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Sociohistorical context of UFO conspiracism (Skeptical)

Ryan J. Cook, Center for AnthroUfology - Anthropology and UFOs

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: The history of ufology in the US, and to no small extent that in other countries, is shot through with conspiracism. As mentioned before, this is an old theme, cemented by stories about a crashed saucer at Roswell, NM, by reports of human abductions and manipulations by aliens, and (truth be told) through refractions in the entertainment media like "The X-Files." I will try to put this persistent theme in context, and then discuss some of factors that make UFO conspiracism problematic.

The history of ufology in the US, and to no small extent that in other countries, is shot through with conspiracism. As mentioned before, this is an old theme, cemented by stories about a crashed saucer at Roswell, NM, by reports of human abductions and manipulations by aliens, and (truth be told) through refractions in the entertainment media like "The X-Files." I will try to put this persistent theme in context, and then discuss some of factors that make UFO conspiracism problematic.

Sociohistorical context of UFO conspiracism

Cold War tensions

More than one analyst (e.g. Jung 1991, Peebles 1996) has noted that UFOs, whatever their true age, only really took off as reports, folklore, and entertainment during the Cold War. They fit into a general pattern of tension and confusion concerning such things as national identity, global security, and human survival. Carl Jung, writing when the contactee phenomenon was reaching a crescendo, emphasized the "space messiah" theme in UFO reports and entertainment. Our more evolved elders were here to save us from ourselves. In the 1970s, abduction reports began to bring home the idea that alien contact may be more for the aliens' benefit than anything. And now, from its position at the heart of US ufology and its firm position in contemporary entertainment, alien abduction exerts an influence making an alien and/or government collusion plausible to many people.

Themes of literature and movies

Tensions from the great global political contest of the second half of this century formed the subject of much news and academic output, but were also at the core of a great deal of entertainment. We can see this in sci-fi movies from this era: "The Day the Earth Stood Still," in which nuclear weapons testing provokes stern warnings from our galactic neighbors; "This Island Earth," where Earth scientists are forced to help their alien counterparts in a losing battle against an unseen enemy; "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," interpreted as either a McCarthyite warning of Communist infiltration of a denunciation of McCarthyism; and even the many monster movies like "Them" with its giant ants, comments on the destructive effects of heedless technological tampering with nature. Science fiction was not alone in discussing fears about invasions from outside or betrayals within, but it was perhaps the most effective genre in projecting these fears onto the increasingly vast and impersonal screen provided by scientific views of the cosmos.

Actual cover-ups

It also bears repeating that, during this period, public confidence in institutional authorities was repeatedly shaken, not least by several actual government cover-ups. Projects of questionable ethical or pragmatic import undertaken by various government agencies under the cloak of "national security" did not always remain secret. A few, like the notorious MK Ultra and Cointelpro psychological control programs, confirmed fears that the government was not above experimenting on its own citizens to achieve its goals. But there were also such exposed cover-ups as the Watergate break-in, the Iran-Contra exchanges, and the eventual confirmation that atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in Nevada had deadly effects on uninvolved citizens downwind.

Extenuating circumstances

Add to these general societal factors some things specific to UFOs in the US, and we see even more clearly why conspiracism is so inextricably linked to UFOs.

Government debunking

For one thing, those projects set up by branches of the government to study UFOs were shown to be more or less effective attempts to debunk the phenomenon. Granted, there had been serious discussion in the early 1950s within the Armed Forces and security agencies as to whether UFO reports described a threat to national security (cf. Peebles 1994). Relatively early on, though, the idea that they were not threatening came to govern military and governmental approaches to UFOs and their subsequent public relations on the subject. The phenomena posed no threat, but the potential for waves of reports to clog government and military communications systems was threatening enough for those advocating debunking over investigation to win the day.

Thus the lead investigative agency from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, Project Sign/Grudge/Blue Book, was much more motivated to propose reasons why UFOs were misidentifications of common phenomena than it was to conduct an open-ended investigation of UFO reports. Its principal scientific consultant, the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, said as much once Blue Book was closed (cf. Hynek and Vallee 1975). Part of the reason for this was simply the logic of the official position. But this was also due to the connection of orthodox academic scientists to government and military agencies, and their assertion of jurisdiction and authoritative knowledge concerning UFOs.

