“Doubt thou the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love” – William Shakespeare
Whenever academics and the luminaries of the self-identified skeptic intelligentsia start talking about esotericism and “occulture” from a sociological perspective, it makes me a little queasy. It’s like hearing an atheist recognizing the social utility of religion, by which they unsubtly mean, “society needs some kind of mechanism to control these morons”.
So, skeptics are concerned. Skeptics are always concerned about something, but these days there has been a steady stream of books, articles, and web content bemoaning a remarkable rise in interest in strange phenomena, alternative history, conspiracy theories, the paranormal, the occult, and all those delicious subjects lumped together under the rubric “fringe”.
Of course, the first point we can examine skeptically (see what I did there?) is the contention that there has been a groundswell in mainstream interest towards fringe topics, Forteana, and the various and sundry phenomena that defy natural explanation or contradict the accepted cannon of physicalist scientific inquiry. This is the skeptic equivalent of Chicken Little’s falling skies, and loosely translated is meant to imply that people are getting stupider. Not that it isn’t verifiable that the majority of the human race would float if dropped in a “bowl of clue”, but that has been and probably always will be the case. But as any good marketer or propogandist will tell you, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Preferably with a megaphone. And cool uniforms. And fancy titles. And learned outlets for the publication of scholarly tracts. And gosh darn it, get yourself some foundations and think tanks if you’re really serious.
Skeptics repeatedly sound the alarm whenever one of the numerous surveys regarding paranormal beliefs hits the news (such as the periodic Chapman University Survey of American Fears), which in its latest iteration said, “Currently the most common paranormal belief in the United States is the belief that ancient, advanced civilizations, such as Atlantis once existed with more than half of respondents (55%) agreeing or strongly agreeing with this statement. Slightly more than half (52%) believe that places can be haunted by spirits. More than a third (35%) believe that that aliens visited Earth in our ancient past and more than a fourth believe aliens have come to Earth in modern times (26%). Of the items we asked about, Americans are the most skeptical about Bigfoot, with only approximately 16% of Americans expressing belief in its existence”, and furthermore states, “Simply put, the person with the highest number of paranormal beliefs in the United States as of 2017 will tend to be a lower income, female living in a rural area in the Western states. She tends to be politically conservative and claims to be highly religious, although she actually attends religious services infrequently. She is either currently single or cohabitating with someone and reports her race as “other.” Any budding student of literally any non-western culture would simply say, “Uh, so what?” In fact, any historian not specifically concerned only with those things that happened after the Renaissance in Western Europe would likely meet such facts and figures with a shrug. And rightfully so. Human consciousness entails belief in a universe struggling with harmony and discord. The expression varies. The problem remains the same.
Yet, what disturbs the skeptic most is popularity. Popularity is a phenomena for the masses, not for the presumed intellectual elites, and it is with the introduction of modern technology, from the printing press to Twitter, that popularity became a reflection of the commodities consumed – this is of course what truly interests the elites as it’s how they stay elite, so they regard it with equal measures of approbation and celebration. A celebration of their superiority and a measure of the depths to which the masses sink, both justifications of their position at the imagined apex of civilized society.
Thus, in its latest incarnation, this trend (which is more about continuity) is generally linked to purported anti-science, anti-authority, or anti-organized religion biases imagined to be rampant among the unwashed masses whom skeptics endearingly wish to protect from themselves – mostly through “education”, by which of course they mean the kind of education they themselves received and expect that if only the peasant class internalized the same books that were formative in their own thinking, a skeptical world view would prevail, because gosh darn it, isn’t it just common sense?
While the undercurrent of smug elitism in most skeptical writing that concerns itself with the psychology or sociology of strange phenomena has always put a bee in my bonnet, it didn’t seem especially pernicious, rather a fascinating exercise in dogmatism and self-importance. Every discipline, and yes I am generally regarding skepticism as a disciplinary culture, complete with its own social norms and taboos, regards itself as the pinnacle of intellectualism in society – talk to any lawyer, doctor, or classics professor. This is because they have staked a claim on a world view, and are hell bent on unreflectively defending the unspoken ideologies that underlay them, convinced that those who do not share the foundations of their faith are simply lacking in those capacities that they value most highly in themselves.
More disturbingly, skeptics are working very hard to connect this to a global rise in populism, neo-fascism, and a revival of thinly-veiled institutional racism. These cultural land mines are conversation enders, the way in which one punctuates a debate – in stark contrast to the supposed intention of the skeptical movement to promote intelligent dialogue, when in fact the motivation is to establish one’s qualifications as the guardian of the boundaries of the dialogue.
