I don’t know if you knew, but the Hebrews didn’t spend forty years in the Sinai after the Exodus because they’d incurred the wrath of God. And they didn’t leave that desert because the offending generation had died off. The chosen people were forced into the Promised Land because the algae-based-protein-bar machine that dispensed the “manna from heaven” they’d been eating finally broke down.
“Of course, [the machine] needed energy, for cultivating the algae, and this was produced, we postulate, by a small nuclear reactor,” says Rodney Dale, a wild-eyed madman.
This is the History Channel, circa 2009. “But,” asks the narrator, “If the Israelites’ survival depended upon the manna machine, where did they get it? Some believe they had stolen it from the Egyptians prior to their exodus. Other suspect extraterrestrials gave it to them as a humanitarian gesture to prevent their starvation in the desert.” The show is “Ancient Aliens,” and it’s everything that’s wrong in America.
What I mean is that when it debuted in 2009, “Ancient Aliens” put to work certain attitudes and argumentative techniques that have, in the age of Trump, come to dominate our discourse. “Ancient Aliens” is a more popular show than you might think, but I doubt it’s got much influence on the zeitgeist, and I know that it didn’t invent what it’s doing. Richard Hofstadter taught us a half-century ago that things like anti-intellectualism and the ‘paranoid style’ have been with us since at least 1776. “Ancient Aliens” was just the canary in the mine this time around.
Cards on the table, I realize that “Ancient Aliens” isn’t the only show in the History Channel’s lineup that’s gotten away from history as such.
“Ancient Aliens” wasn’t the network’s first show to break away from its formerly staid documentary style—“Ice Road Truckers” and “Ax Men,” which focused more on reality-style personal relationships and on-camera drama rather than exploring the history of northern trucking and lumberjacking, came out in 2007 and 2008. “Conspiracy?” and “Decoding the Past”—looking at universally debunked theories and trying to match history to prophecy, like those of Nostradamus, respectively—realized that Americans were much more interested in Dan Brown than they were in history books as early as 2005. But while those experiments used ancient prognostications and grassy-knoll-theorism to spice up their facts, “Ancient Aliens” put its spurious nonsense front and center.
The show’s bedrock is an inversion of Occam’s tool for sorting hypotheses. Call it Giorgio’s Razor:
Take the show’s investigation of the Saqqara Bird, a small wooden falcon removed from an Egyptian tomb in 1898. To archaeologists, it looks like a toy, maybe a weathervane.
To “ancient alien theorists,” it’s evidence that the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom had airplanes. To prove that hypothesis on the show, an “aviation and aerodynamics expert” builds a scale model of the bird to see if it will fly.
The series narrator Robert Clotworthy1 intones over the footage that “during the [expert’s] tests, it was discovered that the only thing preventing the Saqqara bird from achieving flight was the lack of a rear stabilizing rudder, or elevator.” So they add the rudder, and airfoil wings, and discover that if you angle it upwards in a wind-tunnel, it’ll generate lift. Like literally any piece of wood.
The show asks: Did ancient Egyptians invent powered flight and leave exactly one child’s toy behind to prove it? Or might it be that the Saqqara bird looks aerodynamic and lacks a horizontal tail rudder because it’s, well, a bird? Applying Giorgio’s Razor reveals the answer.
It was aliens.
Aliens were flying around in Egypt.
Even extraterrestrial intervention becomes banal when it’s behind every mysterious thing in history, and that approach wrecks any of the value that could be had from the show’s topics. Neil Postman argued in the 1980s that TV had given us a discourse that “denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevance of history, explained nothing, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence.” Until the election in 2016, “Ancient Aliens” was the fullest flowering of that trend.The show works to turn matters of expertise into questions of faith. Time after time, statements about belief don’t just contend with but demolish the testimony of actual experts. At the start of season two, the program explores Marcahuasi, a high Peruvian plateau filled with strange rock formations.
The camera pans over the landscape, and Clotworthy narrates:
Most geologists consider the many stone formations on the plateau to be naturally formed. Born of millions of years of erosion and other natural processes. But is there more here than first meets the eye? Some consider Marcahuasi to be a massive sculpture garden, filled with carvings left behind by an ancient civilization…Could this be not just a collection of rocks but a sanctuary of stone monuments made by people tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago?
A parade of breathless ancient alien theorists follows Clothworthy and details Marcahuasi’s special energies and vibrations, extraterrestrial visitations, and potential as a landing site for Noah’s Ark, their every statement backed up by, “I believe,” “I believe,” “I believe.” The show, by way of Clotworthy’s narration, makes sure we know that compared to these luminaries, “most geologists” are a bunch of shit-kicking dirt-lookers.
Hofstadter traced anti-intellectualism to the founding of the republic, but the particular sneering smugness of the show towards science and experts in general is newer than it feels. Climate change is the sine qua non for anti-science “scholarship” in the US today, but even George W. Bush couldn’t write it off or deny it completely, either in 2001 or in 2007.
“Ancient Aliens” deployed its anti-scientism earlier than the G.O.P., and beat out Donald Trump’s beliefs about birth certificates by a full two years. Both they and the show rely on an attitude that Hannah Arendt called “vulgarity,” which, “with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories carried with it a frank admission of the worst and a disregard for all pretenses,” something that viewers, whether of Fox News or “Ancient Aliens,” take not as a criminal condescension, but which they “mistake for courage and a new style of life.”
The courage of “Ancient Aliens” lies in telling its truths in the face of the “scientists” and “mainstream historians” that Clotworthy sets up and knocks down. It is brave in the same way that Trump is brave when he spits on the establishment, that Jeffrey Lord and the other conservative hacks are brave when they spit into the wind. And as I slogged through the show’s twelve seasons, that vulgarity became a full-on assault against truth, something as absurd to see on the History Channel as it has been in the White House.From the beginning, the evidence presented in “Ancient Aliens” was weak. The models, the re- and mis- and kind of un-interpretations of scripture, the half-explanations of history, all of it plain bunkum.
