A couple of days ago, Giorgio Tsoukalos from Ancient Aliens appeared on KTLA’s weekend morning newscast to promote Alien Con. The fawning local anchors were overjoyed to be speaking with Tsoukalos, praising him effusively and giggling with excitement to be speaking with him. “You have your own meme!” one anchor, Lynette Romero, gushed. “I bet everybody wants to sit next to you at the dinner party!” she added later. Her co-anchor, Mark Mester, had trouble taking the whole thing seriously and at one point skipped his turn to question Tsoukalos and just laughed quietly.
But even in the puff piece, Tsoukalos still had trouble offering coherent unscripted thoughts about the intellectual underpinning of the ancient astronaut theory. Romero asked him what the “biggest revelation” about ancient astronauts to “come out of the convention so far” had been. Tsoukalos, seemingly surprised to be asked about evidence, instead said that “The convention has been tremendous” and declining to provide examples of actual new evidence. “It just goes to show how a TV show like Ancient Aliens has resonated with a lot of people,” Tsoukalos said.
It is telling that the segment did not involve any substantive discussion of ancient astronauts, only the cult of celebrity surrounding the cable TV staple.
The segment ended with Romero arranging a “hair-off” between Tsoukalos and her co-anchor. Mester asked Tsoukalos what product he uses in his hair. “The electric socket,” Tsoukalos replied.
“This is silly, very silly,” Mester said.
I think that just about summed up the intellectual impact of the ancient astronaut theory. But it is also a powerful example of how the media serve to normalize extreme and even harmful ideas by recasting them as “fun.” As far as the KTLA producers were concerned, this was little more than a celebrity appearance to promote a fan convention, and the actual content of Ancient Aliens or the message it delivers about history, science, and scholarship were irrelevant. This was just grist for the mill. By normalizing Tsoukalos as a celebrity, and letting him squirm out of having to defend, even minimally, his positions, KTLA contributed to the impression that the ancient astronaut theory is merely a kooky entertainment option and lifestyle choice, not a serious postmodern attack on the integrity of historiography, archaeology, and the scientific method.
It is in his capacity as celebrity that Tsoukalos is most dangerous. He lacks the intellectual chops to create his own material—he steals it all from his mentor, Erich von Däniken—and lacks the talent or the drive to produce books like other ancient astronaut theorists. Instead, he has made himself into a living cartoon, a cuddly avatar of a hypothesis born of a mixture of colonialist, imperialist, and racist beliefs; Soviet propaganda; and postmodern and New Age discontent with midcentury science. It is precisely by being goofy, lightweight, and superficial that Tsoukalos renders bad ideas safe for mass audiences.
Sure, this sounds hyperbolic, but it’s exactly the method that extremists have used for decades to recruit a following. They create a media-friendly, sunny face to gain approving media coverage, and then they use it to slip in the darker, more disturbing parts of their agendas. Alien Con might have been a “fun” place where David Duchovny posed for photos with Tsoukalos, but the stars of Ancient Aliens and their colleagues are the same people who have accused Black people of being a racial failure (von Däniken), speculated that a white master race ruled over the ancient Earth (David Childress), cited approvingly books by a writer with neo-Nazi affiliations and a hate crime conviction (Tsoukalos), claimed Jews were working with Obama and the Chinese to conquer America (the late Jim Marrs), alleged that the Jews and liberals are working with evil aliens to enslave and murder children (David Wilcock), and worse. And those are just the ancient astronaut theorists who appear on Ancient Aliens. The sight of smiling doofuses parading about in homemade tinfoil hats while wearing Tsoukalos t-shirts hides the fact that this is only a mask over a steaming cauldron of identity politics, political grievance, and hate.
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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