Last week, Rolling Stone published a lengthy piece on extraterrestrial pop culture by Stephen Rodrick tracing America’s renewed obsession with space aliens and flying saucers. Although the article’s subhead promised that it would explain “how UFO culture took over America,” it was primarily a description of the incestuous mutual masturbation of the U.S. national security apparatus, the UFO entertainment industry, and To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science—exactly the same combination of crony capitalism, delusion, and self-interest that I have chronicled in these pages for years. As Rodrick noted, the three pillars undergirding UFO culture all share personnel and a dubious ideology. Pentagon UFO researchers become To the Stars employees and become entertainers on TV, and then they cycle around again, using their TV and newspaper access to worm their way into government meetings and lobby for another ride on the merry-go-round of speculative nonsense.
It’s all very neat and self-contained, except when it has real consequences in the real world, and not just in terms of taxpayer money being spent to “investigate” space poltergeists and the industrial waste that To the Stars mistakes for the ghosts’ droppings. Had that waste fallen from one of the mutilated bulls whose parts self-mythologizing UFO filmmaker Jeremy Corbell keeps in his freezer, we might better be able to call it by its name.
To the Stars participated in the article, but darkly warned that they did not want to be associated with the carnival barkers who hawk UFO trinkets at geeky festivals. They have their own line of merchandise to sell, of course, and prefer the ever-so-serious science fiction fan conventions to UFO circuses. That, after all, is where the true work of government and social engineering gets done. To the Stars found Tom DeLonge refused to discuss his claims about Atlantis and Lemuria and mystical space ghosts, but he became animated in insisting that the Nazis launched a flying saucer from Argentina after the war and crashed it near Roswell, New Mexico. He is a serious researcher now, don’t you know?
Rodrick is an uncompromising observer of the absurdity of the UFO movement, whose leading lights promise grand revelations that never come and a transformation of society toward some utopian end just vague enough to allow anyone to imagine his or her own favored future. They do so through DVDs and VODs, conferences full of silly costumes, and an army of believers who possess fewer logic and reasoning skills than a reasonably intelligent parrot. Rodrick notes how absurd it was that he and Corbell traveled to Area 51 with comedian Dave Foley, whom Corbell met through $100-million-podcaster Joe Rogan, a onetime Foley costar on News Radio, leading Foley to apologize for having joked about flying saucers. Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain, especially when it commands a $100 million paycheck. Even George Knapp, the weary doyen of UFO investigators, sighs with exasperation in telling the story of a woman who swore to him that space aliens ordered her to get breast implants. He also duly noted that he noticed her compliance.
However, Rodrick’s subtext, which occasionally surfaces explicitly as text, surrounds the question of how much of the UFO movement is a serious search for extraterrestrial life and how much of it is a new form of faith. Astronomer Seth Shostak made the usual point about flying saucers substituting for the traditional higher powers of religion. Rodrick emphasized several times how many UFO beliefs operate in the absence of evidence or in contradiction to it.
But for my money, the key line in the article comes from To the Stars’ Luis Elizondo, who claims to have once headed the Pentagon’s UFO-hunting program. He described the UFO myth as the equivalent of a religious revelation:
“The last time mankind was told a story like this, they wrote the gospels,” said Elizondo with great solemnity. “This is a paradigm moment for all of mankind.”
With this, Elizondo accidentally spoke the truth, which is that the UFO movement has never been about the search for spaceships. At its heart it is a striving for faith in a world unmoored from traditional religious belief and stubbornly unwilling to conform to mystical revelation. In 1931’s Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein crowed that science had let him know what it feels like to be God. After the first atomic blasts in 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer turned to Sanskrit scripture to compare humanity to Death, destroyer of worlds. With humanity possessed today of the power formerly reserved for gods, many try in vain to avoid reaping the whirlwind we have sown by hunting for some greater, grander power. It’s a shame that the best our decadent age can imagine are bug-eyed space babies with an anal fetish tooling about in crash-prone silvery discs, or that their prophets are all pseudoscientific televangelists preaching on the History Channel in between an endless loop of insurance ads and catheter commercials. In the end, it’s always about a desperate effort to outmatch mortality, isn’t it?
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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