Popular culture is a shared language to negotiate some kind of sense out of our reality. UFOs have long been part of the warp and weft of television and movies. Usually, they have been symbols of the mysterious and transcendent. To some, they stand in for nearly eschatological hopes; for others, mere relief from the banality of life.
What happens when UFOs become part of the news, as they have started to in the last few years? They inextricably become mired in the mundanities of institutions and news-making individuals who tend to be either wealthy, powerful, or both.
For example, to really follow the UFO news these days, you must know more than a thing or two about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. To grok the Department of Defense announcement of a UAP Task Force, you should know the difference between the Office of Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The mystery now comes with a backpack full of homework and a briefcase full of organizational charts.
That story of a distant, amorphous hope becomes something else: it becomes a story about investigation, mendacity and power. Conspiracy theorists shouldn't get excited. So far, the story doesn't yield to simplification: investigators lie, the powerful sometimes tell the truth, and inveterate liars pursue investigations of their own.
The cultural touchstones to understand modern UFOlogy are no longer Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Communion.
Instead, for me at least, they are The Wire, Succession, and The Boys.
The Culture of Investigators: The Wire's Model of "Good Police"
The visual essay above explores the importance of moral "codes." Watch it first, if you please.
To me, the "Good Police" discussed here resonates with a code of investigation, broadly. That includes scientists, journalists, and anyone earnestly interested in finding something out. To be "Good Police" doesn't mean being an agent of the established order: it means a willingness to sacrifice in order to know, and ultimately, to prove.
Finding out anything that matters causes friction. In science, new experiments disrupt old theories. In high level law enforcement, powerful people go to prison. In journalism, the real stories sting. They leave a mark. There is a lot of yelling the next day.
There are "bosses" in this world that don't want friction – not orchestrators of a grand conspiracy – but usually the gray, forgettable faces that keep some semblance of the system running. The brilliance of The Wire is that it demonstrates that while the "bosses" are usually impediments to meaningful work, they also safeguard elements of the system we can't live without. They prevent friction in order to avoid fires. The battle between "Good Police" and the bosses is the engine of history; the complete victory of one over the other has seldom been a good thing.
In the first season of The Wire, we find the pendulum far on the side of the bosses. They "juke the stats" – sweetening statistics to make themselves look good, even when things are really in shambles. To get anything meaningful done requires sabotage of their careful order. In that regard, McNulty is an agent of righteous chaos. He is unafraid to bend the rules to get something done.
But choices have consequences, don't they? You don't get to "fuck the bosses" without getting fucked in return. Being a habitual agent of righteous chaos, "rebellious curiosity" to quote a friend, is to risk becoming an Avatar of Chaos. And that is what happens in the fifth season; McNulty takes things too far. He contrives a "twisted" wire that ultimately undermines the law he should serve. The pendulum swings.
Every effective investigator I know in modern UFOlogy tells me the same thing: people relentlessly give them shit. Getting documents and testimony out of people is hard. Telling the full truth about what you find is hard. Asking pointed questions is hard. It's harder when the story stings, and people might yell the next day.
And yes, you can go too far – you can actually become a genuine asshole, and not a knight on a quest for truth. Sometimes people have good reasons not to give you what you want.
As the UFO story becomes news, there is likely to be a shift in the central casting of investigators. Marketers of fun stories will give way to figures like McNulty. These people will piss you off, but they'll also find things out. In fact, if they don't have an instinct to "fuck the bosses" then you should suspect that they are not the "Good Police" needed in journalism.
Which brings us to the next subject: when speech becomes mere marketing, as explored in Succession.
Complicated Airflow: Saying What You Mean in the Presence of Wealth and Power
In the interest of being direct, the modern UFO field has a number of wealthy and powerful people in it: Tom DeLonge, Robert Bigelow and Brandon Fugal to name a few.
Succession depicts the rarefied air of the world of the truly wealthy. It is a scathing picture of money and power in America. The visual essay above brilliantly analyzes the centrality of language – of insincere "nothing words" – in that world. To be sure, this disease is not one only of the rich. In business, politics, and life itself, empty language prevails.
