Monday, October 11, 2010

All the Myths are True (a little fun)

One of my favorite songs over the last few years, and one eminently suited for the topics this site covers is Abney Park's "All the Myths are True." It's all about legends, monsters, lost cities, zombies and the like. They had me at "Scientists unearth enormous skeletons" You'll hear what I mean.

Now, you can listen to it with Abney Park's Electro-Mechanical Music Listening Machine. Just twist the dial until the song you want is lined up with the selector cog within the machine's face. Or the winding stem. It's a little cantankerous.

If you haven't guessed already, Abney Park is one of the music groups flying the steampunk flag. The band flies the H. M. S. Ophelia, on the lookout for zeppelin freighters to plunder, and dodging air krakens of the sort we covered over the last two years.

You can check more of their music (I loved their last album Aether Shanties, and they've got a new one coming out this week) and other sundry goods at their site or myspace.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Fantasies of Control: Government and Supernatural Fears

Image by RadioKirik (Wikicommons)

A recent news item, and two book releases concerning UFOs and the US government, got me thinking about the concept of government reaction to claims of the paranormal.

According to a recent Freedom of Information disclosure from the Dyfed Powys police in Wales, UK. In the past five years, they've dealt with 86 calls concerning witches, as well as
"one call about a werewolf, seven about vampires, 19 about UFOs, 13 about big cats, 73 reports of ghosts, 16 of zombies, 35 of demons, five regarding big foot sightings, 33 of monsters and 18 about wizards"

One of the more cliched ideas in fantastical fiction is that of the government agency that polices the supernatural. While there are more fantastical examples in fiction, the most cliched version boils down to a secret organization, with an odd number or acronym in its name, that investigates and eliminates paranormal threats, often containing them in some fashion. I don't know what the earliest version of the concept is in either folklore or fiction, but by the 1980s it had already become something of a humerous trope (warning: link to addictive tvtropes site, where they call this is some variation on the Extranormal Institute and its subtype Secret Government Warehouse). Current examples include the MiB in the Men in Black Films, Warehouse 13 and Fringe on television, the B.P.R.D in comics, X-Com and Delta Green
in games, and amongst plenty of examples in print, Charles Stross' "The Laundry" (such as his recent The Fuller Memorandum).

More intriguing are the two sorts of groups that appear in both folklore and reporting in the real world. The UFO world in particular has had an obsession with government conspiracies and secret organizations for decades, crystallizing in the form of the Majestic documents, discredited in the eyes of many within and without of ufology. The original documents describe a high-level, shadow-cabinet of sorts, set up after various flying saucer crashes in the 1940s and early 1950s, but subsequent documents include operations manuals and other suggestions of active operations. The operations of Project Moon Dust and other government agencies (US and otherwise) to retrieve objects fallen from space have been brought into the larger UFO mythology. Such efforts, aimed at collecting and exploiting foreign military and aerospace technology, have been enmeshed into Majestic and other ufolore. Paranormal researcher Christopher O'Brien has suggested government or other secret special forces-style occult teams as explaining part of the patterns he finds in cattle mutilations, as he discusses with Greg Bishop on the podcast Radio Misterioso in January 2005. Like something out of the B.P.R.D., he suggests that copycat cattle mutilations may be rituals by such a group to counteract the activities of possibly non-human entities, ultramodern blood sacrifices to deal with ultraterrestrials, if you will.

As exciting as these ideas are, more documented paranormal task forces within government seem to be much less proactive, or active at all. The fall into one of two categories.

The first are those willing to use paranormal beliefs as psychological and propaganda weapons. Legends and supernatural beliefs, most famously Filipino vampire myth, have been used in combat, with mixed success. The CIA thought flying saucers made a great human interest story to flood the Guatemalan papers when their plans for a coup had been exposed, and also were happy for some UFO reports to continue when they were actually sightings of the U-2 and other spy planes (the Soviets made similar efforts regarding space launches). Mark Pilkington's recent book Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs suggests that much of the UFO phenomenon can actually be chalked up to such intelligence activities. I have not read this book and cannot evaluate its claims. Arguably Project Bluebook would fall into this category. The very public US Air Force project was in reality a small operation based out of Ohio, and while it did occasionally conduct field investigations of UFO sightings, such as the Socorro, New Mexico landing or the Kelly-Hopkinsville goblin siege, scientific advisor J. Allen Hynek and others have made it clear that the office was primarily an effort to minimize public concerns and interest in UFOs, in keeping with the recommendations of the Robertson Panel.

