I’ve never heard of the Covert Chronicle. It’s apparently a video podcast that runs on its presenter’s YouTube channel. Yesterday the Covert Chronicle presented several minutes about the launch of Giorgio Tsoukalos’s In Search of Aliens, which the presenter framed as a battle between Tsoukalos and his “arch-nemesis,” me. The insults and slipshod logic descend into self-parody, so I will simply provide you with the video for your own amusement:
I would, however, like to talk a bit about a somewhat related topic, the rhetoric of fringe history and its similarity to the rhetoric of other anti-elitist and anti-government actors. We saw a little bit of that above where the presenter complained about “intricate” criticisms and contrasted it with heroic popularizers. I was watching the Colbert Report this week when Stephen Colbert played a clip from Sarah Palin’s new online television channel, and it sounded so very familiar.
At this point I’m going to stop to say that Republicans aren’t the only people to hold fringe or anti-intellectual beliefs, nor are they the only people to oppose science, history, or academia. Progressives, for example, tend to disproportionately support anti-vaccine claims and to revise historical narratives to emphasize issues of race, class, and gender. They are also more likely to believe in New Age claims and alternative medicine. However, for the purpose of this blog post, conservative rhetoric differs enough from liberal or progressive rhetoric that only one really compares to fringe history rhetoric.
Here is Sarah Palin describing her stand against the elite:
Are you tired of the media filters? Well, I am. I always have been, so we’re going to do something about it. I want to talk directly to you on our channel, on my terms, no need to please the powers that be. […] We’ll talk about the issues that the mainstream media won’t talk about, and we’ll look at the ideas that, mmm, I think Washington doesn’t want you to hear.
This is nearly point for point the same argument that fringe historians and ufologists make about their claims. We recently heard from MUFON’s executive director Jan C. Harzan make quite similar claims about the need to cut through media filters that supposedly suppress unwanted points of view:
Historically mainstream media has kept its distance from professional coverage of UFOs. And the little coverage it does receive is riddled with tired ‘little green men’ references and other old techniques. We’ll discuss the profound effect of the media and how the media can sway or control perception and our plans to effect change for realistic coverage in the future.
For Harzan, that change extended to launching a fabricated TV series, Hangar 1, to just lie to the audience about UFOs by using fake documents and tabloid stories. But for fringe history in general, it’s about creating a network of mutually-supporting alternative media sources that form a closed system—from Coast to Coast AM to New Page Books to, sadly, the H2 network. The similarities to the right-wing iron triangle of Fox News, talk radio, and Republican politicians are too great to be entirely coincidental. Both represent efforts to create a closed culture similar to but distinct from the mainstream. Indeed, if you believe Michael Barkun’s research in A Culture of Conspiracy (2006/2013), there is a great deal of overlap between right wing activism and conspiracy culture, so it is no surprise that the two would also have similar infrastructure, down to the elevation of personality as a substitute for substance.
But Palin’s last sentence—suggesting that there are things that the elites don’t “want you to hear” strikes uncomfortably close to the rhetorical strategies of fringe history. Giorgio Tsoukalos, in introducing In Search of Aliens just last week, put it this way: “What we’ve been taught by mainstream scholars is not the whole picture.” Similarly, Scott Wolter opens each episode of America Unearthed by saying “The history that we were all taught growing up is wrong. […] Sometimes history isn’t what we’ve been told.” In both cases, there is the assumption that there are things that an elite don’t want “you” or “us” (the non-elite) to know, and that the presenter has special access to this elite knowledge. Kal K. Korff gave voice to the claim in the title of his Roswell UFO Crash: What They Don’t Want You to Know (1997) and Michael Benson in Inside Secret Societies: What They Don’t Want You to Know (2005). The most famous fringe history use of the idea in book title is probably Forbidden Archaeology (1993) by the Hindu creationist Michael Cremo and Richard L. Thompson, which posits a vast conspiracy of academic elites to suppress the true history of the earth.
In fact, much of conspiracy culture centers on the idea that a shadowy “they” (defined or undefined) are attempting to prevent the heroic seeker of truth from (a) learning that truth and (b) being a full and active participant in decision-making about the relevant issues. This is parallel to political populism (used by conservatives and liberals alike), which asks non-elite voters to overthrow Washington elites who are both out of touch and all powerful so that the non-elite outsiders may reclaim their rightful power.
Obviously, the formulation isn’t unique to fringe history. The controversial convicted fraudster Kevin Trudeau turned this into an art form with his Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About (2004) and its spinoffs. Dozens of other books from a rainbow of authors on subjects ranging from creationism to pharmaceuticals employ the “they don’t want you to know” gimmick. It’s a reliable way of suggesting to the audience that the author is on their side in fighting against perceived enemy elites.
