Count Duckula, which sent its hero to the pyramids of Egypt, lost cities in African jungles, medieval castles, etc.—but Count Duckula didn’t ask us to believe in the Loch Ness monster or risen mummies or Tarzan; they were presented as literary and mythical situations—a fantasy.
It’s the same argument I’ve heard over and again: There is no harm in alternative history so long as it “inspires” people to learn more. But this is the lazy person’s way out. It suggests that there is no way to make history interesting on its own, that awe and wonder come from the supernatural and not the real. Yet children (and let’s be frank here—we’re talking about boys, since no one ever thinks about girls’ interest in aliens) love pirates and castles and cowboys and dinosaurs without the need to spice them up with aliens or psychic powers. The argument from boredom is the cynical soul of world-weary adults projecting onto children their own longing for a touch of the divine in a world of taxes, work, obligation, and struggle.
Which brings us to Joe Rogan, whose Syfy show I thought was poorly assembled and somewhat boring, but who has something useful to say about alternative history. He spoke in an interview with i09 back in July but which I only found out about today:
You see, they’re not just looking to find out if UFOs are real. What they’re looking for is something magical and something mysterious that hasn’t been discovered yet. They’re looking for some excitement in their boring lives. One of the ways that I describe these people — and it’s really quite unfortunate — is that they’re a bunch of unfuckable white dudes. I haven’t found a single black guy looking for Bigfoot. I’ve look[ed] high and large, and it’s all white dudes in their late forties and fifties. It’s all midlife crisis people. They’re not the happiest people in the world — and no disrespect — but they’re looking for things to be real that aren’t necessarily real.
This exaggerates somewhat, of course, and perhaps more applicable to UFO and Bigfoot hunters than alternative historians. Giorgio Tsoukalos is only three years older than I am (and I’m 32), and both Scott Wolter and Philip Coppens have wives. I think the age issue has more to do with these beliefs attracting a greater number of people from groups that have the free time to march out in the woods spending their days looking for mysteries, and that tends to fall into three categories: college students, the marginally employed or unemployed, and retirees. Not surprisingly, these are also the key audiences for alternative speculation. Joe Rogan notes as much when he mentions the “despair they have in their communities” as one reason the economically disadvantaged embrace anti-elite conspiracy theories:
The more you talk to people about UFOs or Bigfoot or psychic phenomenon, the more you start to realize that the same sort of thinking exists almost across the board. And it almost stops being about the subject — it’s more about the idea of mystery than anything else — this recurring theme of someone trying to figure something out, and trying to find something that makes their otherwise mundane life more interesting.
Rogan espoused a number of conspiracy theories, including the idea that the moon landing was a hoax, before his “investigations” into the details of the paranormal claims led him to discover how much of paranormal advocacy is actually the working out of social and cultural anxieties. This is one reason that Ancient Aliens for Kids is such a terrible idea, and another reason to gawk in wonder at the unresolved contradiction in the alternative community whereby academic opinion and academic elites are ridiculed and accused of all manner of horrors but academic honors and scientific authority are so desirable that people like convicted scammer and ancient alien theorist Sean David Morton take on unaccredited “Ph.D.-equivalency” degrees and John Ward claims a “full honorary Ph. Doctorate” in archaeology awarded by a Knights Templar fan club.
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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