Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Introduction)

Zeitgeist

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: ‘What are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out?’ Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only – and solely – at what are the facts.
~ Bertrand Russell, 1959 [1]



Zeitgeist
is an Internet film sensation that rocked the ostensibly “freethinking” online community upon its release on Google Video in the spring of 2007. Taking the German word for “spirit of the age” as its title, the film has since become a cult phenomenon. Scores of people have credited Zeitgeist with “opening their mind” and profoundly altering their way of looking at and thinking about the world. But while Zeitgeist serves as a useful primer on several fringe ideas circulating in the areas of religion and politics, I want to argue in this paper that people should be wary of accepting its claims as gospel. The majority of claims made in the film are highly questionable at best and factually incorrect, even dishonestly so, at worst. The same standards of critical thinking and skepticism the filmmaker purports to promote and utilize in analyzing religious claims and political states of affairs are not applied to many of the historical, political, and socioeconomic claims employed to support his analyses.

Zeitgeist is the film that first introduced me to the world of conspiracy theories when I watched it upon its release. I have been fascinated ever since by conspiracy theories, not as a believer but as a skeptic interested in understanding how the anxieties and concerns of a society are channeled into the myths we create for ourselves. As a result of my interest, I have followed the work of figures such as Alex Jones, whose documentary films and radio broadcasts have made him a household name in the conspiracy-theory community. But it is often disappointing to note the paucity of information and commentary from the opposing side of the discussion, that is, from informed researchers who are skeptical of the claims made by conspiracy theorists. There are a few notable resources that come highly recommended by me. One is the online Skeptic Project (formerly known as Conspiracy Science). [2] Created by Edward L. Winston, the Skeptic Project began as a response to the relative scarcity of commentary being made to counter the proliferation of paranoid conspiracy theories on the Internet. The website is devoted to critiquing and debunking conspiracy theories of all kinds. Winston has also expanded the site’s content; in addition to shedding light on what are typically categorized as conspiracy theories, the Skeptic Project also contains sections debunking common misconceptions, myths, and urban legends.

The skeptic’s first and most important task in discerning truth from falsehood in relation to conspiracy theories is to seek out the source of a conspiracy theory. This process involves finding out what individual or group conceived of the theory, what agenda they may have, and the original evidence (if any) on which they drew. When this is done, the skeptic then stands in an informed position to figure out exactly what is wrong with the conspiracy theory or popular myth and why different groups feel motivated to add different elements to the same story. This methodology does not yield results for every single claim out there, but it does work for the vast majority of them. As an example, consider the “North American Union” conspiracy theory, an idea discussed in Part III of Zeitgeist. Where did the idea of a North American Union originate? This strictly hypothetical and speculative concept originated in a book written by Robert A. Pastor in 2001, entitled Toward a North American Community[3] Prior to the release of this book, there was never any mention by anyone of a North American Union, nor of the Amero currency that Pastor proposes in the book. A few years later, Alex Jones received word of Pastor’s idea and immediately declared the emergence of a North American Union to be literal truth, wholly disregarding the fact that the NAU was never anything more than a speculative suggestion, and one which Pastor himself did not even support.

Conspiracy theorists typically approach every piece of information they stumble across in this unreflective and schizophrenic manner. They will read a blog post or an op-ed piece from a news source that fires up their imagination, and then proceed to declare what they have come across to be fact, a sure indication that something significant and world-changing will definitely transpire. The internal contradiction that plagues the “conspiracy-around-every-corner” mindset can be seen in this tendency. Conspiracy theorists constantly tell us that we cannot trust mainstream news sources, but then attempt to back up their claims with clips from mainstream news media sources. They trust the mainstream news when it appears to validate their fears and distrust the mainstream news when it shows information contradicting their claims. When one looks at the source of conspiratorial claims, he or she may also discover exactly why the conspiracy theorists making the claims harbor their various agendas. It is usually the case that uninformed people who spread unfounded conspiracy theories on social networking sites have good intentions in mind; they want to notify people of what they have been led to believe is really transpiring. But those who initially start spreading conspiracy theories and claims usually have in mind monetary interests, political gain, or simply a desire for fame as they use their imaginations to invent myths.

Before delving with a critical eye into the content of Zeitgeist, background information on the Zeitgeist Movement is in order. The Zeitgeist Movement is a group founded by Peter Joseph, the creator of the film. Joseph envisioned and created the group as a venue through which the ideas advocated in the second and third Zeitgeist films can be actively expressed. [4] TZM is Peter Joseph’s way of not only promoting his movies, but also of endorsing the concepts behind an unrelated venture called the Venus Project, a movement founded by social engineer and futurist Jacque Fresco which seeks to bring to fruition a Technocratic resource-based economic utopia. [5] One of the stated purposes of the Zeitgeist Movement is to construct a plan to aid the Venus Project in establishing their agenda. However, like TZM, the Venus Project has not to date outlined any goals of a specific nature and has not accomplished anything concrete[6]

Zeitgeist is composed of three parts. Part I, entitled “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” discusses the origins of Christianity, asserting that the major tenets of Christian beliefs were taken whole-cloth from pre-existing myths. Part II, entitled “All the World’s a Stage,” discusses the “truth” behind 9/11, arguing that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were an inside U.S. Government. Part III, entitled “Don’t Mind the Men behind the Curtain,” argues that the federal government and the banking systems are conspiring for power and wealth consolidation. The main body of my critique is thus written in three parts, covering each section of the film in its turn.

 


[1] Bertrand Russell interview on BBC’s Face to Face, 1959. Video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bZv3pSaLtY (accessed September 5, 2016).

[2] Skeptic Project: “Your #1 COINTELPRO cognitive infiltration source.” http://skepticproject.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[3] Robert A. Pastor, Toward a North American Community: Lessons from the Old World to the New (Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute, 2001).

[4] http://TheZeitgeistMovement.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[5] http://www.TheVenusProject.com/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

[6] For more in-depth information concerning the Zeitgeist Movement, see Edward L. Winston’s helpful analysis at http://www.conspiracyscience.com/articles/the-zeitgeist-movement/ (accessed May 2, 2015).

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