Two articles today have struck my attention, not only for their differences but also for their similarities. The first is Bruce Lawrence’s description of his upcoming book of bin Laden’s testimonials. The second is a review by Karen Olsson of a book that is now out about alien abductions, Abducted by Susan Clancy. I will not ruin the reviews implicit in these articles as they are easily found at The Chronicle Review and at Slate.
Alien abductions are not real, per se. They only seem real. The afflicted usually suffer from sleep paralysis which is when “the brain and the body desynchronize briefly before waking up.” This moment is then interpreted as a break of non-natural origin. Why is it then interpreted as an alien abduction? This is where the Lawrence can help us fill in some gaps. Olsson explains that it is an attempt to find the purpose of life. Fair enough, but this merely explains the desire for an interpretation and not why this interpretation.
We should look at the role of the state. For bin Laden the state is the enemy, an enemy that does not rest on lines of identity. Lawrence shows how bin Laden thinks of himself as supranational, a modern day Nasser working to revive Muslims. But what would happen if bin Laden was in the majority of the system he criticized? What would he do if he did not have an appeal that rests along minority identity constructions? This is the question that can be answered by the alien abduction problem.
Most of those abducted are white and middle class. They are in the center and not on the margins, which is where bin Laden recruits. How do you raise a supranational army of those already in the center of the state system? You fantasize it as an actual supranational system, one that takes notice of you and not of the actual state system. What better way to elevate a sense of one’s worth than to have a more powerful group than your current structure pay attention to you, a normally vanilla blended-in white middle class folk? It doesn’t help that Hollywood shoves images of aliens and even of alien abductions into our popular culture. Like bin Laden’s al-Qaeda tries to do, an extraterrestrial is a perfect counterweight to American primacy, not only abroad but also in our daily lives.
Like bin Laden’s project, alien abductions blend a measure of faith with the mundane. This faith aspect is what allows people to cling to the project even in the face of skepticism and counter-arguments. But this faith serves a deeper purpose belied by the previous sentence. Not only does the faith aspect allow one to exist in the face of these skepticisms, but exactly because of the skepticisms. As more and more skepticism is unleashed against those that do believe the stronger their sense of righteousness and faith grows. In a way it is the naysayers like myself that make them so committed.
So, what to do? How about instead of insisting on their incorrectness, we grant them what they seek most, validation. Validation of their experiences as marginalized. Even though they feel this way this does not mean they are impotent, which is the distinction that needs to be hit home. This it seems to me is a hard sell, but a more conciliatory posture would be prudent here.