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.”
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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