Alice Walker, The Lizards, and the Jews

It’s something of a disappointment that Alice Walker endorsed David Icke’s And the Truth Shall Set You Free in her New York Times Book Review’s By The Book piece this past week, calling it “a curious person’s dream come true.” Walker is a beloved cultural figure and the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Color Purple. David Icke is a former footballer who now makes a living telling people that twelve foot tall lizards secretly run the world.

Much of the coverage of Walker’s name-dropping of Icke is focusing on the antisemitic nature of many of Icke’s conspiracy theories. These are not new accusations about Icke, and there’s quite a bit of evidence behind these claims. Icke frequently uses antisemitic tropes and ideas throughout his work and his public speaking. Icke has a history of claiming to have nothing but respect for the Jewish people themselves, but then going on at length about how they themselves have been duped by their “hierarchy.” The Rothschilds are featured in many of his conspiracy theories. Maintaining that these Jews are the good Jews and those Jews are the bad Jews, as well as just believing that Jews have any kind of hierarchy, is standard issue antisemitism. So is the basic idea of a shadowy cabal secretly running the world. Icke has borrowed liberally from the standard text of modern antisemitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But the question that’s been following Icke for years is whether when he says lizards he really means lizards, or if lizards is code for Jews. That is, is invoking antisemitic tropes in the service of a theory about shape-shirting inter-dimensional lizards secretly running the world actual antisemitism, or its own unique form of bonkers?

For those unfamiliar with Icke’s history, and he does have one, he first rose into the public eye as a footballer, playing for the Coventry City youth team in the late 1960s. His career was cut short when he developed rheumatoid arthritis and was forced to retire from playing in 1973 when he was only 21. He began working as a reporter, moved his way into broadcasting, and by 1981 he had risen to covering sports on the BBC’s Newsnight and Breakfast Time,  eventually taking the co-host spot on the BBC’s venerable football institution Grandstand. He was, in short, inescapable on British TV throughout the 1980s. And then it got weird.

In March 1991, Icke held a press conference in which he declared himself to be the “Son of the Godhead” and predicted a series of natural disasters leading to the end of the world in 1997. This claims brought quite a bit of media attention. When invited onto Terry Wogan’s show for an interview, Icke’s predictions drew laughter from the audience.  Icke stated that Jesus would have been laughed at, too, drawing one of the most famous rebukes in all of British journalism from Wogan, who pointed out that “they’re laughing at you. They’re not laughing with you.”

While this interview was damaging enough that it might have doomed Icke as a public figure from this incident, he was cunning enough to take advantage of the sort of cozy reputation rehabilitation that can be found on the BBC’s chat-show circuit. He spent the next few years appearing on comedy quizzes and panel programs, welcoming the gentle mocking and taking it in a chummy, good-natured way. In a few years, he had built himself a place in the public eye as just another harmless eccentric in a track suit.

In retrospect, Icke’s declaration of himself as the Son of the Godhead seems like a trial run for his later efforts with his lizard people conspiracies. Having become involved in alternative healing searching for relief from his arthritis, Icke understood that, in the late 1980s, there was a healthy market for whatever had a New Age label slapped on it. I suspect that Icke saw the simultaneous rise of American televangelism and the New Age movement and realized that there was money to be made from a new, mass-marketed spirituality. He may have realized that American-style TV evangelism wouldn’t fly in the UK, but that the same techniques could be used on the crowd that was gathering at Glastonbury and driving Enya to the top of the charts.

But he made a few mistakes. First, he was a little late to the game. By 1991, the mainstream New Age craze of the 1980s had already peaked, and Harmonic Convergences and crystals were rapidly falling out of fashion. He also made the key mistake of many a first-time messiah: he forgot to pretend that he wasn’t the product he was selling. If he had come forth with his predictions of the end of the world without putting himself at the center of it, he might have gotten away with it, at least until 1998 when the world hadn’t ended. But these were not mistakes he would repeat.

In the next few years, Icke floated a series of trial balloons, publishing books with a few different approaches to a New-Agey, self-empowering, sort of semi-Christianity. At some point in the early 1990s, he seems to have noticed that The X-Flies  was one of the most popular shows on television and he began taking a new approach, writing of shadowy extraterrestrial figures secretly controlling Earth. Lifting some ideas from Milton William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse, and excerpts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, he finally hit his stride with the emerging conspiracy theory and militia movements. He also found a new audience in America, where his Leicester accent sounded impressive, and where people were by and large unaware of his years as a national laughingstock.

Icke narrowed his focus and honed his act. He hit on the right formula of repackaging hardcore, New World Order, black helicopter style conspiracy theories in a fun, colorful package of absolute batshit craziness. His new take was that secrets cabals of shape-shifting lizard people were secretly controlling the planet. The Queen, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, all of them secret lizards. There was a vast plot spanning thousands of years to interbreed with and enslave humanity. And he managed to find a market for it.