What separates fringe history from more mainstream uses of the rhetorical strategy is the opprobrium heaped upon a specific set of elites: educated people. This evident in every fringe history book that bashes “mainstream scholars,” “academics,” or other possessors of scientific or historical knowledge. But it has for a long time also been part and parcel of American political discourse. Richard Hofstadter, for example, famously wrote about Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963. Recently, though, this has spilled over from a rather apolitical distrust of elites of all stripes into a politically-oriented attempt to identify education, specifically scientific education, as a partisan trait. The National Review, for example, recently published a piece by Charles C. W. Cooke blasting what he called “the extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States.”
Cooke complained that “nerds” are arrogant and rely too heavily on facts and evidence—a complaint fringe figures, as we have seen, have made about me—and he descends into the worst sort of grade school stereotyping of “smart” people (or rather, as he sees it, faux smart people) to express his outrage, claiming that this “nerd” group include “anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and moral precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.” He calls the use of facts and evidence in argumentation an affectation of poseurs, and a “fad.”
Cooke makes a good point that progressives who claim to act in the name of science have many beliefs that are not scientific (though his list is not entirely correct), but he seems to think that collecting scientific evidence is the same as recommending a policy. Science as a discipline and the use of scientific evidence for argumentation are not the same. The change in the average global temperature trend, for example, is a scientific fact; evaluating whether that change is good or bad is a value judgment; and what (if anything) to do about it is a political question. Cooke, like his fringe history peers, does not want judgments to emerge from evidence but rather the other way around: ideology should govern the acceptable limits of inquiry. If fringe writers want to cite that ideology to “ancient texts,” Cooke prefers the slightly more updated Founding Fathers, whose timeless wisdom he would privilege over modernity.
The bottom line? For Cooke “First and foremost, then, ‘nerd’ has become a political designation.” Therefore, for example, under Cooke’s definition Ben Stein is not a “nerd” despite his seeming adherence to every stereotype: he wears glasses, he talks of statistics and facts, he hosted one of the geekiest game shows of the 1990s--Win Ben Stein’s Money (and shame on History for ripping it off completely for the wretched Pawnography), and he’s a Yale-educated lawyer and economist. Oh, right: He’s also a right wing creationist. And there is the difference. Being a “nerd” is bad when you disagree with Cooke’s politics and social values. If you agree, you’re just folks. He is, of course, a hypocrite since he fails to see a problem with the pervasive posing and posturing of those who claim to govern in the Bible’s name, a mirror image of the “nerd” chic he despises in his opponents.
Yet Cooke’s rant against people who know things (or who trust those who do) is the same rage against the “academics” we find percolating just beneath the surface of so much of fringe history. Jason Martell, for example, said that Erich von Däniken deserved praise for “challenging academia.” Scott Wolter opened his book Akhenaten to the Founding Fathers (2013) by asking “So just what is going on with the academics anyway? […] The world is ready, eager for the truth.” All of this applies in spades to creationists, who are even more insistent on the impregnable isolation of the Ivory Tower and its nefariously liberal influence. No wonder the concepts fade into one another. Some creationists have adopted fringe history’s evidence as “proof” of pre-Flood Nephilim culture, and ancient astronaut theorist Giorgio Tsoukalos once explained that “the divine is permeated throughout the entire universe.”
In every case, the irony is that no truth will do except for the ideological one already held by the speaker. Honesty exists only as a measurement of how much others agree with the speaker. Everything else is “bias,” “filter,” or “politics.”
7/31/2014 07:53:39 am
Obama of being a 'dictator', or 'acting like a king', as if they'd be able to publicly malign him if that were the case. Also, as usual, whole lotta projection goin' on with anyone who uses this kind of rhetoric. There's quite a bit regarding history, archeology, and other relevant disciplines that Giorgio and his ilk don't want you to know, since their livelyhood depends on a lack of common knowledge and understanding of the topics they discuss.
7/31/2014 07:56:20 am
My comment got chopped at the beginning somehow^, but, I said that these people 'remind me of' certain politicians, etc. You get the gist.
7/31/2014 08:13:38 am
If you swap out a couple words from the Sarah Palin quote, it could accurately describe your experience with that latest TV appearance that didn't happen. You were silenced by the powers that be. Change 3 phrases in that quote, and you could've written it. It's not a conspiracy, that's just how society works.
7/31/2014 08:15:13 am
Before I get any further
7/31/2014 08:48:35 am
Actually, he told Royce Myers III he:
7/31/2014 08:51:38 am
ARRGGHH I did it again.
