When I was a kid, I dreamed of aliens. Not literally – I didn’t hallucinate in the middle of the night about being abducted and probed or anything like that. But I imagined with spine-tingling wonder what it might be like if humanity made contact with alien life, what it would mean for the world and for me.
That’s why it came as such a shock last week to see an article in the New York Times declaring that a small, ultra-secretive group at the Pentagon is actually, in real life, investigating UFOs. They have videos, one published in the Times, that beggar explanation. They have facilities in Nevada that had to be retrofitted to accommodate exotic metals from crash sites, materials which researchers deemed did not appear to originate from any country, and technology against which the program’s director said the United States could not defend itself.
Again, this is not being reported on some fly-by-night blog. This is the New York Times. Couple this information with the discovery of the first known interstellar object, Oumuamua, passing through our solar system – a long, narrow asteroid that appears to be coated with organic material – and it’s got me wondering: Why doesn’t anyone else seem to care? When I was growing up, or even a few years ago for that matter, these kinds of reality-bending revelations would have sparked massive public conversation and dominated media coverage. Now they pass without a blip.
What’s the deal?
To be sure, some of the explanation is probably as simple as public fatigue around these types of stories from less reputable sources. After decades of conspiracy theories and X-Files reruns, the threshold for credulity is extra high. And as a skeptically minded person myself, I think that’s a good thing. But when a publication like the New York Times stands behind this kind of story and people treat it with less interest than the latest Robert Mueller shoe-drop or the new tax law, it makes me think that something deeper is afoot – and as with so many things, I think the issue ties back to Donald Trump.
Since he rode down that golden escalator two and a half years ago (really, it’s only been two and a half years), Trump has occupied an outsized role in the psyche of America and, to a lesser degree, the world. After his shocking election in 2016, he’s dominated every corner of public discourse, reaching far beyond politics into sports, film, television, business, and so on. Every story seems to be about him, whether it’s intended to be or not.
A corollary of Trump’s refraction of reality, then, is that things which can’t in any way be related back to him seem inherently less important. He’s the protagonist of our cultural subconscious, no matter how much we might not want him to be, and his presence permeates our world so overwhelmingly that news which doesn’t in any way connect to him feels ancillary at best and irrelevant at worst – even if that news involves the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Indeed, Trump has made everyday reality seem so alien to so many of us that news pertaining to actual aliens doesn’t seem nearly as wild as it would have in another era. Our ability to be shocked is exhausted. It feels as though ET himself could step out of a flying saucer in Times Square and half a day later the news cycle would move on to Trump’s latest tweetstorm.
A year into his presidency, Trump hasn’t just radically shifted the Overton window; he is the Overton window. He has positioned himself so squarely at the spoke of the wheel in American politics and culture that we barely even notice it anymore. No other figure in living memory has ever done such a thing – not Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, not OJ or the Kardashians –nobody. It’s the sort of mass blinding that’s more common under authoritarian regimes than the world’s oldest democracy.
As we move into the new year then, it’s worthwhile for all of us – especially those of us who are heavy news consumers – to keep in mind that there really are important stories out there beyond Donald Trump, and some of them have seismic implications. Because in the end, whether Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials or not, the fact that serious, reality-based publications are even raising the possibility should be enough to get at least a little bit of our attention.
Ultimately, we cannot afford to let the extraordinary become ordinary – not in culture, not in politics, and certainly not in science. We cannot abandon our ability to dream and think big, to approach the world with a sense of wonder. Such an abandonment would be a betrayal of our children and the children we once were. Our reality may be distorted right now, but the truth is still out there.