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Shawn Vestal: Fagan’s case of Roswellian Syndrome a sign of the times

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 9, 2017, 11:43 a.m.

City Councilman Mike Fagan gives conspiracy theories a lift, using his seat on the council to question scientific and government information. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
City Councilman Mike Fagan gives conspiracy theories a lift, using his seat on the council to question scientific and government information. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Does Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan think extraterrestrials crash-landed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947, and that the government snatched up their bodies and constructed a cover-up?

This is not as silly a question as it should be, for two reasons:

1) Fagan recently expressed doubt about the government’s denial of the chemtrails conspiracy by comparing it to the Roswell alien conspiracy, suggesting that the “denial narrative” in both cases is itself suspicious; and

2) this kind of conspiratorial approach to evaluating information, elevating fringe thinkers and automatically dismissing shared, institutional sources of information, has traveled from the outer edges to the center of our politics lately.

And it is making the country sick.

Fagan – the longtime Robin to Tim Eyman’s self-dealing, initiative-peddling Batman and the lone conservative on the council – is a vaccine skeptic and global-warming doubter. But when it comes to the chemtrail conspiracy, he’s open-minded.

People are talking about it, he says. Might be something to it, he says. The fact that the government and scientists deny it is reason, in and of itself, for suspicion, he says.

“Whether or not it’s happening, it’s really interesting that the narrative is always denial, denial, denial,” he said.

See how that works?

The denial is a reason to believe.

Kinda like Roswell.

This is not my comparison. Not an extreme example I selected to deride Fagan. It’s his own suggestion – that there may be “merit” to the chemtrails conspiracy for the same reason there may be merit to the Roswell alien narrative, which is that people are talking about it and the government has denied it. Fagan mentioned chemtrails during a City Council meeting on climate change last month, and brought up Roswell during a later interview with a Spokesman-Review reporter. He did not answer my requests for an interview.

All this arose after Fagan gave an anti-climate-science presentation at the council prior to its vote to adopt a sustainability plan that accepts the scientific consensus. This, to Fagan’s skeptical mind, is too much to swallow.

He seems certain that there’s no objective climate science, just a “political narrative” intended to further a global redistribution of wealth. It’s global paranoia – Agenda 21, New World Order – all over again, and like most scientific rejectionism, it now comes dressed in sheep’s clothing, with “statistics” and citations and arguments intended to make the arguer seem not like a crackpot, but the most rigorous thinker out there.

Fagan’s skepticism is considerably tuned down on other matters, however. This is only important in the context of these times of factual drought – when the rejection of science, journalism, fact-finding, verification and institutional knowledge is guiding the federal government and filling the airwaves.

Chemtrails are a sturdy old conspiracy – the belief that the condensation left in the wake of aircraft, or cloud-seeding efforts to increase precipitation, are chemicals being rained down on the population, for reasons ranging from mind control to limiting the population.

Everyone has denied it, but for true believers, the denials are a reason to believe.

Conspiracy thinking isn’t new. What’s new is the degree to which aliens-at-Roswell thinking now occupies a place at the table of American politics as a legitimate style, a manner of making a case that is presented, more or less, as just another view.

In this vein, institutional sources of knowledge are automatically deemed false: The congressional majority just spent months deriding the Congressional Budget Office as an unreliable left-wing propaganda outlet. Easily disproved lies rain down daily from the White House. Our representatives and senators just engaged in a disinformation campaign of massive proportions on their health care proposal – repeatedly asserting their proposals would not do what they obviously would do. And a Pravda-style wing of the media weaponizes its audience’s lack of wider knowledge.

In an interview last month, Fagan said his particular concerns were centered on the possibility that the government and/or multinational corporations were engaging in “solar radiation management” – a proposed form of climate engineering that remains a subject of research and debate.

“By virtue of the fact that it is being openly discussed in certain circles, I think there may be some merit to it,” Fagan said.

It’s like, he said, the Roswell thing. You know, the belief that an alien spacecraft crashed in the New Mexico desert in 1947, and the government covered it up. Roswell is a massive rabbit-hole of varying conspiracies and theories and arguments – and marketing – and it’s been denied in lots of ways that bounce ineffectively off believers.

Researchers call it Roswellian Syndrome, and it’s a diagnosis for our age: Mythologizing by conspiracists thrives in the wake of factual debunking, and the debunking comes to be seen as evidence of the conspiracy.

The denial is the confirmation.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 9, 2017, to correct the location of the Roswell incident. The original version incorrectly included one reference to the incident as occuring in Nevada.