7/31/2014 08:39:29 am
NRO is a magazine run with the ethos of internet trolling. It is the house publication of entitled rich blueblood frat boys. I mean, it's home to this guy
7/31/2014 09:19:59 am
Bill Maher serves as a warning that libertarianism is the gateway lunacy :)
7/31/2014 10:38:03 am
Concur. Though he's really hard to call a libertarian. Maybe 30 years ago in a "let me have my sex and drugs and rock and roll" sort of way. But something tells me he doesn't pray have a prayer rug set up in front of a portrait of Ayn Rand, and I haven't seen him shilling gold recently.
7/31/2014 11:05:41 am
That's exactly why I carefully avoided calling him a libertarian :)
7/31/2014 08:49:07 am
Equating Sarah Palin's reaction to a well documented media bias against conservatives to the reaction of a bunch of Looney Toons maligning the establishment for ignoring their fanciful conjecture is intellectually dishonest at best. Jason, I really enjoy your scholarship and your blogs. I also disagree with you politically on a host of issues. I am okay with that, but I do think you went a little bit too far on this one. It is not befitting your intellect. Have a great day and I look forward to reading your work in the future.
7/31/2014 09:07:37 am
(1) Analogies are not "equating".
7/31/2014 09:30:46 am
Wall Street produces some products based on "financial engineering". I think what Jason was really getting at is the use of the same well-researched phrases by multiple public figures indicates a bit of "emotional engineering" going on. It's almost a science at this point. Democrats, Republicans, ufologists, and fringe speakers are all just using the same well-tested buzzwords to manipulate their intended audiences into attaining some ultimate goal.
7/31/2014 09:55:05 am
"It's almost a science at this point."
7/31/2014 10:00:45 am
Yes, I was trying to discuss the *rhetoric*, not the underlying politics. It doesn't matter who is saying the words, only that they are using similar rhetorical posturing to achieve similar ends.
7/31/2014 10:16:08 am
And that the rhetoric changes over time. Right now, Democrats are not using anti-elite rhetoric. If they see polling and focus group data that indicates it would help them, and if Republicans, ufologists, and other fringe authors see data that it's hurting them, the usage will flip-flop.
7/31/2014 10:47:46 am
Walt, I'm not sure I'd agree that this particular rhetoric flips that easily. This particular brand of know-nothing rhetoric has a long history of being associated with a populist, anti-city, anti-immigration, anti-government vein of America, one largely though not exclusively held by white protestants in the South and more broadly in "the heartland". It fought against big corporations a century ago yes. But it has been the driving force against science education (see W. J. Bryan), it has typically been easy to speak to through a certain kind of revival-style religious rhetoric (see all the comparisons between Father Coughlin and Glenn Beck a few years ago). This is what Hofstadter was talking about, and reading him talking about the Goldwater people fifty years ago, you could swap in Beck, Palin, etc. and it could be written today, and it is largely about the same political movement. That population once voted Democrat, until the civil rights movement and then Nixon's Southern Strategy. But it wasn't "liberal" or "progressive" in any sense.
7/31/2014 11:12:27 am
I agree that the intended audience of Republicans and fringe authors seems to be the same right now. If that never changes and if those people continue to feel the same way, then you're right, nothing will ever change.
7/31/2014 12:56:46 pm
7/31/2014 01:09:57 pm
And Tubby, the funny thing is, the people Jason writes about here, including our unfriendly neighborhood vlogger, are arrogant as hell. When he says "science can't explain" the origins of humans or ancient societies, something tells me he hasn't read much actual work by people who really do research.
7/31/2014 01:32:15 pm
I think what I enjoy most about this "rhetoric debate" is that no one seems to note that the United States has an incredibly shoddy educational system ("for the masses") that enforces only a minimum standard. Not only that, it has so many loopholes, exceptions and exemptions to said standard that it's about as good at enforcing broad education as wire mesh is at holding water.
7/31/2014 09:17:47 am
LOL at the Covert Chronicle guy implying that "the scientific community" is behind the Tsoukalos macro meme.
7/31/2014 12:52:25 pm
This whole goddamn video made me cringe.
7/31/2014 06:24:31 pm
I didn't even notice the way he said the word "book" since everything he said was completely phoned in. Seriously, even a blind person see how he kept looking off camera to the cue cards to remember what to say. I honestly got bored than mad, since the guy showed no emotion or interest at all in his voice.
8/1/2014 02:24:08 am
Ever wonder why you never see Jason and Giorgio together? Now you know :)
7/31/2014 09:24:22 am
Wow. "Nerds" used to be considered the very image of the typical conservative. 'Oh, look,' people used to say, 'a white guy wearing thick glasses and a suit; he must have disposable income and be afraid of black people and social change.'
7/31/2014 10:53:25 am
The business wing of the American right used to be well represented in American colleges, the Creationists and theocrats not as much.
