I have recently returned from Roswell, NM. Roswell is a dusty, blue collar desert town with a large hispanic population, a surprising amount of contemporary art and yes…aliens.
You hare most likely aware of Roswell’s reputation as a center for extra terrestrial activity, due mostly to the famous news story about a flying saucer landing nearby. The saucer was the next day identified as a weather balloon (and the government balloon project was later declassified), but as interest in science fiction tales of aliens grew in the 70’s and 80’s, there was an uptick in interest in the “Roswell incident“. The town’s UFO museum celebrates the incident, attracting a steady stream of curious visitors. I tend to seek out these kind of places where there exists some confusion and interesting questions regarding fact, belief, and opinion. Who owns and propagates these narratives? Who benefits? These answers are on display downtown Roswell at the UFO Museum (just down the street from the Roswell Museum & Art Center where I recently had a piece included in a group exhibition).
I am a Scully. But while I maintain a skeptic’s bias, I admit that there are things we cannot explain, and admit that I may be wrong about a lot of things. What makes me queasy about conspiracy theories, however, is not dogma but the way certain theories and narratives are propagated and commodified over time, and the ways these theories distract from real histories about location and power.
Whether you judge a museum by the quality of exhibit craftsmanship, the consideration of space and flow from room to room, or the social value of artifacts present, the Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center lacks a professional sheen. To visit, one must embrace the side-show flavor. And unsurprisingly, visitors readily do, stumbling by the thousands to shell out $10 and leave town with a tee-shirt or something green and plastic. I may or may not have been one of those people! I want to believe, like everyone else. And like many I crave an authentic experience of mystery and weirdness.
As residents of a young country, we Americans are especially craving authentic ancient experiences, narratives that construct a sense of place that is deeper or perhaps more palatable than the historical narratives we have. But unfortunately, we need not rely on aliens to see the results of a wide-scale government cover-up: the truth is out there and the truth is that the establishment of every U.S. town was predicated on an effort to eradicate native cultures. Perhaps cultural discomfort with this fact is explains why native peoples are frequently the subjects of contemporary alien myths, while the living terrestrial rights of natives are ignored. Tellingly, even the wikipedia history of Roswell begins with “The first nonindigenous or Hispanic settlers of the area around Roswell were…” as if non-white (or non-green) inhabitants never counted.
A rejection of the presence and success of native cultures pervades nearly every aspect of conspiracy theory lore, manifesting itself lately (and most popularly) as a rejection of the ancient Egyptians facility as architects and engineers, to the denial of the Mayans cultural agency as creators of brilliant astronomical calendars. All of this essentially perpetuates an unsettling myth: that the only creatures capable of possessing equal or greater technologies or wisdom to contemporary Americans, now or ever before, are extraterrestrials. Is the maintenance of alien narratives merely an upside-down mechanism by which we may marvel at our own technological feats while denying the accomplishments of other groups?
Aliens’ speed, their command over space and time, their use of riveted metals and steel crafts make them the ultimate poster children of our industrial revolution and imperialist desires. But the radio silence that pervades the universe may be a sign of a another conflicting narrative: that the human desire for exploration, colonization and ultimately destruction is fortunately quite unique (at least as far as we know as of the time of this writing). Many species on earth seem content in their respective hospitable zones. This is not a predilection Europeans or Americans have ever known, and consequently we are not want to accept the embrace of this attitude by others on earth or elsewhere.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 21st annual UFO festival costume contest, essentially a comicon like event full of uber-nerds like me. Contrasted within a large, generic conference hall were a great many alien types on display. Among my favorite costumes were the conquering and terrifying Predator from the Schwarzenegger movie, characters from the morally binary Star Wars universe and some friendly, bubbly blue or green types from some unnamed benevolent races. The event was a quirky showcase of ingenuity and featured young and old aliens. But rather than discovering any evidence of real alien visitors, I left feeling good about human ingenuity and creativity.
Aliens are us. Rarely are aliens wholly other; more frequently they represent the most terrible and awesome parts of our humanity. We can project onto them our hopes fears and desires, for peace or destruction, for terror or knowledge. Perhaps in some distant future, in some galaxy far far away little green men are visiting a museum gift shop to purchase plastic key chains shaped like human heads. Perhaps too, there’s some gangly green being skeptically pounding away at a thousand-key holographic keyboard into a social media vacuum. What else can we do but send our signals into the ether? Existence is the moving of molecules. If there are other willful movers of molecules in the multiverse, let them share an affinity for creativity, not destruction, for their sake and the sake of their oldest native populations.