Populism has always been a tricky label, but is typically used (primarily in a derogatory way) to identify political engagement that emphasizes the struggle of the vast majority of any given human population against privileged elites. Who is considered “privileged elite” and who is considered the oppressed common man varies across time and culture, but where the oppressed tend to see populism as a means for restoration of balance, or a modicum of equity, the elites regard it as a regressive return to mob rule (which never truly existed), which makes it awfully hard to make a buck or retain one’s seat as chair of a department. Thus, “populism” that suspects a conspiracy to maintain a ruling class, which has never really been some sort of occult practice, rather the standard operating procedure for them’s that gots, is really just a recognition that for all of human history, the majority have been actively screwed by a powerful minority, and the political expression of “I’m mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore, once I cough up my lung from 30 years working in a coal mine”.
Similarly, the possibility of metaphysical explanations for complex phenomena and the normalization of the search for such interpretations is held to be a pathology of the masses, who are not unquestioningly accepting of the authorities of those who identify themselves as the arbiters of reality. Then again, not to be facetious (okay, maybe to be a little facetious), all of humanities most important philosophical questions come down to metaphysics. Why are we here? What are we to do with ourselves? Where is that large automobile? My god, what have I done? Metaphysical interpretations are problematic for intellectual elites, as they tend to suggest to folks that there is a better, more human way of going about human existence. People literally get crucified for that kind of nonsense.
This popularization of metaphysical inquiry bugs the hell out of the skeptic, and as of late has been closely tied to a breakdown in respect for organized religion (which again, is a mere hobgoblin of the Western scholarly world, Western Europe and North America in particular), and a resurgence of the individual quest for meaning in life, the universe, and everything. You can’t have all these individuals wandering about asking pertinent philosophical questions. It would be chaos. Certainly, one must think for themselves (as it is presumed believers in the paranormal don’t), but if it is not in the proscribed manner, well that’s just so much mental masturbation. My god, it’s not even published in a respected scholarly journal! You didn’t cite my favorite authors! Or you cited someone I have personally discredited in countless articles. You dilettante! This of course is pathologized by associating individual curiosity with knee-jerk anti-authoritarianism. Have you met the authorities? It’s hard to be impressed, and not inconceivable that a thinking human being would find themselves hard pressed to accept the status quo as representative of some sort of divine or pre-ordained order.
Another strange interpretation of the rise in the “popularity” of strange phenomena is straight out of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We have met our material needs and are striving for self-actualization. Except that most of the world has not met its material needs, and is striving for a bite to eat, and avoiding getting shot, gassed, or bombed in between bouts of haemorrhagic fever and malaria. This is tantamount to saying that we have a leisure-filled world where we can afford to entertain bizarre ideas. There really is no adequate response to this except to point out that this is ludicrous even in the Western world. Go to any major urban center, abandoned factory town, or rural enclave that hasn’t been colonized by the rich for the scenery and observe the tent cities, the lines at the food banks, the desperation and the dissolution of social order. From high in the Ivory Tower or from the rarified safety of one’s computer screen and tenured reputation as a social critic, it is far too easy to talk about the satisfaction of material needs. Have you seen “skid row” (any skid row in any town). Most people aren’t looking for “meaningful experiences” awash in materialist plenty. Most people are trying to survive until tomorrow as any sort of social safety net is chipped away from underneath them.
Your closet post-modernist scholars (few people admit to being postmodernists anymore, but they carry with them the terminology), talk about the commodification of paranormal phenomena (e.g. ghost tours, visits to the psychic, spiritual retreats, Ayahuasca tourism, and let’s not forget to mention the bevy of paranormal themed TV-Shows, websites, blogs, and publications) as some sort of modern phenomena. Commodification of belief is what sustains belief. Always has. Always will. Ever heard of a tithe? An indulgence? Sacrificing your first born child or a red heifer (or maybe fruits and vegetables for the more civilized). Commitment requires commodification. And belief is about commitment. In order to be considered worth something, something has to be worth sacrificing for, be it your immortal soul, your household goods stuffed into your grave along with your mistress, or your Sunday mornings. The postmodernist social scientists didn’t discover anything revelatory. They rediscovered the concept of “value” and wrote dissertations on the subject as if it wasn’t implicitly understood by the rest of humanity that was just trying to get by. Anyone who thinks tenure isn’t a social safety net for the intellectually stunted is kidding themselves.