8/1/2014 01:23:21 pm
Education today is a joke. The so called experts have taken the try and true methods of education into fuzzy math and whole language. Look at the modern religion of keyniasian economics, it's a joke yet the experts continue to teach this failed theory. When my kids teacher told me she like fuzzy math with its cut and paste approach because she didn't like math...that said it all.
7/31/2014 10:20:47 am
From the Covert Chronicle guy himself:
7/31/2014 10:44:12 am
Jason, you have "cronies"?! How come no one tells me anything?! :)
7/31/2014 11:08:42 am
We meet in our underground lizard person lair. Clearly you didn't get the decoder ring for your invitation. It was written in Naacal.
7/31/2014 11:25:30 am
You should show the Esoteric Black Dragon Society more respect. Surely with a name like that it must count at least a few powerful servants of Nyarlathotep among its initiates!
7/31/2014 06:53:55 pm
7/31/2014 10:58:06 am
Jason, if you wanted to criticize this guy, all you needed to do was post the above. I mean, really.
7/31/2014 11:03:23 am
He seems to be obsessed with Lyme disease. (Is that a thing for the conspiracy nuts these days?)
7/31/2014 11:07:56 am
I'm more amused by it than critical. I mean, how exactly would one criticize self-satirizing material? It's nice to know that my work is apparently substantive enough that fringe types feel the need to respond.
7/31/2014 11:12:47 am
"how exactly would one criticize self-satirizing material?"
7/31/2014 11:15:17 am
Btw, cudos for mentioning Richard Hofstadter's book. That guy deserves some love.
7/31/2014 11:18:20 am
EP, Lyme disease has been blamed on a government conspiracy for years, specifically the idea that it escaped or was released from a bioweapons lab on Plum Island, in the region between Connecticut and Long Island.
7/31/2014 11:33:46 am
Sigh... You might as well argue that the US government invented tapeworms...
7/31/2014 01:04:15 pm
8/3/2014 01:18:38 am
"It just kills me that people like Michael Shermer and Colavito try to make a living off debunking everyone's theories, yet they never provide their own."
terry the censor
8/12/2014 08:21:30 pm
> I support some of the skepticism expressed by Jason Colavito.
7/31/2014 10:52:33 am
This is basically an excuse to share my reading, but it's worth noting that once upon a time the fringe was quite comfortable being elitist and even exclusionary. Just look at Blavatsky go:
7/31/2014 10:54:41 am
I thought something similar when reading about the Naacal guy in Jason's twitter feed earlier today. He may believe in Lemuria, but least he's read a number of books and isn't limited to making poorly spoken youtube videos.
7/31/2014 12:22:22 pm
Jason did a seminal namedrop. not all Populists
8/1/2014 05:04:24 am
I am against the conservative elites, as well as the Liberal elite. Hence the unique name for my Blog. I hope you check it out.
8/1/2014 01:19:06 pm
I think the same can be said of the left. I won't go into the hoary details of eugenics, the global warming fad of the 30s. Sure the physical world is absolute in terms of the scientific method. Physics and chemistry represent a body of beliefs which are the mist testable without human bias. Once you get into the softer sciences and the so called social sciences you often see religious or political ideology backed by cherry picking facts. Economics...macro us a joke. Education, trial and error had worked better than the experts. I literally had to teach my kids math as the public school force fed fuzzy math. Goethe had a great quote on the need to repeat the truth time and again.
8/1/2014 01:31:48 pm
Yep, your post is strong evidence for the failure of the public school system :)
8/1/2014 06:53:35 pm
Just repeating this - Titus appears to have put his response in as a website address instead of in the textbox (just below it):
8/2/2014 03:23:58 am
Thank you Greg
8/1/2014 07:31:38 pm
@ titus pullo:
8/2/2014 03:32:07 am
No slight taken. I'm using an iPad mini and typing on it is a hassle. I usually just type normally, leaning to type back in 1978 as sophomore was one of the best skills I learned. But this pecking style on a small screen results in changing words and phrases to simplify my posts. I could use my work PC but the iPad is just quicker to use. My advise is to get a full size iPad.
8/2/2014 07:00:50 pm
That doesn't exaplain your bizarre comparison of eugenics and global warming, or your sweeping claims about scientific method, but at least now we know that your kids are sure to get sound tech advice...
8/2/2014 02:37:36 pm
This confirms is, Sarah Palin is a pod person. JK. Or am I? Or is she a lizard? Oh, I've said too much. They're here to probe my erk, don'tya know. Oh,...a little more to the left...erk...oph gooly gosh, that...feels weird...take me to your leader...(insert sarcastic remark). And why does the fringe care so much about this blog? Could bde the sasaquatch aliens.
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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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