I’ve been watching a number of videos online recently that have addressed the popularity of the Netflix series Ancient Apocalypse, written and hosted by Graham Hancock. These online “debunking” videos, produced with little or no budget, criticize Hancock’s show for advancing highly speculative theories on the basis of little or no evidence.
Hancock has been at this for a while, following in the footsteps of Erich von Däniken’s smash bestseller Chariots of the Gods (Hancock even gave his books titles like Fingerprints of the Gods and Magicians of the Gods). I wanted to get some more insight into the attractiveness of this kind of fantasy history so I checked out a DVD from the library called The Best of Ancient Aliens: Greatest Mysteries. This was a two-disc collection of eight episodes from the popular television series Ancient Aliens. I’d heard of this show, and was of course familiar with the face of Giorgio A. Tsoukalos and his famous meme, but I’d never actually watched any of it. So I stuck it in the machine.
I don’t think I’ve ever given up on a show faster. I made it maybe 15 or 20 minutes in to “Aliens and the Third Reich.” The intro kicks off with some talking head telling us that “a lot of the information we’ve been told about the Second World War is wrong.” Well, no doubt. Especially if you include shows like this. Then we cut straight to the lede: “Did, as some believe, Adolf Hitler base his plans for world domination on secret extraterrestrial knowledge?”
No. No he did not. Nor do I think Nazi rocket technology came from reverse engineering a downed flying saucer.
I then tried to watch a bit of “Alien Tech,” which had to do with the alien influence on the building of ancient megastructures. I think. It just seemed like more bullshit to me. None of the claims being made had much if any evidence to back them up but it was all put across with slick production skills and in documentary style, including interviews with experts whose credentials I didn’t think amounted to much.
Two thoughts came to mind.
First of all, why is this bullshit so popular? It’s been big since at least the ’70s so it’s not a recent phenomenon, but it’s still tempting to tie it in to our contemporary rage against experts and elites who seem to know it all and our appetite for the craziest conspiracy theories imaginable. If you believe that Democrats are shape-shifting lizard people I suppose none of this seems that far-fetched. This brought me back to the well-known passage from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. . . . Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Whenever I come across this sort of “reject authority” babble I find myself agreeing, at least somewhat, with the skeptics and doubters in their questioning of the evidence, but being baffled as to their own alternative theories. Put another way, I can sort of understand why they don’t believe what they don’t believe, but I can’t figure out why they believe what they do. Cynicism shouldn’t have its end in such blank credulity. But Arendt’s observation only brings home what Chesterton said: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
The second, and more depressing if of less immediate concern, point is the fact that television used to be good at putting together quality documentary series that were entertaining and educational. I wrote about this a couple of years ago and tried then to think of some reasons for how and why we’d lost our way. I was only concerned then with what we’d lost, not with what had taken its place.
Of course what drives all this is ratings, and stories about lost civilizations and ancient aliens do attract eyeballs. But it does make you wonder just how much stupider we will get if we continue on this course. I’m heartened by the popularity of some of the debunking videos, but they’re still coming nowhere near the cultural reach of the (underline this!) mainstream media messaging of pseudoarchaeology. It’s almost like there really is a conspiracy afoot to keep us from the truth . .