The panelists talked about U.F.O. wreckage and aliens fusing a human head on a cow. I looked at the audience, assuming they weren’t buying it until a woman asked, “Who here has had contact with U.F.O’s.” Like an army lifting their spears, everyone raised their arms. Faces shined with bright defiance. Near the back wall a man in a bright psychedelic shirt waved both hands and danced. I laid my head down, thinking: I’m in a room of crazy people.
I was in the Commons, a hall on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn on a cool mid-June night. The event was “Aliens Amongst Us” organized by the Evolver Movement, a neo-Hippie social network whose website promotes the “transformation of humanity” but those who came were not activists but devotees. They wore dreadlocks, hemp necklaces, “energy” channeling crystals and many had a faraway look as if they left some part of themselves in the last acid trip.
They were the New Lost Generation, folks who’d fallen through the cracks of our crumbling empire and found this mystery cult with its promises of secret knowledge and chemical salvation. At its top stood lanky, sandy-haired Daniel Pinchbeck who years ago, was a New York literati and editor of Open City. He felt empty but ignored it until his friend overdosed on heroin. Pinchbeck fled to the Amazon to drink potions from shamans to cure himself of nihilism before he died like his friend. Those dizzy vomit soaked trips became his book Breaking Open the Head which made him a counter-culture guru. Now he hosts Evolver events, circled by mostly white, well-off audiences who look to him for meaning. And he gives it to them; shaman drug rituals, Mayan prophecies and a suspicion of reality that adds up to escapism. Our world is a wreck but Pinchbeck has them look outside of it for a truth that can heal it and the crazier that truth the better.
But the Crazy was hidden until the woman asked who had contact with aliens. The hands-in-the-air-salute exposed the insanity and none of the panelists said a thing. Sitting on the couches were Bill Birnes a raspy wrinkled salesman of the otherworldly who headed History Channel’s U.F.O. Hunters, therapist William Gibbs a slow, bloated man who treated victims of “alien abduction” and dark suited U.F.O historian Richard Dolan who wore a confident smile.
Pinchbeck pointed to an older woman who talked of the life changing wounds left in the wake of star-ships. She screamed “people who have been abducted have increased paranormal abilities.” He called on a young Brit who yelled, “I’ve seen the labs,” her hands clenched into fists, “they are making human alien hybrids and people must be told!”
I’ve seen this defiance against reality years ago at Nation of Islam meetings. In the late 90’s my mom lived in Hartford and during my visits she showed me closed schools and corners where shootings stained the sidewalk red. The streets were filled with pain and people looking for answers. They packed the mosques to listen to dark-suited men preaching how the white man invented AIDS or Jews controlled the media or that every president is a Mason or that the Illuminati controlled us. Sitting there I sensed that proof wasn’t needed, what mattered was belief. If we could name evil, give it a face then we could fight it.
But when we left those halls we didn’t see Jews or Masons or the Illuminati. We saw the same people we always saw; the mother who slapped her child in the street, men fighting on the trash-strewn corner, the homeless guy lying on the sidewalk as dark urine trickled from his pants. We learned in the mosque, not to understand but to pity them as puppet-like victims, manipulated by mysterious powers only the Nation of Islam could see. Our job was to cut the strings, no alcohol, no pork, no Jesus, no “Jewish” media just submit to Allah and become purified. Some joined but most didn’t, held back by hopelessness or the shame of showing naked need in public or the sense that one could not survive the world by retreating from it.
The few who joined the mosque shouted with bright defiant faces. The world-government wasn’t going to keep the truth from them anymore because we had a Messenger. I remember Minister Farrakhan stepping to the podium to announce the Million Man March. We were Fallen he said but could be Saved if we submitted to the Word of Allah. We would gather in D.C. and show our strength. His call and our response got louder until we spoke as one man and in that sublime moment our power was revealed. Afterward, dizzy with adrenaline we bought tapes and newspapers and “cures” for ailments of the soul.