Charges of disinformation

There have also been persistent charges from some sources - ufological or otherwise - that the various agencies involved in UFO matters have engaged in an active dissemination of disinformation to civilian ufological organizations and to the general public. One of the accusers, ufologist Jacques Vallée, proposes several rationales for this disinformation (cf. Vallée 1992). First, it keeps everyone from figuring out what government and military UFO investigators know or do not know about UFOs. Second, really bizarre pieces of information "leaked" to ufologists by anonymous sources continue to thwart serious study of UFOs by leading investigators off on wild goose chases and keeping the public profile of UFOs at high levels of absurdity. Third, and most conspiratorial, sources of disinformation can monitor and to some extent influence the activities of UFO researchers, whether as part of a program of social control or simply to keep "black projects" veiled in the UFO shroud.

Such accusations, by design or not, have intersected with a stream of conspiracy theorizing on perceived abuses of power by the federal government. A number of authors (e.g. Dean 1996, Hofstadter 1967) have pointed out how prevalent conspiracist political thought has been throughout the history of the US. The particular variant of this tradition with which UFOs intersect is a virulent set of claims from the far right about how secretive transnational economic actors (the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderburgers, "international bankers"--i.e. Jews) seek to undermine American autonomy by integrating it into a "New World Order." Claims like these create a common field of resources from which such disparate groups as evangelical end-timers, Black Muslims, white supremacists, and ufologists continue to draw.

The complications of conspiracism

Notwithstanding the persistence and scope of the various conspiracist strands intersecting in UFOs, there are a number of logical and logistical factors making comprehensive conspiracism difficult to sustain. (This should not disqualify some of the substantive claims of conspiracists - disinformation from one or several federal agencies, for instance - but rather put conspiracism in proper perspective.

Difficulties of global cover-up

First is the complex of factors working against a world-wide conspiracy of government agencies to keep definitive UFO information from their citizens. Such a conspiracy must necessarily be global and unilateral, both to conform to the sparse information characteristic of the present state of affairs and to emphasize the magnitude of the stakes those in power perceive to be at issue (not to mention providing an enormous villain for those on the side of truth to combat and a reason why the latter are rarely successful in their fight). This is the point where UFO conspiracism interacts most congenially with right-wing fears of an emergent "one-world government" or "New World Order."

Unclear motives for conspirators

Another complication for UFO conspiracism is that the motives of the accused conspirators to keep their involvement with UFOs and aliens secret are not clear. Why cover up an alliance of this sort when it is so much easier to ridicule it out in the open? For that matter, there is no agreement on whether this is a collaboration with aliens, or a takeover by aliens, or some other arrangement. And if the aliens are powerful enough to manipulate the very fabric of the physical environment, why should they enter into any working relationship with terrestrial authorities to use resources (people, bases) they could simply take?

Interagency conflict

Perhaps the most unsettling factor for comprehensive conspiracism is the empirically verifiable phenomenon of conflict and competition between government agencies. If security and intelligence agencies do not cooperate with each other in matters of more mundane importance, it stands to reason that they should not be expected to cooperate in dealing with aliens, let alone in maintaining an enormous and enduring cover-up.

Works Cited

Milton William Cooper. 1991. Behold a pale horse. Sedona: Light Technology
Jodi Dean. 1996. Aliens in America: conspiracy cultures from outerspace to cyberspace. Ithaca: Cornell UP.
Richard Hofstadter. 1967 The paranoid style in American politics and other essays. NY: Vintage.
J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée. 1975. The edge of reality: a progress report on UFOs. Chicago: Regnery.
C.G. Jung. 1991. Flying saucers: a modern myth of things seen in the skies. Princeton: Bollingen.
Curtis Peebles. 1994. Watch the skies! A chronicle of the flying saucer myth. Washington DC: Smithsonian.
Jacques Vallée. 1992. Revelations: alien contact and human deception. NY: Ballantine.

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