Friday, September 30, 2016

Real Conspiracies and Conspiracy Stories that Sell – Part 2

My last post was raising the question as whether the content of UFO-related conspiracies is actually possible. This question was not asked based on whether extra-terrestrial life is possible, nor if it is possible to produce technological devices to travel the vastness of interstellar space. The actual veracity of UFO conspiracy has never been proven (i.e. what is allegedly hidden), so this is not an issue that can be addressed in any meaningful way. Similarly, the question was not about how human can invent such narrative about conspiracies and get such narrative spreading throughout popular culture. Social scientists have already studied this issue in great detail. No, my question is in many ways much more sociological in nature, and it is about whether humans can actually enact such conspiracies?

There are many variations of the UFO-related conspiracies, and it would completely unrealistic trying to assess them all. So, I intend to focus on the main characteristics rather than specific elements that might be unique to one version or another. The narratives linked to UFO conspiracies are not a new, and pre-dated very much the Roswell story that emerged in the late 1970s. Very early in the 1950s, the issue as to whether the American government was not truthful about its knowledge of UFOs was raised by a number of authors. Just as an example, in 1953 Donald Keyhoe wrote that “the secret intelligence analysis should be made public, with all the evidence which led to the final conclusion. […] their massed evidence that the saucers are interplanetary […]” [1]. The same story is repeated a dozen years later by Coral Lorenzen, as she states that the layman “[…] is faced with the fact that official opinions often contradict the available evidence. He concludes that a ‘conspiracy of official silence exists’ concerning ‘true facts’ "[2].

These two examples illustrate the basic, or original, conspiracy about UFOs. Summarily, it can be described as “the government” (whatever that means) knowing the true nature of UFOs, which is that they are spaceships from another world and are driven by aliens visiting the Earth. The intents of the aliens are not clear, but “the government” knows what it is, and it may be an accomplice in having done some sort of deal with the aliens. For reasons unclear, “the government” refuses to disclose such knowledge publicly.
There is a more sophisticated version of the conspiracy story surrounding UFOs. It is less dramatic but also much less popular, and it is based on the notion that there are real anomalies linked to the UFO phenomenon, and people in “the government” know about it, but they do not really know what to make of it. They may have some small secret programmes to keep track of them, but these are not terribly successful. Yet, there is a fear that governmental ignorance might be seen as problematic by the population, and therefore “the government” prefers hiding the little it actually knows, and suppresses those who want to discuss it. This is actually a reasonable statement, and there is enough evidence to show that it was more or less true some time ago. Yet, “the government” also hides secret research programmes behind stage fake UFO events to confuse people, distract attention, and potentially trying to influence populations for purposes that are quite unclear. This is also a reasonable statement, as there is evidence to support it, but it dies not seem to be as extensive as one might imagine. Finally, the phenomenon being itself quite elusive, seems to be engaged in its own cover-up, independent from the one of “the government”. This last secret can be explained by the elusiveness of psi, and does not require a non-human intelligence to be. Jacques Vallée is a well-known representative of this view on UFO-related conspiracies. In his book Dimensions: A casebook of alien contact (1988), he has an entire chapter on this issue entitled the “Triple Cover-up".

Some people might say that people or artefacts actually came forward with the “real deal”. Yet, those stories appear to be make-belief events, as many analysts noted about Philip Corso, Bob Lazar, several of the Roswell “witnesses” and the quasi-totality of the Majestic papers, which after much verifications leave us rather empty handed.
So, what should we make of all of this?
As noted in the previous post, the first characteristic to keep in mind is that secrecy is a normal social dynamics found in every walk of life. To find secrets surrounding UFOs is actually normal. A complete lack of secrecy would be actually suspicious. The fact that many governments of the world have surrendered most of their UFO files over the years (as noted in  my book Illuminations), but have kept a few away from the public eye is actually a good sign. We are dealing with a “normal” secrecy situation. The next question should be: are there secrets worth trying to keep to maintain social relationships? Obviously, the military and the defense establishment have relationships with their parent state, which they are charged to defend. Secrets involving the protection of the state are therefore to be expected. As UFO-related documents are being declassified over time, every single UFO files that remained classified for a longer time had a component that, if revealed at the time of the first disclosure, would have endangered the relationship (e.g. individuals named in documents, sensitive detection system still operational, sensitive military activities, etc.). There are no big alien invasion stories, ever. There is only attempts to protect relationships of trust between various parts of the government. Furthermore, those declassified files illustrate that the direct or indirect admittance of governmental ignorance about UFOs was finally acknowledged. The cover-up about governmental ignorance is no more, because no one inside or outside government seems able to crack the UFO mystery in any meaningful way; there is nothing to be ashamed of anymore.