As Kendall Roy, ably played by Jeremy Strong, says and also asks: "Words are what? Nothing. Just complicated airflow."
In the world of UFOs, we see that the brand of hopeful mystery requires performances of truth – not actual truth. It is scarcely clearer than in the Skinwalker Ranch saga. The new owner, Brandon Fugal, has promised science and data. To date, he has deferred with newer, prettier promises that a release is now just around the corner. When he has some time. Meanwhile, a reality TV show goes forward despite the obstacle of a global pandemic.
Fugal assures us that he is committed to answering earnest criticism.
Of course, "signal" is for the moment only manifest in a television show – one that cannot constitute evidence, because it is a commercial product designed to entertain. Even if it contains truthful elements, it is not a substitute for actual rigor. A TV investigation is, again, a profitable performance of seeking the truth, but not the substance of it. Any signal is inseparable from noise. What you find in PT Barnum's tent is unlikely to be peer reviewed.
The tweet above is a masterclass of complicated airflow; it has the appearance of sincerity but the effect of deflection.
My wife, who was born in Poland and speaks plainly, taught me a wonderful phrase: słodko pierdzący. It means something like "sweet farts." It makes an effective compliment to "complicated airflow." Poles wisely have a cultural shorthand for this. We should, too.
The usual rebuttal for this (frankly, any) criticism goes: who are you to ask questions? He is saying all the right things and investing money in this venture. Why don't you buy the ranch and accomplish something in the "subject"?
To be sure: I could be wrong in my criticism. Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's speechwriter, addressed the role of rhetoric beautifully in "Let The Word Go Forth." Kennedy planned but didn't have the chance to say:
Words alone are not enough...Where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence. If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.
Later Sorensen conceded:
Not everyone remembers Kennedy's speeches favorably. Some have written that his idealistic messages often set goals that could not realistically be achieved in the lifetime of his audience...Critics on the right have charged that Kennedy often used Cold War rhetoric to advance liberal objectives. They are also right. Critics on the left have charged that Kennedy's tightfisted fiscal policies never matched his attacks on this country's social and economic ills. They also are right.
In short, actual greatness and being słodko pierdzący can commingle. Hot air has indeed been found in the proximity of a genuine fire. But Kennedy had it right, in the end. Strength speaks for itself. As Kendall Roy might say: words can't help the other thing.
It is fair to test the words of the powerful. Allow me a prediction: the challenging comments above will provoke a hearty if not heated defense. Why? Well, that brings us to the last stop on the cultural tour: a study of our relationship to heroes.
You're the Real Hero: Hyperpower and the Illusion of Participation in The Boys
The essay above captures the essential points about The Boys. It is an exploration of superheroes as a collision of Greek gods with the world of Succession. In other words, these are heroes backed by corporations and powered by PR performances of kindness.
Something the video essay missed that I think is essential is Homelander's repeated announcements to the public that they are the real heroes:
Here, even as he abandons people to a mass death he could avoid with some effort, Homelander insists that we – the people he feels only contempt for – are the real heroes after all.
It is not voiced in the show until fairly late, but the motley group of (mostly) regular human beings opposing the likes of Homelander would clearly be labeled as "villains" in typical comic renditions. They spend their time scheming revenge and murder of beloved (but secretly odious) public figures. While the show's protagonists hide in a damp basement, Homelander occupies skyscrapers and is attended to closely by a cowed staff.
This is morally complex stuff, and what makes the show worthwhile despite the toxic overload of superhero stories in recent years.
Here is where it intersects with UFOs. The previously discussed wealthy and powerful individuals often employ "complicated airflow" in order to tell us that we, the adoring public, are the real heroes.
To be clear, I don't think that the names listed above are evil or odious people. Far from it! I think they are largely sincere in their commitment to mystery. At times it is less clear if they are fully committed to the solving of mysteries.
In any event, the technique of enlisting the public to defend rather than question powerful people is eerily similar. It is the illusion of participation that creates the enchantment; the belief in a "UFO frontlines" that has been hilariously lampooned by people like my good friend Marc.