In the 1990s, if you were feeling the same nervousness and discontent that comes with the alienation of a late capitalist society and wanted explanations, but weren’t quite ready to hoard food and weapons, inter-dimensional lizard people were just the ticket. Icke found his niche in the market as a sort of conspiracy theory catharsis. You could spend an hour experiencing the joy of realizing that you are the center of a vast cosmic plot, and then have forgotten all the details by the time you’d driven back home. By taking the insanity up to 11, Icke was able to seem like a prophet, a prophet who had the good fortune to preaching conspiracies at a time when the conspiracy-mad internet was growing by leaps and bounds. Those who had already spent years making flow charts in basements before Icke showed up took a little umbrage. In 2001, Alex Jones described David Icke as a “turd in the punchbowl”, someone whose “asinine” ideas were turning the general public off, making those who genuinely believed black helicopters were following them look ridiculous. In a few years, Jones would be racing to catch up with Icke’s insanity, only more shouty. At this moment, Icke was ahead of the game.

It was also around this same time that questions of Icke and antisemitism first began to be raised. Jon Ronson devoted a section of his 2001 book on conspiracy Them! and an episode of its companion TV series The Secret Rulers of the Worldto covering protests by a group of Jewish activists over Icke speaking in Canada in 2000. Ronson’s focus is on how the small group of Jewish activists seem just as paranoid as Icke, painting them as seeing antisemitism where there is none, and taking the side that sometimes an inter-dimensional shape-shifting lizard is just an inter-dimensional shape-shifting lizard.

Life is uncertain. Looking for conspiracies is looking for certainty. It’s looking for someone to blame. And when it’s a whole bunch of stuff to blame, an entire economic and social structure, that’s a lot to take in. And if you go looking for easy answers, you might develop a habit of paranoia. David Icke has built his career out of being the first cigarette of a paranoia habit. He’s good at selling the idea that there’s something wrong with the world and that he has the answers. And he is really good at selling. Remember, he had a twenty-year broadcasting career before he began delving into selling conspiracy.

But Icke’s product has ultimately never been the conspiracies, it’s been David Icke. When he first declared himself the messiah, he made the mistake of saying “Hey, look at me!” But Icke saw the the result of this was laughter and being savagely insulted by one of the most polite men in TV history. Learning how to encase the “Hey, look at me!” as “Hey, look at me while I tell you the real truth so you don’t quite notice that what you’re looking at is me!” was what made him a success.

On the surface, Icke’s conspiracy theories are deeply silly. They’re also a lot of fun. And childish. Shape-shifting inter-dimensional aliens secretly running the world is deeply appealing when you’re twelve. I mean, the lizards even have a moon base. How cool is that? And then you grow out of it. But habits are hard to break. And they stay with you, even when you think you’ve given them up. You can not have touched a cigarette for years, but you still suck the end of your pencil. Paranoid thinking is like that. When you realize that lizard people aren’t real, you still need something to fill that paranoid habit. And Jews actually exist.

Antisemitism is an easy substitute for most any kind of paranoia, because it’s the only type of conspiracy thinking with an easily accessible, long established literature. There are 2,000 years with of writing blaming the Jews. And discovering that, at the same time you’re throwing away your childhood lizards, can feel like real intellectual maturity.

Like children, movements also grow up. David Icke was highly influential in the adolescence of the modern conspiracy movement. He put a friendly, track-suited face on conspiracy thinking. He took the basic ideas of the black helicopter crowd and made them acceptably silly by slapping on a talking lizard. He made paranoia fun. But while doing this, he also drew on a well of antisemitic tropes and helped form the habits of paranoid thought. Whether he did this out of explicit antisemitism, or because this was the literature of conspiracy there was to draw on, we can’t actually know. But now, his children are outgrowing him. The movement has snuffed out its last lizard cigarette, and is now more interested in chewing on the Jews. This is where we find ourselves now. Imaginary lizards have few consequences for real people. Antisemitism has many very real consequences, for many very real people.

Icke seems to be aware of the world he helped shape outgrowing him. He now seems to be trying to reposition himself as the cool dad of the conspiracy movement. He has thrown himself in with the alt-right and has been making appearances at festivals headlined by the likes of Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon, but can’t quite completely master the new language of these angry kids these days. He can be seen being interviewed on YouTube videos, where he rails against assaults on freedom of speech, against antifa, and against liberalism, and the world in general. He now speaks more about “the establishment” and the “elite”, and doesn’t mention the lizards quite as much as he used to. There also seems to be an increasingly harder-to-disguise bitterness creeping into his voice, as if he’s well aware that he’s now second on the bill behind the Neo-Nazis, aware of himself as someone who once hosted one of the UK’s most popular sports programs, and is now being interviewed by a kid holding a microphone from Best Buy.

In some ways, that question that’s followed Icke for years, wether lizard people is a code word for Jews or not, doesn’t really matter all that much.  Because it really is both. Fundamentally, thinking that a group of inter-dimensional shape-shifting lizards controls the world is no less absurd than thinking that a shadowy cabal of Jewish bankers controls the world. It’s all just paranoia. Like inter-dimensional lizards, paranoia changes its shape to meet the needs of the moment. And in this moment, we are moving past lizards to seeing real consequences for real people.

I don’t know when or how Alice Walker picked up the habit of paranoia. Frankly, it’s a damn shame that she has. That she’s risking destroying her legacy by casting her lot with a track-suited con man, and that she’s exposing Icke to a whole new audience, is all just bad. God knows as a black woman in America she has enough real things to worry about without worrying about lizard people. Or the Jews. But that’s the problem with paranoia. It’s another habit that inevitably turns cancerous.