The second type is intriguingly close to the fictional and more impressive folkloric concepts. Harold Blum's Out There: The Government's Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials suggested back in 1992 that there was an informal UFO study group composed of officers of the intelligence and military communities. Blum's findings would eventually be echoed by the work of Jon Ronson and others culminating in The Men Who Stare at Goats, including some of the same individuals and groups, as well as the release of information on Project Stargate, the CIA psychic/remote viewing project. Despite plenty of myth-making all around, there was clearly at least one set of officers within the military and intelligence establishment that pursued paranormal interests and studies. Similar projects have been declassified by the British Ministry of Defense.

So it is with both interest and skepticism that I mention the most recent high profile claim of an intra-governmental paranormal study and action group. Nick Redfern chronicles (I have listened to and read several discussions of Mr. Redfern's findings, including some on his blog for this book, but not the book itself) in FINAL EVENTS and the Secret Government Group on Demonic UFOs and the Afterlife the tale of a loose group that became convinced that UFOs are actually demonic in nature, and that the transformation of American society to a Christian fundamentalist culture is necessary to defend against these forces. This belief is persistent amongst a subset of UFO followers, and I believe it is growing. Given the public resurgence of the Christian right in recent years, and especially in the training and top-level conduct of the military and government, the concept is controversial but timely. I would like to see some of the evidence that such a group might exist, but its existence is eminently plausible. Just as eastern religious ideas influenced the individuals described in The Men Who Stare at Goats, we would expect more radical Christian ideas to be reflected by some in the power establishment, no matter what you think of those ideas.

All of these groups and efforts, real or imagined, are about control. A classic skeptical critique of conspiracy theory is that people unable to accept that an unruly world is chaotic, imagine secret controlling factions, placing events in someone's hands (even if they are sinister hands), belieinv that someone is in control. While I am a skeptic, I've never liked that idea much, it doesn't make a lot of sense either logically or from experience. Sure, we might feel more comforted if we believe that in the case of catastrophe, say an asteroid impact, that there is some super-secret organization which will spring into action and save us. But I don't see how belief in all-powerful conspiracies controlling the world to the detriment of the believer and society is terribly comforting. Instead, in many cases it seems, in my experience, that belief in a powerful evil conspiracy allows for belief in a powerful counterforce. The New World Order/Satan will rouse good patriots or Christians to battle in a final war and be victorious. Moral decay and oppression acts as a backdrop for enlightened consciousness and transformation into a New Age. This perhaps is comforting, not in imagining control in the hands of a conspiracy, but instead providing the believer with an enemy to fight, something to focus angst upon rather than ill-defined unease.

In the cases of psychological warfare and propaganda, control is the obvious goal. Here, the right words or symbols, including powerfully charged supernatural symbols, are hoped to magically bend a population's or an enemy's will, without the application of brute force physical violence. A push button society, controllable through manipulation, is a technocratic dream of the modern era, by the intelligence officer and the ad man alike.

And lastly, in the case of government paranormal action groups, control is indeed sought over an unruly world. The UFO phenomenon is believed to be maddeningly chaotic to many who study it, to the point that the "trickster" concept from anthropology and mythology has become a popular buzzword in the community. Likewise, parapsychology has a long history of fitful starts and stops, vague and problematic findings and methods, and lack of scientific progress. Individuals feeling as such, but with organizational power at their fingertips, have a tool to possibly control some of that chaos. On the other hand, such beliefs can be a key to understanding and controlling the logic of a chaotic world. Projects like Stargate, the remote viewing effort of the CIA, are shortcuts to hopefully better results than those obtained through traditional intelligence work.