But years before the mosque, I felt that awe as a child. Dozing in my grandma’s home in Puerto Rico, I lay in a mosquito-net shrouded bed, reading a science-fiction book when her boyfriend Daniel yelled for me. I dashed to the balcony and saw a twisting line of smoke in the sky. “It was U.F.O.” he said. The book I’d been reading was the story of a young boy, planet hopping in a space ship through the star-speckled void of space being of course, chased by aliens. Grandma said it was the Devil’s Writing but when I jumped out of bed and ran to Daniel’s side, both of us pointing to the sky in wonder, I was also pointing to the images the book left in my mind. But what kind of space-ship leaves a trail of smoke? Does it run on diesel? More likely, it was a jet or meteor but Daniel’s wonder at seeing a “U.F.O.” was as real as our joy at Farrakhan’s vision of a redeemed Black People. Both were glimpses of a world beyond this one.
The wonder of transcendent visions comes from our need for wholeness. And it is an old story. In the ancient plays of Sophocles, King Oedipus is divided from his fate by his hubris. In the tragic vision of Modernity; we are divided from the expanse of eternity by the smallness of our bodies and from life by the language that describes it. And being divided means the need to be part of a larger reality is central to the human condition. Yet our need for transcendence is always defined by history.
As a boy in Catholic Church I was divided from my body by the concept of sin, transcendence was floating as a spirit in Heaven. As a teen, I was divided from myself by racism and transcendence was the Nation of Islam’s vision of a black-ruled world. Raised in an orphanage, I was divided from my family by class and transcendence was the Communist prophecy of an equal world. As a man divided by bitterness, transcendence was the euphoria of the Obama campaign.
Whether it’s one’s body, color or place in society; transcendence is reclaiming what was lost and faith is the first step. Whether it’s a messiah stepping down from Heaven in glory or a U.F.O. streaking through the sky or a media haloed politician saying “Yes we can!” we are trained to reach for lights in the sky.
And for the sake of that faith people close their eyes and reach for the dream. The more they’re told it’s not real the harder they hold it. And that’s what drove me to the Evolver event “Aliens Amongst Us?” I wanted to see how certain and how reckless they’d be in their persecuted truth. Ufology shares with the Nation of Islam a vision of hidden truths censored by invisible forces but at the mosque, it resonates with the real violence of our racist history. What did Ufologists lose that they search for it so fervently in the sky?
I arrived at the Commons and opened my notebook when a woman in the front row dropped her marbles on the floor. Wow she lost her marbles. That’s a Good Sign. I chatted with the man next to me. He had a weathered face, kind and shy. “What do you think about this,” I asked. “Well, if aliens really came all this way for us,” he said. “I think they’d say Hi.” We laughed as Pinchbeck began, “I’m glad to see a packed room of people. My concern about this event was that Evolver is trying to build credibility and I was afraid we’d lose it. But it’s important to see Gnostic Theology, the Truth of native cultures, aliens and spirits as all part of the same continuum.”
He introduced Bill Birnes the host of History Channel’s U.F.O. Hunters. The wrinkled raspy man began his gothic tale, “There’s a veil of fear. If you dare mention U.F.O.’s you are marginalized. No one will deal with you.” But Birnes is brave and tells us that U.F.O. wreckage has been turned into modern technology like F-16 jets using “cloaking devices” to disappear. He just flows with Crazy, Pentagon conspiracies, men screaming in the mountain lab as aliens attacked or aliens fusing a human head on a cow’s body. “After we aired the photos there was major payback,” his voice was red-hot. “You’ll be protected they said but I hope you enjoyed your show because it’s cancelled.”
The air tingled. Wow. The Truth is Out There. Pinchbeck turned to a bloated man next to him, William Gibbs a therapist who treated “alien abductees”. He had a wisp of a smile, “I’ve always asked big questions and U.F.O.’s are an anomaly that defies scientific categories. I’ve been a psychologist for a group who were convinced they’d been abducted…”
His voice receded and I stared around at people held rapt, barely blinking. I wondered: What if they’re aliens? I imagined them pulling off their human skin, reptile faces glistening, long forked tongues flickering as they sipped their Starbucks chai-tea latte. After draining the last drop and still thirsty, they’d grab my arms and pull me apart. I’d be alive just long enough to see my hand being swallowed down an alien throat.
