What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small.
It started off, as the best things do, with a shitpost.
It was the end of June when 21-year-old college student Matty Roberts created a Facebook event that would ultimately birth a viral meme turned national security threat. What later came to be known as Alienstock started off as an event page entitled: “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us.” Area 51, of course, is the highly classified U.S. military base located within the Nevada Test and Training Range that has long been the subject of conspiracy theories regarding state secrets related to UFOs and extraterrestrial life. The action was set for the weekend of September 20.
It struck a chord.
In a matter of mere days, more than a million Facebook users pledged to attend what was essentially pitched as a civilian-led raid on a highly classified United States Air Force facility. A spokesperson for the Air Force warned Roberts and would-be raid-goers not to attempt to illegally access the military installation. The military even sent troop reinforcements, coordinating with local law enforcement to put up extra barricades surrounding the base. Roberts quickly changed tack and began to discourage a raid, promoting Alienstock as a counterculture festival instead.
But the die had been cast. At the peak of Storm Area 51’s virality, some 30,000 people were anticipated. Due to the sheer number of people publicly stating their intent to participate, the media began to echo the panicked tone of the Air Force, reporting on the story as an impending catastrophe rather than what it was: a shitpost. Two separate rural Nevada counties declared states of emergency. In the end, 6,000 or so people showed up and pitched tents in the desert for the “festival.” Alienstock was light on programming (attendees mostly participated in DIY activities like hatchet throwing) but included a stage and a DJ.
Before Alienstock escalated to the level of a national panic, though, it was a meme that reached saturation point across social media. Lil Nas X, himself a viral sensation by virtue of his megahit “Old Town Road,” released a version of the song featuring guest verses from Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug, and Mason Ramsey (a.k.a. the Yodel Boy). The music video for the song, which was released in July, was an animated depiction of the four squaring off with soldiers outside of Area 51. Upon gaining entry, the group links up with the aliens inside who are (obviously) cool as hell.
What was it about this particular shitpost that so many people found compelling? Why did millions of people—most presumably in jest—sign up to storm Area 51? The answer lies in the meme itself. The goal was never to invade a military base or to steal state secrets. It was far kinder. Most people participating in the Storm Area 51 meme, myself included, wanted to do one thing: liberate the aliens. In that specific online moment, it felt good to hit retweet on every single joke about freeing the aliens I saw. One tweet amongst the thousands exemplifying this allegiance to the aliens features a video of internet personality Rickey Thompson dancing erratically with the caption: “Me distracting the guards at Area 51 so the aliens can escape.” It had a hundred thousand likes.
Arguably the most infamous instance of mass media-incited panic around extraterrestrial contact is the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. On Halloween night, CBS aired a live performance of the 1898 H.G. Wells novel adapted for radio by Howard Koch and performed by Welles. The broadcast took the form of a typical radio program, interrupted by live news bulletins announcing the arrival of invading aliens, culminating in a Martian attack on Manhattan. Thousands of listeners panicked, calling in to the station and local police precincts. The CBS building in New York was mobbed by a swarm of uniformed officers demanding that Welles stop the transmission and announce it was fiction. Executives stalling the cops barely bought them enough time to finish the hour-long show.
H.G. Wells derived his concept for War of the Worlds from a thought experiment his brother put to him: what would happen if aliens colonized England the way England colonized Tasmania? Would the fate that befell the Indigenous Tasmanians befall the English? More astute observers of Storm Area 51 have pointed out that the meme arrived at the precise political moment when the news cycle revolving around migrant children being separated from their parents and caged under President Trump had reached peak hopelessness. Even on the (perhaps unconscious) level of language, the meme betrayed the collective urge to compel the government to show mercy, particularly to children whose home countries have been made unsafe directly through U.S. interventionism. After all, the federal government refers to immigrants as “aliens” and issues “alien numbers” as a banal matter of bureaucracy. I should know, I have one.
It’s possible that a mass cultural moment obsessed with liberating aliens from our government is an expression not just of our social health as a country that routinely cages children, but also as a species beginning to publicly reckon with the collective crisis of conscience concerning our global health as we face down climate-driven mass extinction. Storm Area 51 could just as easily be read as a cry for help, then—that maybe if we save the aliens from the government, they can, in turn, save us from ourselves. Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to see that little at the core has changed since the brutal colonization of Tasmania inspired H.G. Wells to envision beings from space bringing home the destruction white empire visited upon the rest of the world as just desserts.
This was also a year that saw noted bald billionaire divorcé and real-life Lex Luthor, Jeff Bezos, launch the lunar lander Blue Moon, built by his company, Blue Origin. Blue Origin’s tagline is prominently featured on the company’s website under the subsection “Our Mission”: “We’re committed to building a road to space so our children can build the future.” In May, Bezos pitched NASA and the White House (Trump has stated he intends to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon by 2024). Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, has stated its intent to colonize Mars. In September, former front man of Blink-182, Tom DeLonge, worked with the U.S. Navy, one of the largest polluters on Earth, to confirm that three F-18 gun-camera videos published on the website for his To The Stars Academy (an outfit dedicated to space research) were indeed “unidentified aerial phenomena”; DeLonge’s group subsequently signed a contract with the U.S. Army. As we approach cataclysm, those in power seem increasingly invested in their future colonizing and exploiting space rather than fixing the problems they’ve caused on Earth.
The question of extraterrestrial life has always lurked just under the surface of pop culture. From time to time, it bursts through into the wider imagination and asks us to collectively imagine what the consequences of contact with aliens might look like. In a very real way, these cultural reckonings have served as a sort of barometer of social health: a way of gauging how we feel about our planet and our species. The beauty of a shitpost-turned-meme like Storm Area 51 is in how the joke gives way to an earnest feeling. Taken literally, a mass civilian raid on a highly secure U.S. military base is not funny. But as a nonliteral expression of a feeling—of allegiance to the Other, of liberatory intent, of collective power—you come away with something else. Knowing full well it’s dumb as shit, in the end, you want to believe.