The Wake of Bill Cooper [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 54 seconds. Contains 1581 words
Good morning friends!
Trying out actually getting one of these out more or less on time for a change of pace.
I’m Stephen, your host, and this is the Trenchant Edges. A newsletter about weird people and ideas.
And it’s hard to come for someone weirder than Bill Cooper.
Bill exists in a kind of amazing venn diagram.
Over the last year I’ve become one of those awful people who can’t stop thinking about Bill Cooper.
Part of it is contrast. Bill’s just as problematic as say, Alex Jones, and spreads a ton of the same ideas, but he’s also way better at radio and gives a much more plausible case for why he isn’t a racist.
I can’t call him a “good” person. But he was sincere in a way I don’t really get from most of today’s conservative pundits. And he certainly seemed to believe all his bullshit.
He’s also a fairly early Insider conspiracy theorist: Allegedly working for Naval Intelligence, which gave him access to many documents he claimed to be factual. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bill Cooper Basics
Let’s run through his life real quick:
Bill was born on May 6th, 1943 in Long Beach California and most of the details of his early life are quite spotty. We know he did at least one tour in Vietnam in the navy and was discharged in 1975.
From there he bounced between technical and vocational schools until he joined the UFO community publically in 1988. His early works focused on an anti-government conspiracy mixing UFOs and secret plots which he’d later come to doubt.
It was called Majestic 12 and, hoo boy, it’s a whole fucking thing. TLDR: There’s a secret government who have cut a deal with somewhat hostile aliens where we get technology and they get to abduct people as they like.
If y’all want me to get into the details, ask. This was one of my early conspiracies that I got into through the temple of the screaming electron.
Anyway, Bill later came to reject this narrative and suspect that the whole UFO phenomenon is just a government psyop. A theory with some legs, IMO.
After he left the UFO scene, he started broadcasting on shortwave radio eventually getting a weekday show called The Hour Of The Time where he’d discuss his ideas and take calls. The show would run until his death on November 5th, 2001.
Over the course of the show, he’d get increasingly paranoid and drive away a lot of his loved ones until he picked a fight with the police and they killed him.
If you want more details, and thoughtful exploration of Cooper’s legacy, I recommend Moxy O’brien’s Come and See podcast episodes on the same.
Extremely high-quality stuff.
Moxy and I share an interest in Bill but from somewhat reverse angles. For them, Bill was an early influence who needed to be reinterpreted. For me Bill was someone I dismissed when I was younger, but have had to come back around to reevaluate his legacy as his style of conspiracism has come to dominate politics in the US.
He wasn’t the first, but he united a TON of memes that are now commonplace.
Behold A Pale Horse: The Anti-Illuminatus! Trilogy
Bill’s 1991 book, Behold A Pale Horse is a profoundly frustrating book.
I think it’s most interesting if we take a contrast between a generation earlier’s most iconic conspiracy book: Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy.
Both books take the assumption that, roughly, all conspiracy theories are true as their starting point. But where the Bobs thought that was a funny premise and used it to fuel an absurdist novel designed to induce doubt in the very intellectual foundations of western thought, turning the paranoia in on itself as a joke, Bill takes it all deadly seriously.
Both books have rapid-fire energy in their early chapters which turn that manic energy into a whirlwind of claims and counterclaims.
Both books have a history-spanning conspiracies behind seemingly everything from the Kennedy assassination to consumer goods or fluoride in the water.
Where they break is in sincerity and tone.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy is always winking at the audience that you shouldn’t take this shit seriously and doing so drives many of the worst actions of the plot until they culminate in the last book.
The effect is you feel like someone has let you in on a great secret and it’s hugely liberating. Now you’re on the inside of the joke. And you get to have a laugh with the authors.
By the end of Behold A Pale Horse, you feel like someone has let you in on a great secret and you have to keep a watchful eye on those around you lest they steal your cheese.
As a connoisseur of paranoia, it must be said that BAPH achieved something only matched by William F Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch: Pushing me into a very active paranoid state.
I felt like a rat coming out of its burrow searching for enemies.
Now, you’ll notice I haven’t really addressed the content of BAPH.
That’s not an accident. It’s specifically written as an explainer of the serial killer wall in Cooper’s head. It’s long, exhaustive, and its detail interconnects in lots of weird ways.
To try and sum up any one part without addressing the whole runs the risk of ignoring critical information in other parts. The edifice gives that same impression of heft as the bible: There’s so much there that it has to mean *something*
More frustratingly, Cooper has some real insight into human nature and government systems. While what he believes is most likely delusional, he does so with enough force and so many details you can’t easily cut through them.
Bill Cooper isn’t teaching history or skepticism, but an idiosyncratic lens to reinterpret the world in a very specific way. All secret plots are the same Great Plot, still at work after thousands of years by an ever-shifting but eternal secret society whose greatest trick is proving they never existed.
If that sounds exhausting, it is.
But because Bill comes at things from his unusual perspective which doesn’t really fit in the usual left/right stereotypes, he’s able to share what’s fundamentally the same idea that Edmund Burke had about the French Revolution in the 1790s only it’s everyone everywhere.
To his credit, he doesn’t usually approve of his fellow militia types falling back on racism as a trope.
Which. combined with his criticisms of the war on drugs, helped make some of his biggest fans Black Americans who felt like he was the first person to lay out the game for them, most notably the Wu-Tang Clan.
Of course, as is usual with Bill, with any good thing you can say about him there are another half dozen things to criticize. He often verged on AIDS denial and definitely spread some bullshit about the disease. Like his intellectual child Alex Jones, he’d hawk a lot of embarrassing merch like gold. Using the fear generated by his ideas to make people think they’d need overpriced bullion to protect against the devaluing of the dollar that right wingers have been warning against the 1960s.
Oh, and he literally published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Behold A Pale Horse. He often said that while it was fraudulent, it was true if you swapped references to Jews to “globalists”.
(not so ironically, this is very similar to Adolf Hilter’s view of the PEZ, only without the last step)
Was Cooper an anti-semite in his heart? I don’t think it matters. Even by his own admission, he believed in a world identical to antisemites, just with the identity swapped for a vague conspiracy tracing back to ancient Babylon.
He spread antisemitic ideas, and his own are almost indistinguishable anyway. So, uh, fuck him.
In this post, I’m more trying to explain why Bill Cooper’s bullshit has gotten into my system over the last year than debunk him.
In some ways, he’s a kind of relief from the modern far right.
He probably wouldn’t be one if he’d lived to see that right-wing. It’d be interesting to see how his views would change after another 20 years.
But his paranoia killed him.
And I think that’s really the lesson you should take from this story. Tilting at windmills is all well and good until you remember that in the real world they can tilt back.
(An ex of mine once reminded me of that important fact, which I remain grateful for)
Anyway, I think it’s worthwhile unpacking the geological layers of right-wing bullshit to better understand how we got to the right wing of today and to get a sense how it’ll probably develop going forward.
If y’all want more content like this, let me know. There are a TON of documents we could go through with an axe for fun.
The fundamental delusion I think people like Cooper have is twofold:
Confusing Influence and Control
Not understanding that power-brokering is a normal human activity and probably inescapable.
Influence = nudging events & people’s decisions, bending rather than breaking.
Control = dictating events & decisions, with most people being little more than puppets.
But dismissing the inner lives of people isn’t clever analysis, it’s foolishness. People are always gonna conspire but most of those are gonna fail. It’s just hard to do.
Humans are relationship-driven so it’s hard to remove affinity biases. So groups will always tend to build power around their membership.
Anyway, I’m going to cut this off now before I write another thousand words.
Glad to be back, y’all.