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Everyone takes UFOs seriously now. But they reveal more about the politics of the Earthlings

The Pentagon is due to release a highly anticipated report next month – but most Americans already believe in the most radical explanations for UFOs A still from an unclassified and widely circulated US Navy pilot video showing “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Photo: DoD / AFP / Getty Images The truth probably isn’t out there, but something is. Next month, the Pentagon is due to present Congress with a long-awaited report on its research on what the military calls unidentified aerial phenomena, but the rest of the world calls UFOs. Since the New York Times reported the existence of a $ 22 million Pentagon program dedicated to investigating reported sightings of UFOs by military personnel – along with startling videos of the phenomenon – there has been a steady stream of leaks. Senators from Harry Reid to Marco Rubio have interfered and are demanding that the issue be taken seriously. Now even Barack Obama says that the government has been seeing objects in flight for years that “we cannot explain”. A society’s reaction to things it cannot explain always tells us more about society than about the matter itself. And so far the reaction has been remarkably subdued. Perhaps the simplest explanation for the relative shrug with which these recent revelations have been received is that many Americans already believe the most radical explanation for it. According to a survey, two-thirds of Americans believe that intelligent life can be found on other planets, 56% believe that we have made contact with them or will have contact within 100 years, and over half believe that UFOs could be alien spaceships . Surveys have shown similar results for decades – albeit with a high degree of sensitivity for the formulation of the question. Despite the enormous metaphysical and spiritual consequences that would result, few people organize their lives according to these beliefs. Those dedicated “ufologists” who do this are largely ridiculed. As America’s response to the coronavirus has shown, many people find it difficult to anticipate the moral implications of the existence of other people, let alone other sentient species. The issues that preoccupy the country’s political and media elites are much more immediate and visceral. If the figures in the sky have a position on abortion, gun rights, or Mitch McConnell, they haven’t announced it yet. Until then, their relevance to the news cycle will remain limited. However, some commentators have already ventured where (almost) no commentator has been, thus revealing our political moment. The liberal writer Ezra Klein, for example, hoped for a connecting moment, like the one that happens in science fiction, when humanity puts its differences aside after the first contact with a foreign species. But like American society, science fiction has changed in a way that shows how overwhelming and artificial such moments can be. Science fiction has always been a kind of magic mirror in which we see what our own species should be or, conversely, fear that it will be. A genre that used to consist mainly of strong white men united against alien hordes is also home to writers like Becky Chambers, Ann Leckie and Octavia Butler, whose novels highlight the diversity of human identities and relationships – sexual, gender, class and racial. These different perspectives show how a real first contact would be politically and culturally. Observers would rummage through the evidence (What is the alien’s family and economic structure? Do they believe in God?) To find confirmation of their own values and use them as a club against those of others. The breakup of modern identity and the understanding that consensus often hides oppression makes it difficult to envision a moment of unification even in the most extreme circumstances, regardless of liberal hopes. On the right, Christian writers and thinkers have subtly asserted the superiority of their own worldview in interpreting the phenomenon. Some Christians argue that nothing in their beliefs precludes the existence of alien beings and that Christianity can even welcome such beings on the path to salvation. More telling for right-wing views, however, is Tucker Carlson’s recent intervention in the debate, in which he beat up the Pentagon for taking diversity issues more seriously than the UFO threat. This reminds us that parts of American Christianity – especially white evangelical Protestantism – are often as concerned with identitary nationalism as they are with religious beliefs. Groups that were most supportive of crackdown on refugees and other people they consider “aliens” might think differently about actual aliens. But is it likely? Indeed, most of society seems willing to view UFOs primarily as a security threat that requires a military response. This not only says something about the human psyche, but also costs an understanding of the phenomenon. It stifles the free flow of information. It also means that those at the center of the investigation are predisposed to certain types of questions. The narrow question of whether UFOs pose a national security risk is worth investigating, but it hardly exhausts what we need to know. A world where most curiosity is laughed at or shrugged while the military monopolizes serious research is a world where priorities are out of whack. We shouldn’t expect the Pentagon report to provide evidence of life on other worlds. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless or that even the most ardent skeptics should ignore it. After greeting it and briefly gazing at the stars, we should use it as an opportunity to remember the other truths that UFOs can reveal – those that are not out there but buried deep within ourselves. Andrew Gawthorpe is a United States historian at Leiden University and host of America Explained podcast

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