Culture

This UFO Changes Everything

Our thirst for excitement and entertainment will be America's downfall.

Photo Credit: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

"Look at that thing, dude!” One hundred miles off the coast of San Diego, two Navy fighter pilots on a Super Hornets training mission spot a whitish, oval-shaped aircraft of some kind flying on an unearthly trajectory at crazy speeds. You can hear their astonishment on the 2004 recording.

“It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen,” one of the pilots, Commander David Fravor, told the New York Times when the video of what they witnessed was made public by the Pentagon at the end of 2017. He said he was “pretty weirded out.”

So was I when I saw it, though I was thrilled, too.

I’ve been a sci-fi fan since I first read Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,” but I’ve never really been much of a UFO believer; I’ve always been skeptical of people’s stories about being abducted by aliens, and I think meteorology, psychology and other terrestrial sciences account nicely for the reported anomalies.

Yet this story, straight from the Department of Defense, got to me. The “Oh, my god!” I said aloud when I watched the recording was less of a WTF OMG than a metaphysical skip of my heart. It was a this-changes-everything thunderclap, a disruptive wow akin to what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement.” It injected an unknown into the narrative of human history — a scary suspense, but also a terrible beauty. It reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s strange words in his essay on “Nature” about the exhilaration that swept him as he crossed a bare common under a clouded sky: “I am glad to the brink of fear.”

I’ve been wrestling with the thrill that video gave me, trying to figure out why I root so fiercely for tectonic change. Part of it must be my yearning for the re-enchantment of the world. There’s something irrevocably sad about the secular ditch we’ve ridden reason into. We’ve figured out that materialism and randomness have at least as much explanatory power as divinity and scripture. The good news about that is its upending of religious orthodoxy. Not so good is how that drains the universe of purpose and meaning. What a downer: We own the postmodern insight that everything is socially constructed, but at the cost of discovering that everything turns out to be nothing.

So I tell myself that the reason I love this UFO testimony is that it puts wonderment back into play. It wrests the cosmos from the string theorists and the hadron colliders. It gives a good name to the sense that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It stands witness to splendor. It makes the starry night sublime.

But that may be wishful thinking on my part. It could be that what ails our Zeitgeist isn’t as highfalutin as spiritual and intellectual exhaustion. Maybe we’re just bored. Maybe it’s not that our souls are sick; it’s that our attention has the heebie-jeebies.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 

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