And of course, popular culture in general is credited with all society’s ills, popular culture being anything that people are actually willing to pay for or pay attention to. Heavy Metal, Video Games, Rap Music, and in 17th Century England, Coffee Houses, spell the doom of civilized society and the death of reason. This is because the sceptical intellectual regards themselves as a free-thinker, while viewing the rest of humanity as mindless automatons, bent and swayed by commercial and psychological forces far beyond the control of their little minds. Right now, my little mind is thinking, “Screw you”, but I clearly have not assimilated the viewpoint of the upper-middle class aspiring towards aristocracy through an imagined meritocracy, when in fact it is really little more than the landed (either in the educational or financial sense) gentry passing on their accumulated benefits to their children, and their children coming to the conclusion that it is both their birth right and a mark of their superiority. I fell out of this trap because I enjoy whiskey, bourbon, and scotch far too much. Only then can one truly rub elbows with their equals across the social, economic, and racial divides. And the number of things I take seriously is rather limited. This is not the result of existential ennui, rather three decades of hard work. Hard work at being a pain in the ass, but nonetheless one must follow their calling.
Now, as I like to think I have cultivated a Zen-like Forteanism (this may also be a function of learning my way around Los Angeles), I try not to let the moving boundaries of acceptable subjects of inquiry sway me in any particular direction. Everything is a subject of inquiry, even if the primary research question is “What the hell?” Sadly, in my rare sober moments, it has become apparent that the assault on anomalistics has taken a disturbing turn. More disturbing in point of fact, than the intellectual gymnastics of the “debunkers” discussed above, which are painfully obvious techniques for maintaining one’s imagined or real status in the intellectual community (not to mention writing books, hiring out for speaking engagements, and getting interviewed by the media) and far be it from me to get down on that hustle. One’s got to make a living. I’ve got a day job, and do this stuff as a hobby that satisfies my neurotic tendencies toward contrarianism and to stave off the creeping feeling that the universe is punking me.
What I find particularly disturbing is what I see as a consistent effort to equate interest in strange phenomena with a neo-fascist adulation of Arayan superiority. The method by which this is accomplished is a retrospective analysis of sources. One simply need point out that a Victorian writer used the phrase “Indo-European” or “Indo-Arayan” to level accusations of Naziism – the ultimate in discreditation, which is the ultimate aim of any debunker worth his or her salt. Prior to World War Two, these terms did not carry with them the images of jackbooted thugs joyfully executing people by the millions. They described a cultural complex that seemed to have some form of social significance prior to our written records. While it is true that the fringiest of the fringe often seize upon such notions to support their twisted view of human history, they are the exception rather than the norm, yet the modern skeptic has realized the utility in drawing a circle around Ignatius Donnely and Hitler, and suggesting their motivations were not dissimilar.
While racism and economic injustice are still prevalent, the sources are multifarious, and continue to be what they always have been, that is one group thinking they are better than the other. Rather than trying to understand a universe that is confounding at best, and absurd at worst, we are drawn into a political discussion about the roots of the ill-treatment of humans by other humans, the bread and butter of civilization. Let’s face it, nobody wants to be called a Nazi. Except a Nazi. The increasing skeptic equation of belief in the possibility that inexplicable phenomena have and always will occur with fascistic tendencies, is simply a play upon a meme popular since the 1940’s (before we really thought about the concept of memes). Unsurprisingly, there is a similar association of the promotion of belief in the paranormal with Cold War Russian propaganda. Are you seeing the pattern? Evil people out there are using your dissatisfaction, your distrust of authority, your disillusion with religion to promote a world view that asks, “What if?”
Immanuel Kant, musing on the philosophy of lying, suggested that lying was wrong precisely because the act of communication was predicated on the transmission of truth, otherwise it is largely purposeless and would have never evolved in the first place. Have we reached the point where communication between individuals is always to be regarded with suspicion? As far as I can tell, modern professional scepticism – the kind that writes books and blogs incessantly is purely concerned with “being right”, a narrowly construed version of understanding universal truth, should such an elusive creature exist, a belittlement of one’s presumed intellectual inferiors, and a demonization of alternative viewpoints, either as the result of brain trauma or fascist tendencies. Human life is an intricate web that the politicization, psycholigization, and sociological interpretation of “movements” suffers from the myopia of presentism, that is an understanding of al that has come before in contemporary terms, particularly when such terms elevate the present to the pinnacle of human intellectual development.
Sadly, I find this a tiresome dead end of intellectual inquiry, but it pisses me off just enough to offer this modest response. Before you seek to find the pathology or social utility in the beliefs of others, consider the utility of your own beliefs. What purpose does your self-righteousness, your rigorous promotion of your own intellectual prowess serve? Does it serve truth? Or does it serve your own ego? Everyone at some point is taking their ontology on faith. It’s the nature of the beast. As the poet Khalil Gibran said, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother”.