So, this week the New Yorker interviewed racist author Erich von Däniken, the elderly ancient astronaut theorist who once wrote that the Black race was a “failure” and who has included transphobic and Islamophobic commentary in his most recent books. Why would one of America’s premiere publications give a platform to a man whose claim to fame was arguing that nonwhite people couldn’t stack rocks without help from rapists from outer space? It’s because a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist seems to have relied on her adolescent memories of ancient astronaut rather than researching current controversies—current being anything after, say, the late 1970s.
On Tuesday, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb’s new book claiming that the interstellar object ‘Oumuamua is an extraterrestrial spacecraft will be released. While that claim—which Loeb has unsuccessfully pushed for the past three or four years, against the opinion of his peers—is the sexy hook to draw readers in, much of the book is devoted to Loeb’s ersatz philosophy. He argues that space aliens are “existentialists,” and he claims that like 1950s philosophical icons Sartre and Camus, aliens likely see life as an absurdity. In pushing a belief system that he calls “cosmic modesty” or “cosmic humility,” he wants humans to believe they are unimportant and should take moral lessons from space aliens.
As philosophy, it’s incoherent, as I have explained before: Existentialism, popular in midcentury but hardly an important movement now, is all about the individual and finding authenticity by creating meaning in one’s own life. (I went through all this in writing my new book—James Dean was wrapped up in it, read Camus, and one of his girlfriends knew Sartre. Funny story: It was widely reported that when that girlfriend, Ursula Andress, talked grandly of existentialism, Dean told friend that he didn’t know what it was. He was probably quoting Sartre—“Existentialism? I don’t know what that is.”—but the humor was lost on the friend.) Loeb would subsume humanity beneath “superior” space aliens. This is neither here nor there, but if humans aren’t important, then neither are the aliens. They, too, are just bits of start dust.
Loeb, in a YouTube interview earlier this month, said that he has been a huge fan of existentialism since he was a teenager, and, naturally, at his apogee he seeks to play out his adolescent interests by projecting them into the stars. Typically, the media are giving Loeb a free pass on his existentialist speculations and instead titillate readers with his claims about ‘Oumuamua.
In the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert immediately decides that the best way to think about Loeb’s claims is to relate them to her adolescent fantasy, Chariots of the Gods:
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was “Chariots of the Gods?,” by Erich von Däniken. The premise of the book, which was spun off into the TV documentary “In Search of Ancient Astronauts,” narrated by Rod Serling, was that Fermi’s question had long ago been answered. “They” had already been here. […] I figured that von Däniken would be interested in the first official interstellar object, and so I got in touch with him. […] Von Däniken told me that he had, indeed, been following the controversy over ‘Oumuamua. He tended to side with Loeb, who, he thought, was very brave.
It fascinates me how these bad books cast such long shadows, but it is deeply disappointing that a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist would not have done basic background research to make herself aware of von Däniken’s racist, sexist, and homophobic commentary before giving him a platform as a fun and kooky color commentator in one of America’s most respected magazines. But, like Loeb’s kooky existentialist ideas, you can hide anything in the back pages of a book as long as you don’t talk about it on TV. No one in the media will ever find out.
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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