Then, there are relationships with industries involving at times massive amounts of money, which demand secrecy (to keep the technological edge of both the supplier and the client). New technologies are constantly developed and new military applications are routinely classified. This is perfectly normal. This illustrates that only something valuable need to be keep secret, the second characteristics of secrecy. Yet, once again, when a secret loses its value, the secrets goes away. A good example of it is about balloons and UFOs. The US Air Force historical service published in 1958 Contributions to Balloon Operations to Research and Development, an unclassified document. In there, (pp. 72-74) it states clearly that balloons were often mistaken for UFOs and they knew about it, and the chief scientist Gildenberg even wrote in the unclassified Holloman base newspaper about this issue. By 1958, balloon-based research had lost its edge, and there was no need to keep the secret about it. Gildenburg testified at the U.S. Air Force official investigation on Roswell in the mid-1990s, saying the same thing he wrote in 1950s…. Once again, no sinister secrets about alien invasion. Once the need to camouflage technological research into UFO stories is gone, people are quite open about it. Another example can be found in the Project Beta (2005), written by Greg Bishop, where he describes an elaborate UFO-related scheme that was put in place for distracting a ufologist to figure out the latest research on ground to satellite communications. Bishop, years later once that technology was no more a big deal, was able to uncover the whole story without major difficulties, people readily admitting what they did.

This leads us to the third characteristics, which is about that it is hard to keep secrets. People will talk, especially if they have an issue with those who keep them out of the secret. The UFO literature is filled with stories of people who were told to shut up, and one of the latest incarnations of these stories can be found in the various testimonies of the Disclosure Project Briefing Document (2001), produced by Steven M. Greer. Yet, a closer look at those testimonies shows that there were attempts to put a lid on UFO stories, not that their actual alien-related content was true or proven… A critical distinction. The document attempts to show that there was a conspiracy about the "conspiracy". From a sociological perspective, this needs to be interpreted in a sound perspective. Those who are kicked out of the secret tend to talk, especially if it is done in a hurtful way. That does not mean the had a good understanding of the secret, especially if they stumbled on the secret by accident. Yet, even more importantly, many other people who were “in”, once they leave in good terms, actually do speak as well! All those military people and officials who came forward telling their story about the “no big deal” are also participating in spilling the secret. Their voice cannot be ignored just because it is inconvenient. There stories are also quite clear that those UFO-related secrets were not about aliens from other space or bizarre and complicated social experiments conducted for nebulous reasons. The secret is consistently described as much pragmatic and down-to-earth in nature and quite localized in scope.

Finally, the last characteristics is about the ethical nature of secrets. The less ethical and the more people involved the harder it is to keep it secret. The vast majority of people in the military and defense establishments are actually very ethical people. Once they get engaged in something unethical, the secret is bound to come out, even if it takes some time to occur. One can think about the MK-Ultra experiment or the secret military operations in Cambodia during the Vietnam War or the Abu Ghraib scandal; people’s conscience will eventually act out. If the governments of the world would have a sinister grand deal with aliens going back all the way to the 1940s, it would have been out long time ago. Similarly, if grand scale weird, complicated, and risky techno-social experiment would have been conducted in various areas of the world, this would have come out too. Unethical conspiracies to be enacted by normally ethical people do not remain secret for long. 

Does any proponent of UFO-related conspiracies actually try to make sense of them sociologically? After all, conspiracies are human-made and are therefore explainable by tools of social and human sciences! But of course, these proponents do not feel any need to meet such requirement. Why would they? It makes their stories a lot more interesting and captivating. It allows their stories to remain consistent with the original UFO narrative. In the end, it helps selling books of a particular genre. In other cases, it is partially unconscious, as some of those authors come to believe their own stories in spite of the blatant lack of evidence, and their complete inability to explain why such grand and risky conspiracies would be put in place. This explains why such dynamics can go on forever.

In fact, if there is a conspiracy it is the one put forward by the numerous UFO-related authors going back all the way to the 1950s and their unscrupulous publishers (and now audio-visual producers)who are maintaining alive the narrative about conspiracies. Like in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum we have a conspiracy about imagined conspiracies. But let's face it: this little dirty secret has been out for quite a while. It is seriously time to move on.

[1] Keyhoe, Donald. (1953). Flying Saucers From Outer Space. New York: Permabooks, p. 217.

[2] Lorenzen, Coral. (1966). Flying Saucers: The startling evidence of the invasion from space. New York: Signet, p. 278.


1 comment:

Lawrence said...

There is a subtext here that is both sinister and obtuse. That is this belief in the UFO ET cover-up conspiracy by NASA, the Pentagon etc. goes hand in hand with the scapegoating of Big Government for all the ills in the world, and a denial of personal culpability and responsibility. This is not to say that governments aren't culpable or malevolent, just that they are not removed from civil society, institutions (such as schools, universities, churches, NGOs) and social forces. The belief that the US govt knows the truth about UFOs also gives an omniscience to govt (as you say it is not even a monolithic entity) that it no more possesses than the US National Academy of Sciences. At the same time people complain about govt ineptitude, know-nothingness and incompetence; and yet these self-same people dream up fanciful conspiracies that imply genius, foresight and acumen never displayed by any government or society in history. This contradiction is not even recognized, because the need for a belief in conspiracy is overriding.

If anything, things are getting worse as society continues to disintegrate at the economic, social and political level. As such, these discredited conspiracies (and others) will not only not go away, they will only continue to metastaze and evolve over time.