This weekend, Newsweek ran an interesting article on racism at MUFON and the broader problem of alt-right infiltration in ufology. The magazine basically laid the blame on the fact that ufologists are largely a group of cranky old white men, the same demographic that overlaps heavily with extreme conservative and alt-right beliefs. “The combination of demographics likely to align with far-right viewpoints, and the overlap between UFO researchers and conspiracy theorists, produces an environment that [ufologist Ryan] Sprague and others argue can be toxic to minorities,” the magazine told its readers.
The article was pegged to the controversy over Chris Cogswell’s resignation from MUFON following its refusal to disavow high-ranking member John Ventre’s racism comments that suggested civilization was a gift from white Europeans to “F’ing blacks” and that scientific racism was a justified, fact-based response to Black inferiority. When Newsweek asked him about the comments, Ventre maintained that the comments were a unique moment in his life when he had become overwhelmed with anger over the “hate crime” of “white genocide” and that he cannot be racist because he knows a black guy.
“I don’t hate anybody, I apologized for what I said. It was in a fit of anger, it was one time in my entire life,” Ventre said, mentioning his multiracial grandson and a black man from his gym for whom he arranged a job interview. “I’m feeling like because I’m a 60-year-old white man I’m getting totally unfairly attacked here.”
Meanwhile, ufologist Mark O’Connell of the High Strangeness blog responded with his own posting about racism at MUFON and the reasons he quit the organization last year, after Ventre’s comments first became public. He asks two interesting questions for which there are no good answers: (a) Why are minorities less likely to report UFO sightings? And (b) how does the racism of ufologists affect how reports from minorities are taken, processed, and understood? I don’t have the answers for these questions, but one might suspect that UFOs, like Bigfoot, tend to be cultural myths more closely associated with a certain demographic, much like the way Chupacabra began in the Puerto Rican and, after that, the broader Latino communities before TV popularized it elsewhere.
But what interested me more this weekend was an interview with Ancient Aliens star Giorgio Tsoukalos and the show’s executive producer Kevin Burns that ran on Monsters and Critics to promote last Friday’s episode of Ancient Aliens. It was disturbing because it showcased how little the so-called experts on the ancient astronaut theory understand about their own subject matter.
One thing that stood out to me is that Tsoukalos is still repeating a lie he borrowed from Erich von Däniken about aliens give the Egyptians plans for the pyramids. “Even though I’ve never personally suggested aliens built the pyramids, the show has suggested that the engineering knowledge with which the pyramids were built came from the extraterrestrials. They refer to them as ‘The Watchers’ or the ‘Guardians of the Sky’.” I’ve been debunking his repeated use of this lie since 2011, but my longest and most detailed explanation of why he is wrong can be found here. Basically, he’s using a mangled up version of the medieval pyramid myth known to the Arab writers, and he has taken from von Däniken’s English translators the wrong translation of the Enochian “Watchers” as “Guardians” and folds it into the Arab story because he misunderstood von Däniken’s assertion of similarity, not identity.
He also repeated years-old false claims about the mysteries of Puma Punku that were debunked five or six years ago—I forget the exact number.
The sadder part of the interview was Burns’s. Here is Burns lying about the pyramids and relying on the same false material as Tsoukalos, mistaking medieval legend for ancient reports:
So, what I tell people who challenge us and say, “Well, you’re the show that says aliens built the pyramids,” I say, “No, no, no. We do not say that aliens built the pyramids. The pyramids say aliens built the pyramids.”
They do not. Not even the medieval legends say that. Tsoukalos’s misunderstanding of von Däniken’s summary of Arab pyramid lore and Enochian tales of fallen angels stands behind both—and the leading lights of the ancient astronaut theory are completely ignorant of their own subject matter.
Burns explains that we have Indiana Jones to thank for Ancient Aliens because the series grew out of an attempt to create a special about the alien mysteries of the crystal skulls to tie in with the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls movie that included ancient astronauts. This is especially ironic since the Indiana Jones franchise was itself built atop of Erich von Däniken. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had read Chariots of the Gods, and they seemed to take him seriously as a historian, and it was from his discussion of the electrical properties of the Ark of the Covenant that they developed the climax for Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a tape recording of the brainstorming sessions for the movie, Lucas even suggests making von Däniken the inspiration for the movie’s villain: “The thing of it is that in the end they convince him to do it because they say this Professor Erich von Däniken, or whatever, this German version of himself is the one who found it.” So, basically, Theosophy inspired H. P. Lovecraft who inspired the authors of Morning of the Magicians, whom Erich von Däniken copied from shamelessly, and von Däniken inspired Indiana Jones, which bequeathed us Ancient Aliens. (Burns adds that Ancient Aliens inspired Curse of Oak Island as well.) The fiction-to-fact-to-fiction-to-fact merry-go-round is unspeakably depressing. But it’s appropriate that Burns can’t even remember the name of the book that has made him so much money. He calls it Chariots of the Galaxy multiple times.
Burns is also the brains behind the remake of Lost in Space on Netflix. I imagine that explains why it is an overlong, bloated boondoggle in which not very much happens. Just like Ancient Aliens!
Burns comes dangerously close to self-awareness when he tries to explain why Ancient Aliens remains popular: “Because…my argument is that we are a species living in a more and more and increasingly secular world where science has become, effectively, a religion that seeks to answer all of our questions and I don’t think we believe all the answers. […] I think we want to believe in magic, I think we want to believe in wonder in the universe. We want to believe that there is something more to our life than death.” The mistake he made is that the ancient astronaut theory actually is a religion, with a theogony and theology, sacred texts, ritual gatherings, and infallible priests who offer absolution in the name of unseen gods. He projects onto a science he distrusts the failings of his own pet dogma, and he basically admits that he would rather believe in fictitious godlike aliens than contemplate a cosmos without the divine. This is a failing of mainstream religion, manifesting as bonkers cultural revitalization movement.
In the interview, Burns also offers the depressing news that Ancient Aliens and Curse of Oak Island will be doing crossover episodes, one of which will be centered on the “giants” of Sardinia (in reality a Bronze Age culture). But listen to how Burns describes it: “Marty Lagina will be doing a guest appearance on Ancient Aliens and maybe you’ll see Giorgio coming up to Oak Island. When I was a kid, I used to love it when the Beverly Hillbillies met with the Green Acres people at Petticoat Junction.” Just try unpacking that. I think it tells you everything you need to know about how he views his pet crackpots, and the audiences who worship them.
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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