There are intersections with the theme of investigation and "Good Police," too. Homelander is physically protected by his immense power. But more importantly, he is socially protected by the adulation of large numbers of people. Hard questions clearly answered could defeat Homelander. He may be strong, but he is surely not strong enough to fend off the entire world.
But the questions don't come because the McNulty of the world of The Boys, Billy Butcher, has also become corrupted by the system and given up on asking them. At the time we find him, Billy Butcher is deep in the despair of his personal version of "twisted wire." He has become that Avatar of Chaos, and is veering dangerously close to outright terrorism. He is diabolical rather than righteous. It is only with the introduction of a new character, less wounded, that Butcher discovers that journalism is a far more effective weapon than dynamite.
Above I mentioned every good researcher I know has been harassed, name-called, etc. Here is why:
Invariably, these researchers ask tough questions of someone of some power or influence. That person of power often shields themselves with faux populism; they've convinced a considerable number of the public into thinking that they can be "real heroes" by swatting down uncomfortable questions. Good researchers are also persistent; they keep asking that annoying question. The ensuing battle calcifies, and there is a conclusion that the researcher has an "agenda." In a sense, in the minds of these defenders the researcher has become more Billy Butcher than Jimmy McNulty: a villain come for the head of heroes.
And to be sure, it is incumbent on researchers and journalists to ensure that, at worst, they become Jimmy McNulty on a bad day and not Billy Butcher. A person must have a code; one must endeavor to stay on the right side of the wire.
So, remember. That person you celebrate for taking on the Pentagon or a politician might also have reason to ask the occasional tough question of your friendly neighborhood millionaire. And of course, its fair to critique if you think the pendulum has swung too far. In any given moment, the battle between bosses and Good Police is in a dynamic place. McNulty and Butcher get in both good and bad kinds of trouble.
When Dreams Become The News
UFOs have been around a long time. What comes next in the community of people interested in them is not hard to predict.
Some people who cherish their imagination of what the story is will not be pleased to have reality intrude upon them. Their desire to guard a dream leads to resisting investigation. They will seek to shield the already powerful and the already wealthy from questioning, if it protects the dream. What is their alternative? By finding out, they risk losing that dream.
In short, the unscratched lottery ticket is usually more fun than the scratched one.
To borrow a phrase from The Wire, defenders of the dream will want to "juke the stats" to safeguard an entertaining or hopeful story. They will impute meaning in complicated airflow, and in the willful maintenance of avoidable ambiguities. And for it, they will be praised as The Real Heroes by champions and profiteers of the mysterious.
It is a delightful but perhaps unsurprising paradox: those committed to the image of the intellectual rebel, truth-teller, and disruptor of the status quo are so often consumer advocates of a brand that requires no real questions to be asked. Only the appearance of questioning.
As The Wire tell us, Good Police get in trouble. They expend something. Usually universal goodwill is the first thing to go.
I've yet to encounter a meaningful news story that did not have a good, bad and ugly side. The "Good" story comes for free. The bad and the ugly come at a cost. Good Police pay it, and they often aren't entirely likable for it. They are not brand advocates with so much complicated airflow, being so much "słodko pierdzący."
Meanwhile in our big world where most people don't care much about UFOs, the newspaper coverage gradually grows. The homework gets longer and more complex, and the grading curve less generous. It requires an appreciation of the Pentagon as a real place with about 25,000 human occupants, all with some measure of ambition and self-interest. Not the fantasy of craggy generals and sharp salutes in movies like Independence Day.
The homework should get harder. The basics here are starkly problematic: either there is something strange but real in the atmosphere (and perhaps oceans) or there isn't. If there isn't something there and powerful people with defense budgets at their commands are convinced of it nonetheless, we need to attend to that. Urgently. If you don't think so, please go watch Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Attending to this issue – once largely a dream and now news – first means thinking about it seriously. Culture plays a role in that process. We can't afford to do it with the baggage of our favorite stories about possibilities. We need our most incisive stories about realities.