I snapped out of my day-dream to U.F. O. historian Richard Dolan’s earnest monologue. He spoke in a soft velvety tone, “Jets chasing discs that out-flew them. We have more than 100 reports. Our military was asking, ‘Whose flying these things, the Soviets? But why are aliens contacting us? We are the greatest show in this quadrant. We changed our civilization in the blink of a cosmic eye. They are aliens living amongst us.”
“Are they benevolent,” asked Pinchbeck. “People think in terms of Good Aliens or Bad Aliens. Is that helpful? Are we being controlled?”
Dolan rubbed his hands, “All I can say is that we are part of a larger narrative.” I was numb at this point. My pen twitched but it felt like someone else was writing. Dolan talked of aliens creating a hybrid-race to take over the world and his words struck something in me. He was saying was that some people on this planet are less human than others. I reflexively snarled. So what should we do? Force people to get DNA testing? Wear arm-bands with a blue star? Force them to live in alien ghettos and maybe gas them?
Afterwards, I asked Dolan if his vision of “aliens amongst us” doesn’t parallel the language of racism in making a hierarchy of humanity. He said he doesn’t promote violence but that aliens are on earth manipulating us. Of course he’d never personally incite violence; it would be a career killer. But if people took his paranoid vision of the world seriously what else would they do but round-up aliens? His voice left the feeling of oil in my ears.
Dolan’s vision of a mongrel species threatening our purity is as old as the Civil War when racists stoked fears of black people mixing with whites. It’s as old as Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. The terror of miscegenation rises when people lose their power, privilege and sense of invulnerability. If U.F.O.’s are not real but a blank screen to project cultural anxieties; is the paranoid imagery of invisible puppet-masters and species-mixing displaced white anxiety? As I left Dolan was telling people huddled around him, “when Obama met the Bilderberg Group, who is deeply involved in this cover-up.” What next I thought the New World Order, 9/11 Truth, the Masons, Illuminati or the Elders of Zion?
I confronted Pinchbeck, “I think what you’re doing here is dangerous.” He squinted for a second. I said U.F.O.’s were people’s projections onto explainable natural phenomena. He said that was a dualist was of thinking, reality was more inter-related. I said that was slippery Hegel.
We went outside, I borrowed a cigarette and we stood there blowing smoke.
“I think what you’re doing is dangerous,” I pointed at him. “You’re spreading false hope and escapism.”
“You keep using that word dangerous…”
“It is. We have real problems on the planet and telling people to do drugs or waste time searching for aliens is a distraction. I mean, look, I defend your freedom of speech but that doesn’t mean it’s worth saying. This isn’t real. Hunger is real. Poverty is real.”
He eyes searched for an escape, “These states of consciousness are real. I’ve experienced telekinesis, making things appear and disappear through alternate dimensions, telepathy…”
I studied his face. My lips squeezed like a zip-lock bag and I quietly shook my head. It felt cheap to bring in miracles to a debate. Sensing my frustration he told me to read The Structures of Consciousness by Jean Gebser. He talked about indigenous cultures and that our modern rationality is destroying the planet because we are disconnected from the larger holistic reality.
I looked away from him and remembered the wood-cut drawings of Tainos being hacked apart by Spanish soldiers. “If they had the power of telekinesis or talking to plants or being in touch with galactic intelligences then why couldn’t do some Avatar shit and defend themselves against the Conquistadores?”
“The European consciousness was something they never dealt with before it’s why one soldier could kill so many native warriors.”
“Daniel,” I spread my hands as if to let go of the conversation. “Maybe it was the small-pox and horses and armor and swords.” I paused. More smoke. We were both exhausted and he said, “Read my books and e-mail me.”
We shook hands and I left, head reeling, running my hands over my face as if wiping away his words. Crazy.