All My Friends Know the Pale Rider...

by Arthur B

The life and ideas of Milton William Cooper seems strangely relevant to our current Trump-inflicted world of fake news and paranoia.
Milton William Cooper basically told the same story ever since he made his first big public splash in 1988. The story went like this: as part of an accomplished military career which saw him serving in Vietnam, Cooper eventually found his way into the Office of Naval Intelligence, in a post under Admiral Clarey. Bored out of his skull and frustrated with the massive discrepancies between the stories he saw Nixon and Kissinger telling the American people on the news and the activities he knew to be going on in Southeast Asia as part of the overspill of Vietnam into Cambodia and Laos, he eventually started peeking at top secret documents which, whilst not strictly intended for his eyes, happened to be in the filing cabinets in his office. These documents revealed a hidden story of astonishing conspiracy against the American Republic and the wholesale subversion of its Constitution.

The problem was that what Cooper claimed was actually in those documents kept changing. When he first started making his claims, they were generally in support of the Majestic-12 conspiracy theory and the documents received by UFO researchers Jamie Shandera, William Moore and Stanton Friedman. Then, when the credibility of those documents started looking shaky, Cooper claimed that the documents he’d seen in the Navy substantiated this - that the leaked documents were part of a damage limitation plan by the real Majestic-12 to send potential investigators down blind alleys should they get too close - but he stuck with his claims of UFO conspiracies and secret pacts with hostile alien races, claiming that he’d seen in the filing cabinets copies of the legendary O.H. Krill papers (named after the alleged alien ambassador to Earth).

This led to a falling-out with fellow UFO conspiracy theorist John Lear, who had the temerity to point out to Cooper that he himself had written the Krill papers years after Cooper’s Naval career had ended as a speculative piece (though, typical of any of Lear’s flights of fancy, it really isn’t presented as being at all hypothetical). After a while, Cooper dropped the UFO stuff almost entirely, his conspiracy theories now focusing largely on the machinations of the occult secret societies he’d originally drafted in as willing Quislings of the Greys, and eventually Admiral Clarey’s filing cabinets receded into the distance, Cooper commenting on current events based on intelligence gathered by his Citizens Agency for Joint Intelligence (a private intelligence operation of volunteers) or by the Second Continental Army of the Republic (a supposed militia umbrella organisation which Cooper claimed to be a mere officer of but which I suspect simply consisted of him and whatever fictional characters he needed to pass him information at any particular time).

Cooper began doing speeches and posting articles to the proto-Internet, wrote a bizarre Frankenstein abomination of a book entitled Behold a Pale Horse, and eventually settled into his groove broadcasting his radio show The Hour of the Time on shortwave from his house on a lonely hill in Apache County, Arizona. His show covered topics ranging from the cosmological and the esotertic - he devoted a massive, multi-part, hours-long series of shows to unpicking what he claimed was the secret belief structure of the Illuminati - to current affairs, to deeply personal matters, to just playing some good music (Cooper having tastes ranging from the great American songbook to P-Funk). In his last years he lived with an outstanding warrant hanging over his head due to a tax dispute; eventually, after waving a gun in the face of a local doctor who’d had the temerity to go jogging in the vicinity of his hill, Cooper was visited by a posse of deputies, and in an ill-tempered shoot-out was killed after putting a shot in the head of Deputy Robert Martinez, who remains paralysed to this day.

Such is the outline of Bill Cooper’s wild career in the public eye, and the story that Mark Jacobson seeks to unpack in Pale Horse Rider. In the course of this biography, Jacobson explores the extent of Cooper’s cultural influence - from the way his take on UFO conspiracy theories influenced The X-Files, to his influence on the “patriot movement” which led to the militia boom of the 1990s, to the widespread dissemination of his work within the prison system and the world of hip-hop via his embrace by the Five Percenter splinter group of the Nation of Islam.

It’s a timely subject to address. Alex Jones’ InfoWars cottage industry basically consists of a huge riff on Cooper’s Hour of the Time, delivered with a great deal more Internet-savvy and perhaps a fat dose of insincerity. (Cooper apparently got greatly annoyed by Jones’ tendency to just make up fake news, though that’s a bit rich coming from him given his claim that he saw the Krill papers in Admiral Clarey’s filing cabinet 10 years before John Lear wrote them.) Alex Jones, if not being directly responsible for electing Trump, at the very least helped set the tone of the national debate in such a way that Trump could thrive. The birther conspiracy theories and the resurgence of the militia movement under Obama was reminiscent of the same right wing extremism surge which followed the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents; QAnon, notable perhaps for being the first conspiracy theorist to build their theories on the idea that the current President of the United States is a good guy, brought Behold a Pale Horse back into the upper reaches of the Amazon sales rankings after praising Cooper in a February 2018 posting.

