Are Roswell believers really that barmy?

It’s easy to mock the geeks who think aliens crash-landed in New Mexico, but their paranoia is part of a big trend today.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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X-Files fans. Create the effect of being abducted by aliens by drinking two bottles of vodka. You’ll invariably wake up in a strange place the following morning, having had your memory mysteriously “erased”.’

So ran a ‘Top Tip’ in Viz comic some years ago. Such advice may be sarcastic, but it does demonstrate that we tend to mistrust tales of alien abduction. There is the suspicion that those who profess to have had one were probably drunk or stoned at the time, or that they’re congenital fantasists, or mentally unstable.

This month sees the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Roswell incident of 1947, when, legend has it, a flying saucer crash-landed in New Mexico. The US authorities supposedly removed five humanoid corpses from the wreckage, hid them, and have been trying to cover up the event ever since – although they continue to insist that the wreckage was merely that of a high-altitude weather balloon. Still, the fable persists, and now a former CIA agent, Chase Brandon, has surfaced to endorse it, telling the Huffington Post: ‘It was not a damn weather balloon – it was what it was billed when people first reported it. It was a craft that clearly did not come from this planet, it crashed and I don’t doubt for a second that the use of the word “remains” and “cadavers” was exactly what people were talking about.’

Brandon, as the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine pointed out, is currently promoting a book, a reminder that those with otherworldly preoccupations have worldly concerns, too. According to David Aaronovitch in his book Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History (2009), most conspiracy theorists are driven by ‘glory money, stupidity’, being either hucksters or crackpots. Whether they seek to deceive us, or are self-deceived, we often regard these types as eccentric oddballs. This is why David Icke seems so ridiculous.

But is a belief in alien contact that abnormal? It could be said that it is rather normal, if we employ that word in the statistical, not moral, sense. This is not to lend credibility to the accounts. While psychiatrists and medics have attributed a belief in conspiracy theories to various personality and mental disorders, many ‘alien abductions’ have been ascribed to temporal lobe epilepsy, which can induce quasi-religious hallucinations. After all, apparitions are historically – and culturally – specific; in more conventionally religious times, these aliens would have been interpreted as angels.

That is why many UFO websites closed down after 9/11. The focus of attention had shifted to geopolitics and the belief that the CIA and the Jews were secretly behind 9/11 and geopolitical affairs more broadly. Yet this transition was superficial, because 9/11 conspirators had the same monomania as their Roswell counterparts: a conviction that the government is lying to them. And in this, they are not so out of kilter with society at large.

We live in an atomised world, in which holding to a conspiracy theory, much like feigning outrage on Twitter, gives the powerless the illusion of power. There is an overabundance of information, propagated from outside the accountable mainstream media. This has magnified a distrust of institutional analysis, to the degree that the word ‘expert’ is often prefixed with ‘so-called’, and ‘elitist’ has become a term of derision. In a society obsessed with health and safety, we no longer believe that accidents happen; there must be a covert reason behind everything.

Conspiracy theories consequently abound in the political sphere at a time when people are less engaged in mainstream politics. There are conservatives who think environmentalism is a front for a left-wing plot to establish a world government; there are left-liberals and the self-proclaimed ’99 per cent’ who imagine Rupert Murdoch and multinational corporations are seeking to supplant democracy itself. Of course, it doesn’t help that in cases such as Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, our governments have deceived us. But there is a slippery slope from scepticism to cynicism to paranoia. Parents who feared the British government was withholding some truth over the MMR vaccine are different only in degree to those convinced that Princess Diana was murdered and the moon landings were faked.

The relationship between conspiracy theory and subjective knowledge was elaborated in Elaine Showalter’s 1997 book, Hystories, which charted society’s ‘hysterical epidemics’ such as Gulf War syndrome, multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, satanic ritual abuse, ME, and alien abduction. In doubting the sanctity of subjective testimony, Showalter received death threats. As Damian Thompson wrote of the episode in his 2008 book, Counterknowledge: ‘Victims, lobby groups and journalists behaved as if all that was required to validate an implausible claim was a sufficiently compelling personal narrative. To quote one of the slogans of that citadel of counterknowledge, the Church of Scientology: “If it’s true for you, it’s true.”‘ In a confessional, postmodern world where truth is relative, subjectivity is king.

Thompson, recalling a dinner party in which a respectable Liberal Democrat supporter voiced suspicion about the official account of 9/11, observes that ‘we may tell ourselves that only oddballs subscribe to bogus history and bogus science. We assume that we ourselves are immune to the false logic of the conspiracy theorist. In reality, we are more vulnerable to it than at any time for decades.’

So we may find it amusing that some people still cherish the quaint delusion that little green men landed in New Mexico in 1947, but such a belief only appears so outlandish because it is so colourful. In a world where we do not trust our governments, have little faith in ‘experts’ (to be an accepted expert on crime today, you must first be a victim of it), where objectivity is called into question, those who believe in extraterrestrial encounters are not, in essence, that alien from ‘us’. Dismissing these types as amusing crackpots is a way of pretending that this contagion – this paranoia and solipsism – doesn’t exist in the heart of our society.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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