Note: This article first appeared earlier this week in my Substack newsletter.
Not long ago, I wrote an essay about the supposed “curse” of James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder, inspired by the recent announcement of the rediscovery of one of the few original parts of the car to have survived since the crash that killed Dean and totaled the car in 1955. The transaxle assembly went up for auction at the end of May, and the auction ended in the most predictable and disappointing way possible—with all of my various intellectual interests colliding into a flaming mass of stupidity. Paranormal cable TV star Zak Bagans purchased the part for $382,000 in order to install it in his Las Vegas museum dedicated to horror and the paranormal, where he will present the “cursed” car part in an exhibit room dedicated to James Dean and the occult.
Note: This piece first ran earlier this week in my Substack newsletter. I am cross-posting it here.
A firestorm erupted this weekend in intellectual circles when economic philosopher Guy Sorman told the Sunday Times that the famed—and long dead—French intellectual Michel Foucault was a pedophile who sexually exploited young boys in Tunisia in the late 1960s. Sorman said that he witnessed boys eager to trade sexual favors for Foucault’s money. “They were eight, nine, ten years old, he was throwing money at them and would say ‘let’s meet at 10pm at the usual place’,” a nearby cemetery, Sorman told the Times. “He would make love there on the gravestones with young boys. The question of consent wasn’t even raised.”
Last week, the U.S. edition of the French fashion magazine L’Officiel ran a digital spread about James Dean’s clothes to mark the actor’s ninetieth birthday. The spread, written by the magazine’s digital editor, Italian journalist Simone Vertua, fell victim to fake history, spreading very strange lies from a trashy recent faux-biography and deploying a digitally altered photograph to support untrue claims. Granted, we don’t usually hold fashion magazines to exceptional standards of excellence, but it’s still disturbing to find the plague of fake history infecting yet another medium.
I have a new article out today in Slate magazine examining Joe McCarthy, Tucker Carlson, and UFOs in light connection with masculinity issues and pop culture.
On a cold December night in 1950, red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy spent a charity dinner at Washington’s Sulgrave Club trading insults with liberal journalist Drew Pearson. McCarthy had attacked Pearson on the floor of the Senate, calling for a boycott of his radio show. Pearson had attacked McCarthy on air and in his newspaper column, accusing the senator of lying about communist infiltration of the American government. McCarthy had recklessly accused the State Department of harboring hundreds of communists, sparking a massive investigation and an ongoing purge. After dinner, the two ran into each other in the cloakroom and their conflict turned physical. McCarthy kneed Pearson in the groin, and Sen. Richard Nixon had to pull McCarthy off Pearson.
Read the rest at Slate magazine by clicking here.
Two years ago, feminist author Naomi Wolf faced controversy when historians noted that her new book, Outrages, based on her doctoral thesis, contained important historical errors in its account of what Wolf claimed was violent systemic oppression of gay men in Victorian England. Wolf had misunderstood an old legal term, “death recorded,” to refer to an execution instead of a suspended or commuted death sentence. Thus, she had claimed that gay men were executed regularly at the Old Bailey through the nineteenth century, when in fact Britain’s last execution for sodomy occurred in the early days of Victoria’s reign. Wolf’s U.S. publisher pulped the book in the wake of the controversy, but two years later, a new one emerged.
Today, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book Extraterrestrial was released. It was mostly as I expected it to be, though even I wasn’t quite expecting it to contain so much discussion of the author’s obsession with middle-twentieth-century existentialist philosophy, of the Camus variety, or his apparent inability to understand that this was neither the culmination of all human intellectual achievement, nor an exceptionally influential school of thought in terms of modern intellectual history. I am not reviewing Extraterrestrial as a book because, frankly, its discussion of the evidence that the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is an extraterrestrial space probe is simply beyond my ability to evaluate, being neither an astronomer nor a physicist. Those with much more training than I have found reason to doubt Loeb’s conclusions, and even Loeb frames his conclusions as a “wager,” like Pascal’s, claiming that it’s better to assume it’s E.T. and be wrong than doubt and be right, since finding aliens will give humanity a philosophical orgasm of sorts. I can do little more than shrug and say that the non-specialist reader will likely see in the arguments a reflection of whatever idea he or she brings to them.
Before I begin, I will briefly note news from Britain, that Blackpool’s council has authorized the use of compulsory purchase (what Americans call “eminent domain”) to use the force of government to acquire land for the long-gestating Chariots of the Gods theme park to be operated by the company that now owns Erich von Däniken’s so-called “intellectual” property. Final permission to build the amusement park hasn’t happened yet, so the immersive Chariots entertainment experience is still years away. And now, on to more… well, I almost said “pleasant” thoughts, but that isn’t quite right.
On this, the last full day of the Trump Administration, it’s worth spending a moment considering the final insult to history that Donald Trump’s stooges lobbed on their way out the door. Trump’s 1776 Commission released a partisan report on American history that actual historians, journalists, and pundits have rightly excoriated for its propagandistic conservative tone, its excuses for slavery, and its relentless claims that liberalism is anti-American. (James Grossman of the American Historical Association called it a “hack job” designed to foment division, which is going some for a guy who praised the History channel, home to Ancient Aliens, as vital for “stimulating and nourishing” interest in history.) I’m not interested in going through those well-covered problems, but I do want to point out a couple of the less noticed parts of the report, highlighting its mendacity.
For years now, I have ended each trip around the sun with a summary of the preceding twelve months in fringe history, space aliens, and the weird. Most years, these summaries run into the thousands of words because so much happened. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the American presidential election severely curtailed the number of extreme claims made about ancient history, as conspiracy theorists turned their attention toward disease and politics. Last year, I said I was ready for a long, difficult year to end, and now those look like the good old days. This year I published a new book and wrote two more, and I look forward to what I hope will be big things next year when publishers get a look at my newest manuscript. In the meantime, we can look back in sadness and anger.
I have now sent my agent the final revision to my book proposal for my book about James Dean, flying saucers, and midcentury panics. My agent seems confident that publishers will be interested, and it is out of my hands now. I imagine this is the point when I urge Apollo and the Muses to intervene. “Happy is he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his lips. Hail, children of Zeus! Give honor to my song!”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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