It would be an oversimplification, though, to present Cooper as solely a creature of the proto-alt-right; Jacobson unpacks how Cooper was much more contradictory and difficult to pin down than that. For instance, whilst he undeniably had a strong appeal among the primarily white, primarily Christian “patriots” of the militia movement, Cooper also seemed to take heart from his appeal among black radicals, slammed the LAPD over the Rodney King incident, and generally agreed that the system was rigged against people of colour. (One of the theories he promoted was that AIDS was a vile attempt at genocide against black, hispanic, and LGBT people, and he was sufficiently consistent in his libertarianism to say that he had absolutely no problem with gay rights.) He was proud of his mixed-race daughter and was implacably hostile to anyone trying to go directly racist in their rhetoric

Lest we mistake him for a Social Justice Conspiracy Theorist, however, it’s got to be acknowledged that Cooper’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to conspiracy theory took him into some downright problematic areas. For instance, he reprinted the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion verbatim in Behold a Pale of Horse (just providing a caveat that readers should mentally read “Illuminati” where it says “Jew” and “cattle” where it says “goyim”), and then when the ADL came to the understandable conclusion that he was antisemitic he started accusing them of being an Illuminati front (as he would any time anyone crossed him) and flirted with some Holocaust denial theories. At the same time, it seems that Cooper genuinely didn’t buy into the idea that the Protocols represented a specifically Jewish conspiracy for world domination; Jacobson discusses a memorable episode of The Hour of the Time in which a neo-Nazi rang in to try and denounce the Jewish people and Cooper demolished the caller’s arguments.

Another such contradiction is illustrated in a more chilling encounter which kicks off what might just be the best stretch of the book - Jacobson unpacking Cooper’s interactions with the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh and one of his accomplices apparently tried to reach out to Cooper before committing the Oklahoma City bombing, popping in for an unexpected visit at the offices of Veritas, Cooper’s ill-fated attempt to produce his own newspaper; by all accounts Cooper didn’t trust them one bit and sent them packing, apparently not impressed by their veiled references to violence and fanboyism of William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries.

The bombing was committed in part as revenge for the fatally botched law enforcement raids in Ruby Ridge and Waco (the latter of which Cooper gave extensive coverage to as the siege unfolded, and helped propagate some of the most significant conspiracy theories relating to it). Jacobson also makes a convincing case that it was inspired, at least in part, by Cooper’s rhetoric. One of Cooper’s consistent complaints was that the militia movement was full of people willing to talk the talk and desperately short of people willing to take direct action, and it does seem like Timothy McVeigh and those that helped him were attempting to take just such action.

At the same time, of course, Cooper wasn’t interpreting it as a blow against the government but as yet another plot - the government blowing up a bunch of its own low-status workers and their kids in order to justify a law enforcement crackdown - and Jacobson outlines how Cooper mobilised his Citizens Agency for Joint Intelligence agents on the ground in Oklahoma City (both of them!) in order to try and gather information on the bombing and poke holes in the official account. The methodology of gathering rumour and witness statements and then using them to nitpick and poke holes in the emerging narrative is something we have become very familiar with; it happens every time there’s a school shooting these days. Cooper predicted that those would become very common too - though given the amount of blather he issued forth, he’d be expected to get some predictions right through sheer coincidence.

Another thing he predicted was an event which has overshadowed the Oklahoma City bomb in the American imagination to the extent that the inhabitants of Yankerdoodlestan no longer believe that white Christian boys can be “terrorists”; an event which has become such a dominant feature of the conspiracy theory landscape that it’s displaced the Kennedy assassination as the one incident that every theorist worth their salt has an opinion on; an event which would be the last real media circus that Cooper would participate at the fringes of before he died. That incident was, of course, 9/11.

Cooper died in November 2001; beyond his epic nine hour live broadcast on 9/11 itself, he really didn’t have that much space to get his ideas about the attacks out there (particularly when there was other subjects closer to his heart to deal with, like lambasting Alex Jones for being a useless blight on the national discourse). As Jacobson lays out, however, Cooper didn’t need more than those nine hours to completely mould the shape of 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories for years to come. Jacobson vividly depicts how, pretty much live on air, Cooper cobbled together the idea that the Twin Towers had been dropped in a controlled demolition based on rumour and reports relayed to him by callers. Even now, the better part of two decades after the event, Truthers are still banging the “controlled demolition” drum, and there’s a good case to be made that they are following Cooper in doing so.

No discussion of Cooper can ignore his magnum opus, Behold a Pale Horse, and Jacobson gives us a good taste of it as well as exploring the circumstances surrounding its publication. (Jacobson is able to coax out of the owner of Light Technology Publishing, the otherwise typically New Agey outlet that prints Behold a Pale Horse, that she’s never actually read the book - this despite the fact that it’s probably her biggest seller.)

