The Chronicle of Higher Education
The sinister images of 'The X-Files'
My students and I have finally found a common language. It turns out that many of us are mildly addicted to "The X-Files." Nor are we alone. Every Sunday evening, an enormous and enthusiastic audience regularly tunes in to watch Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, two sharp-looking F.B.I. agents, attempt to make sense of a weird and chaotic world. What, I keep wondering, accounts for the enormous popularity of this series?
It turns out that people watch for completely different reasons. Until the mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, Cal., for example, I conveniently ignored the obvious fact that "The X-Files" often focuses on U.F.O.'S. But many viewers watch because they like to see their belief in the paranormal explored. As 2000 looms closer, it seems that growing numbers of people-fearful of the unknown-are seeking spiritual salvation in belief in an apocalypse or a last-minute rescue by aliens. To some degree, "The X-Files" provides a dash of hope. But that is not what interests me. I view the paranormal and alien themes as the dramatic means by which the program explores the intrigue of invisible, shadowy layers of official power. It is the program's sinister image of the government that has hooked me.
In the world of "The X-Files," the F.B.I. agents who explore paranormal and unexplained homicides are the heroes. But they are constantly thwarted by mysterious cabals of government officials and civilian villains who specialize in the art of the cover-up and, if necessary, the act of assassination. This portrayal of government makes "The X-Files" profoundly American. Disbelief and distrust-especially of centralized government-are part of the national psyche. As the historian Richard Hofstadter once observed, American political culture has always been burdened by seismic strains of paranoia. The United States spawned a left and right version of populism, as well as a left and right paranoid style in politics.
So it seems that the popularity of "The X-Files" stems from its diabolical ability to appeal to U.F.O. devotees, paranormal cultists, political paranoids, and people like me, who have lived too long and witnessed too much to trust their government. In short, members of the audience project their interests onto the series and revel in what they see.
"The X-Files" also appeals to several generations. The cynical 19-year-old in my life has turned into an avid fan for the same reasons my students have. (At last, we have found a common passion.) Born after Watergate, he, like my students, has never had illusions of a benign government. He is suspicious of ideology, cynical about politics, and assumes that a university education will land him a McJob with no benefits.
"The X-Files" confirms what he expects from government: sinister cabals, shadowy conspiracies, convenient lies, and pandemic corruption. "Nothing," he says with confidence, "is as it seems. " It took me much longer to learn what he and my students take for granted. Raised to be a good Girl Scout in the Age of Ike, I expected truth and honesty from our government. The Weekly Reader map convinced me that the Yellow Peril would meet the Red Menace and turn the United States into an Orange Communist Colony. And I grew fearful.
But not for long. Soon I became acquainted with the world of deception and corruption. Long before the Pentagon Papers, I. F. Stone, investigative reporter and publisher of the iconoclastic I. F. Stone's Weekly, taught me how an inquiring mind could discover government duplicity in public records. I learned to read him religiously; he almost always turned out to be right.
So many lies; so much deception: The revelations of the Pentagon Papers; the secret war in Laos; the F.B.I.'S "Cointelpro" project to infiltrate social movements in the 1960s; disclosure of government-sponsored radiation experiments on human beings; the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on black men; Iran-contra; the great savings-and-loan heist; the Gulf War; the Pentagon's cover-up of the medical problems of Vietnam and Gulf War veterans-the list is endless.
Even worse, sometimes the most crackpot fear turns out to be justified. In the early days of the women's movement, some feminists worried incessantly about F.B.I. infiltration. I didn't believe we were that important; I scoffed at the need to feel "radical enough to be infiltrated." I was wrong. Imagine my surprise, many years later, when I read the F.B.I. files on the American women's movement, unearthed by the Freedom of Information Act and carefully conserved in an archive.
Letters flew fast and furiously between women informants and J. Edgar Hoover. Even now, it's hard to picture these spies, sitting in someone's living room, taking mental notes on "feminist subversion." One informant wrote that the women's grievances seemed perfectly legitimate. At home, their husbands burdened them with the childcare and housework; at work, they confronted discrimination and harassment. In a letter to the director of the F.B.I., the informant suggested that she end her surveillance. J. Edgar Hoover vehemently disagreed and reminded her that her information was essential for "national security." Another informant wrote that the group she had infiltrated simply was reading literature and posed no threat. To fill up space, she conscientiously described the clothing and jewelry of each woman in the group. Once again, J. Edgar Hoover dashed off a letter in which he reminded the young woman that her work was necessary to the security of the nation.
No, nothing is as it seems. John Le Carre, the masterful novelist of intrigue and espionage, taught us that. During the Cold War, I sometimes found myself stranded in airports, idly wondering if people were actually tourists or about to make a drop to their handlers.
Perhaps that same suspicion is what makes "The X-Files" so entertaining. Each week, the series challenges viewers to seek that fine line separating informed skepticism and suspicion from full-blown political paranoia. For Americans, this is a familiar indoor sport. What unites the wildly diverse audience of "The X-Files" is a deep and abiding distrust of our government-a legacy from the nation's founders, yes, but one that has been powerfully reinforced during the past three decades.
Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, writes regularly on politics and culture.