At various points, the series turns to the Anasazi, a Native American tribe that abandoned its cliff-carved civilization in Utah centuries ago. In a line of thinking possibly cribbed from the “X-Files,” Clotworthy explains that “some ancient astronaut theorists, like author David Childress, propose that there is in fact more to the disappearance of the Anasazi elders than a simple migration.” Cut to Childress, standing in front of a stone wall covered in Anasazi carvings. He indicates several spirals carved into the cliff.
“Archaeologists believe that they represent the sun. But some of these spirals are very unusual. One even has little spirals coming off of it. So you have to ask yourself, ‘Are these spirals in fact representations of some kind of portal? Some door to another dimension?’”
But then “Ancient Aliens” turned up something interesting: that there are no scientific explanations for the right angles and worked stones of the too-sunken “city” at Yonaguni; that the Dogon people of Mali had folklore about Sirius B, a star that is not visible to the naked eye; that there’s a clear contemporary account of an aerial attack on the army of Alexander the Great.
Each time, maybe predictably, the show was just lying. It’s not common that stones settle like they have at Yonaguni, but it’s not that rare either. It’s not really clear what the Dogon were talking about, and it’s likely that Europeans misinterpreted something they really wanted to hear. Some Italian dude either mistranslated a source or created the Alexander story out of whole cloth. After the fourth or fifth time it happened, I got tired of looking things up and began assuming that anything interesting on the show must be fake. It’s the same thing we do with whatever comes out of the President and his Twitter account.
The show turns by the second season from ancient to recent alien visits, and its fantastical history as quickly becomes conspiracy, a web of plots that ties together Roswell with Hitler, the Cold War with the Mexican Zone of Silence, and implicates what must be most of the world’s governments in extraterrestrial schemes.
Hofstadter noted that the paranoid in America make similar efforts to construct elaborate conspiratorial worldviews, and in the same way that Joe McCarthy and Robert Welch “offered a full-scale interpretation of our recent history in which Communists figure at every turn,” the current crop of right-wing fabulists have done as well as Ancient Aliens in creating an all-encompassing, through-a-glass vision of the world.
With the help of winks and nods from the G.O.P., the raving fantasy of the far right has become acknowledged reality for a huge number of Americans: 9/11 was a government plot; Barack Obama is a Muslim; Agenda 21 is a UN plan to take over the USA; Pizzagate; Seth Rich; FEMA camps. It’s hard to listen to Clothworthy in a 2016 episode ask, “Was the Cold War really an orchestrated event intended to serve as a smokescreen for governments to harvest extraterrestrial technology?” And flip to Alex Jones trying to argue that the Newtown shooting was a false-flag operation on NBC and not realize that these two things are of a piece.
Hannah Arendt wrote that one of the strengths of totalitarian propaganda is not that it twists the truth but that it ignores truth entirely. Its content, for the members of the movement, “is no longer an objective issue about which people may have opinions, but has become as real and untouchable an element in their lives as the rules of arithmetic.” It is the leadership’s ability and willingness to swear, knowingly, to each new lie that allows the true believers that make up the body of the movement to forgo critical thought and mountains of contrary evidence.
As I got further and further into “Ancient Aliens,” I saw a similar dynamic emerge among the regulars, like Childress and Tsoukalos. In the first episode of Season 10, Childress goes out on a boat with two alien enthusiasts who think they’ve found something on the bottom of Lake Michigan. They drop a sonar rig in the water and a random jumble of rocks show up onscreen. Childress looks for a few seconds and says, “Yeah, this does look like an artificial alignment.” Later, one of the enthusiasts takes a camera underwater to show Childress a carving of a mastodon on one of the rocks.
You know, right there. On the rock.
Childress doesn’t miss a beat. “It does look like the stone has been carved. Yeah, you can see the legs and a trunk on it. Wow, that’s amazing. Yeah, I’m convinced!”
Whatever else about him, Dave Childress was in 2009 a serious man. He’d traveled the world and done the research and written books. Within the strange world of extraterrestrialists, he was an authority. But on the show, and on that boat, he became a kind of actor, part of the show’s own cynical hierarchy, performing belief for the two yokels and for us, the viewers.
Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and even Paul Ryan were in their way serious people. They went to real schools and did real work. Paul Ryan, for all that he built his career on trying to do great evil in the world, was at least up front about it. Spicer had been known around DC as a stand-up guy. But they made it their jobs, not to shill for bad things they believe in—as Childress had pursued for most of his life a weak theory of aliens that he actually believed in—but for an ever-changing raft of lies that they’ve never countenanced, and which they admit in leaks and in private to know to be false.
Postman pretty famously contended that it would be A Brave New World for us and not 1984. But “Ancient Aliens” might be sending us hints that we don’t have to pick and choose. Trump’s neither charismatic enough to be our Hitler nor smart enough to be our Big Brother, but it might be that we’ve indulged our worst tendencies deeply and long enough to let Trump and his band of “crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is the best guarantee of their loyalty” to do us real and lasting harm. We reached a point in 2009 when one of the hoary institutions of respectable television felt it could better entertain us by throwing in with dangerous nonsense, and maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to us that the institutions of the real world—from the EPA now working to eliminate evidence of climate change to the White House’s ethics lawyers justifying out and out corruption—are following suit.
1Clotworthy was, coincidentally, also the voice of Jim Raynor in the Starcraft games
Like everyone else, Jon Coumes is a struggling writer, and he produces his podcast on the failures of American foreign policy, Safe for Democracy, from Mexico.