Jacobson seems to suggest - and I would tend to agree - that part of the appeal of Behold a Pale Horse is how easy it is to cherry-pick material from it and spin other material in a way you like. It’s not really a single, cohesive work which advances its ideas in any sort of orderly way so much as it’s a lashed-together set of documents. Some of these are penned by Cooper. like an updated version of his seminal UFO essay, The Secret Government, in which he laid out a vision of what Majestic-12 was all about which has since been adopted by fictional treatments ranging from The X-Files to the RPG Delta Green.

Others consist of him grabbing documents which were of interest to him and stuffing them in there. As well as the Protocols, there’s material like Silent Weapons For Quiet Wars and The Report From Iron Mountain - both written as satires by identifiable authors, but later taken deadly seriously by people on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the left-leaning authors. You get random bits of legislation that Cooper sees a sinister meaning in, a copy of his military service record, and random conspiracy articles from other hands, all with no real consistency from chapter to chapter informatting.

On top of that, it emerged at a transitional moment in Cooper’s theorising - a point when he hadn’t quite dropped the UFO and alien stuff, but when he was taking on a lot of ideas about occult secret societies who do all this horrible stuff to us essentially because they have a very weird esoteric view of cosmology and all of this makes a strange sort of sense if you buy into those ideas. (Throughout the book he’s basically debating with himself as to whether the coming One World Government is a desperate collaboration between all the world’s different conspiracies in the face of a terrifying alien threat, or whether the conspiracies have been conspiring with each other all along and the alien threat is a fake ploy to force everyone into the New World Order.)

On top of that, he was also sticking his oar into a range of much more grounded conspiracy theories and adding his own bizarre twist to them. (His major contribution to JFK conspiracy theories is that the driver in the motorcade shot Kennedy in the face with a special gun using bullets laced with shellfish toxin.) Between the macroscopic and microscopic conspiracies covered, it’s about as broad and wide-ranging a smorgasboard of paranoia as Cooper would ever offer. It is tailor-made for cherry-picking - whatever your political outlook, you can grab the bits which support your worldview from it, accept them as true, and dismiss the rest as disinformation spread by the conspiracy of your choice to muddy the water.

Your job here is made easier by Cooper’s gleeful disregard for the facts and willingness to just invent shit if it will make for a better story; from his claim that the mysterious JASON Society was using the Galileo mission to ignite Jupiter and turn it into a star like in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 to his insinuations that the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail were concealing the true location of the Holy Grail and the bones of Christ, to his assertion that the Hague is in Switzerland instead of the Netherlands, you can count on Cooper to give you a wild ride. He also makes the blunt assertion that Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, was the true author of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, an allegation on a par with Robert Anton Wilson's jocular claim that Weishaupt and George Washington were one and the same. (Jacobson includes some interesting anecdotes of what happened when Cooper ran across Wilson and Ivan Stang, prime mover of the Church of the Subgenius and another chap who likes playing with conspiracy theory for surreal comedy value, at a counter-culture convention in the early 1990s. They didn't get on.)

Or, instead of picking and choosing what you take from Behold a Pale Horse, you can swallow the whole dang thing and wreck your entire conception of the universe. The “grand unified conspiracy theory” approach taken by Cooper would later be imitated closely by David Icke, Britain’s own homegrown fringe theorist, who before he settled down into his current rut of being a mashup of Alex Jones and Alan Partridge essentially took Cooper’s overall approach, added his own New Age perspective, sprinkled on some secret sauce and came up with his classic “the world is secretly run by lizard people” theory.

For those who cannot stomach or cannot be assed with Behold a Pale Horse, though, Pale Horse Rider is the definitive text on Cooper. My major criticism of Jacobson is that he seems to take Cooper’s claims about his military service at face value; maybe he did do the necessary Freedom of Information Act requests to pull the records and compare them to what Cooper purports to be his service record (provided as a handy appendix in Behold a Pale Horse), but if he did he does not mention doing so (though he does allude to looking over the FBI file compiled during Cooper’s standoff with the US Marshals); his notes on his sources exclusively relate to the various online materials he referenced.

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Comments (go to latest)
Ronan Wills at 20:03 on 2018-10-03
I think I'm going to add this to my ever-expanding reading list...

I almost get nostalgic for these vintage, pre-internet conspiracy theories. When you compare them to the Qanon nonsense doing the rounds at the moment (last time I checked in on the Q brain trust, they had decided that JFK Jr was secretly still alive and possibly Q himself) they almost seem benign and harmless...until you remember stuff like Waco and the militia movement it emerged from.

While I'm on the subject, I was just thinking the other day that it seems as if government conspiracies have completely overtaken UFOs as the modern mythology of our times. You really don't hear much about aliens anymore, and it seems like the new "grainy UFO photo" is someone on twitter decoding "secret messages" in Trump's press appearances.

I think I preferred the UFO era, frankly.
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