You weren't meant to remain immortal, 2010, Neil Folberg, from the series Serpent’s Chronicle, courtesy Vision Neil Folberg Gallery, via Artsy


UFO sightings are common in America. So is a lack of political transparency.

Recently, the west of America was thrown into relative panic when a UFO was observed arcing across the night sky. If social media was your only source of public opinion and reaction, you might have thought this sighting had reduced a sizable proportion of the Californian populace to a baffled, quivering mass, ready to submit to the domination of their new alien masters.

Twitter users were only the tip of a bemused if occasionally humorous iceberg, with other tweeters making quips about everything from Lady Gaga performing in space to a Pokémon arriving on Earth.

Of course, the “mystery” was almost entirely resolved when the US Navy announced that they’d conducted a scheduled test of a Trident II missile. However, this didn’t deter the public from continuing with their alien conspiracy theories.

As ridiculous as such protests arguably are, the initial bewilderment that met the sightings represent a UFO-sighting tendency that’s been common to American popular culture since at least the end of World War II. More to the point, this tendency is actually grounded in a serious issue, in that it symbolizes the wide gulf separating a considerable portion of the general public from the workings of its government.

The Pew Research Center referred to such a demographic in a 2014 survey as “bystanders,” a label that applies to the 10 percent of the American electorate who are not registered to vote and who “don’t give a hoot about politics.” Even beyond this almost entirely detached segment, the same inquiry into political typologies discovered that only 48 percent of the rest of the electorate follow government affairs “most of the time,” and that only 36 percent of this same “non-bystander” group list politics as one of the three topics in which they’re most interested.

It’s therefore not that much of a stretch to argue that a bulky slice of America is disengaged from what its government gets up to on Saturday nights, or on any other day or night of the week for that matter. For the 10 percent of Americans deemed “bystanders,” and also for a non-negligible share of the rest of population, their government is as much an enigmatic, alien entity to them as the little green men they imagine swooping over Mount Whitney.

The belief that the California UFO was an alien vessel, then, is more likely a simple expression of ignorance than an indicative statement of fact. Just as with previous alleged sightings, the myth of visitors from outer space often acts as a placeholder for what people don’t know about their government and military. In other words, the popularity of the alien-conspiracy trope is, in many cases, the failure of governmental transparency and accessibility. It’s the failure—to take a notorious example—of the CIA to clue the nation up to how it was flying spy planes over US airspace throughout the 1950s and ’60s, as well as the failure of the government to motivate the population to be more interested and involved in the nation’s inner workings. Because of this neglect, these workings are a blank to many Americans, a question mark they either can’t answer or don’t want to answer. Hence, we’ve cumulatively learned over time to invoke the symbol of extraterrestrial activity as a way of expressing (often subconsciously) the foreignness, strangeness, and, perhaps, scariness of the government and its military hardware.

But what other empirical indicators of such “opacity” of government are there? Well, aside from the above-cited survey which illuminated the extent to which Americans are cut adrift from politics, the PRC conducted another survey in 2014 that revealed the continuing decline of the American public’s trust in their government. From a high of 77 percent during the start of Lyndon Johnson’s first term, it now stands at a quite miserable 24 percent. This implies not only a simple dissatisfaction with Washington’s results, but also a marked alienation from its procedures and methods, a sense that these are remote, obscure, and often beyond influence.

Starker evidence of governmental distance and ignorance appears in the form of an investigation carried out last year by the University of Pennsylvania. It found that only 36 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government, that 35 percent couldn’t name any of them, and that 60 percent didn’t know which parties held the Senate and the House of Representatives. Its respondents were also poorly informed when it came to the legislative process, with 70 percent being unaware that a two-thirds vote in both houses was necessary to override a presidential veto.

We’ve learned over time to invoke extraterrestrial activity as a way of expressing the foreignness, strangeness, and scariness of the government.

Even though there are other reasons why Californian stargazers might want to believe that they saw a flying saucer on Saturday eve, these surveys imply that their lack of governmental knowledge and inclusion is also a significant factor in their readiness. Such statistics reveal that the US government and military is as extraterrestrial to them as anything from the planet Tatooine, and while there haven’t been any empirical studies testing whether there’s a direct causal relationship between governmental ignorance and belief in alien tourism, there is at the very least a suspicion of correlation. In 2013, YouGov and the Huffington Post took a poll showing that 48 percent of US adults “are open to the idea that alien spacecraft are observing our planet.” By itself, this percentage isn’t especially significant, but it does at least compare with, say, the 42 percent of voters who didn’t vote in the US presidential election in 2012, or the 52 percent of “non-bystander” participants in the Pew political typology survey who stated that “most of the time” they do not follow politics.

This is still far from incontrovertible evidence. Nonetheless, these stats bolster the claim that, because many Americans don’t fully understand their governmental machinery, the holes in their knowledge often have to be filled by turning to the simplest explanations they have ready to hand. Conversely, the holes in their knowledge may also work in the opposite direction, saving them from any fact that might contradict the harebrained notion of an alien super-species that enjoys holidaying in San Francisco.

What’s more, because these “explanations” are largely signs of their incomprehension and unawareness when it comes to what their rulers do, it can be extrapolated that the confusion and alarm they experienced when spying the weekend’s “blinding light” was, at bottom, the confusion and alarm these same rulers inspire in them. Such mysterious blinding lights become the manifestation of anxiety and disquiet induced by the government in certain members of the public. Projecting their insecurities and apprehensions onto the simplified image of an extraterrestrial being serves nicely as a stand-in for the government’s alienness to them.

In fact, if we can trust the Navy’s account of Saturday night’s events, then it was literally the case on that night that the government induced this anxiety and disquiet in the public. But it’s also the case on other occasions as well, such as with routine military exercises like Jade Helm 15, which caused “fears of martial law“ in July by dint of the secrecy under which it was organized. These fears are evident too, albeit on a smaller scale, with the 29 percent of the population (and 43 percent of Republican supporters) who are still so poorly informed they think President Obama is a Muslim, and with the 48 percent of respondents who told the Washington Post in 2013 that they worry the government “will go too far in compromising constitutional rights in order to investigate terrorism.”

Rounding up, it’s also the case on a more general, mundane level, with many people mystified by how exactly their own country is run and just a little bit intimidated by their own government. What can be done to rectify this unfortunate situation is actually fairly obvious, but difficult to achieve: better education, a more open, inclusive, and accountable political system, and more trustworthy leaders. Hopefully, these things can be delivered in the not-too-distant future, since if they aren’t, and if we remain forever in the dark, then we may just keep seeing alien spaceships in the sky for a long time to come.