Choose Your Illusion
The Internet world has been abuzz in recent months over an online-only documentary called Zeitgeist, The Movie. Viewable primarily on Google Video, the feature-length film is racking up daily hits topping fifty thousand, and a specific title search via Google’s engine comes back with three times as many results. With a tagline that poses the question, “What does Christianity, 911, and the Federal Reserve have in common?” it is readily apparent that this flick has an axe to grind.
Divided into three parts, the movie attempts to define the modern zeitgeist – “the spirit of the time” – as an elaborate global conspiracy arranged to consolidate the human race under a single totalitarian government. Within the first twenty minutes, the Christian faith is debunked as the product of an age-old Roman scheme to dominate the masses under a fabricated mythology borrowed wholesale from pagan sun worship. Jesus probably never even existed, the film argues, and his character was directly modeled after the gods of other world religions. Furthermore, these shared attributes are actually nothing more than recycled interpretations of the zodiac.
If you accept this revelation, then you are mentally primed for the following two chapters, which unleash a barrage of historical bombshells to expose the current world order as further perpetrations of deceit and thought control. Among other atrocities, we learn that the Bush Administration orchestrated 9/11; the media and public schools are in cahoots to keep us ignorant and complacent; and the Federal Reserve is a front for an international banking cartel with designs for a neo-feudalist world state. In the end, we will all be tagged with microchips, toiling in economic thrall to the Rockefellers – that is, unless enough people wake up to the truth.
Yes, this is an outlandish, grandiose, and paranoid take on reality. While there are hefty kernels of truth rattling around throughout, the film does some Olympian stretching in its ambitious game of connect-the-dots. And as could be expected, it is rife with inaccuracies and dubious scholarship from start to finish, as several critics have pointed out. Yet at its best, Zeitgeist is a flashy, riveting piece of renegade agitprop aimed at rousing an increasingly stupefied public to the world crumbling around their computer screens. Eye-catching visuals and a healthy disregard for copyright law make for some engaging segues, featuring voice-overs from countercultural icons like George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Richard Alpert. We are even treated to highlights of an apoplectic Peter Finch railing against the hypocrisies of our times in Sidney Lumet’s Network. If its sights are on a mass media, short-attention-span demographic, Zeitgeist has its bases covered.
As with any work of propaganda, however, it employs liberal amounts of disinformation and ambiguity in driving its message home. Criticisms of the film’s take on Christianity dominate online reviews, and several convincing (or at least, better researched) rebuttals dismiss outright many of its tightly drawn parallels between Jesus and other deities. After a bit of web browsing and critical thinking, any amateur fact checker will quickly get tangled in Zeitgeist’s exegetical arguments.
For those familiar with the alleged conspiracies surrounding 9/11, the movie brings nothing new to the table, and even includes scenes from the notorious Loose Change online documentary that popularized these theories. Entitled “All the World’s a Stage,” Part Two assembles a pastiche of news footage and clips from various “9/11 Truth” videos to argue for the controlled demolition of World Trade Center buildings 1, 2 and 7. Numerous television specials, magazine articles, and websites have attacked many of the claims made here and unfortunately a balanced presentation of the debate is not attempted. One of the most compelling charges, that military air defense exercises were purposely conducted that morning to confuse NORAD interceptors and aid the hijackers, is left ultimately unsubstantiated. Part Three then attempts to stitch the entire jumbled picture together with a series of indictments that place the Federal Reserve at the heart of a plot for global corporate hegemony. Again, the film draws many serious accusations from unverifiable sources, leaving its conclusions hanging in uncertainty.
Once this slippery logic becomes obvious, Zeitgeist’s guiding premise – that authority manipulates truth to suit an agenda – gets mired in hypocrisy. Hard-line skeptics will spot these disingenuous tactics right off the bat, and more credulous viewers are advised to take it all in with a grain of salt. In a statement on the official website, the filmmaker himself even offers a caveat: “It is my hope that people will not take what is said in the film as truth, but find out for themselves, for truth is not told, it is realized.” Disguised as an homage to rationalism, this disclosure merely provides an easy out. Yet despite its many flaws, there is something deeply compelling about this movie. Were it presented as a thought experiment rather than undisputed fact, it could play a vital role in the emergence of a new cultural paradigm, loosening one’s mind to reevaluate the most basic assumptions about reality.
Of course, this is the intention (and the danger) of potent propaganda. Several Zeitgeist enthusiasts have proclaimed in message board posts that the film has changed their lives, inspiring them to become politically active or to renounce their faith. Certainly, it is preferable that personal transformations of this magnitude be founded upon authentic knowledge rather than untenable half-truths. But this is also where one’s preconceived notions can come into play. For example, during a college course on ancient Israelite religion, I came to the realization that the foundational myths in Judaism were clearly syncretized from the beliefs of neighboring pagan sects. This was a defining moment and a dramatic turning point in my spiritual development. Zeitgeist’s treatment of Jesus as a messianic Frankenstein culled from preexisting pantheons hardly offends me, then, although I doubt its validity.
I have no qualms, on the other hand, with the film’s indictments against the greedy and violent institution that has terrorized its fellow man in Christ’s name for centuries. Organized religion is a powerful tool of political control, according to my worldview. Perhaps it takes an equally ostentatious counter-spell to break some people free from the hypnotic program. That’s one less fundamentalist zealot to contend with at the end of the day. Along the same lines, I am increasingly convinced of a sinister intent behind the neoconservative agenda of the Bush Administration. While I can’t prove their complicity behind certain nefarious events, for all the abominations and scandals that have come to light, it’s not something I couldn’t imagine. If the shock-and-awe allure of Zeitgeist’s conspiratorial claims encourages someone to question the President’s jingoist rhetoric, I will not protest.
The defenders of truth are not what they used to be. Our mainstream news sources have been transmuted into an extremely efficient propaganda machine. Under the current White House, journalists have by and large been reduced to instruments of indoctrination, parroting the talking points of the day as handed down from on high. Right-wing media moguls like Rupert Murdoch continue to consolidate the world’s networks, newspapers, publishing houses, and airwaves in a concerted effort to control the flow of information.
In recent years, the documentary film has come into its own as a means of counteracting these domineering forces. Everyone from Hollywood environmentalists to ex-politicians are embracing the form, giving strength to a much-needed voice of dissent. Michael Moore now moderates the national conversation with as much haughty authority as Tony Snow. Big-screen films like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation, and An Inconvenient Truth pose a real threat to the status quo, challenging viewers to reconsider popularly held conceptions. While at times just as guilty of ad hominem manipulations as the mainstream channels they oppose, these movies help level the playing field in the battle for Western hearts and minds. Without them, the monopoly would be far more absolute.
It is not surprising that controversial documentaries like Zeitgeist and Loose Change have found a ready audience online. The Internet is the final frontier of democratic free speech, a forum where alternative voices are held in high regard. As objectivity in the mainstream press continues to take a back seat to the interests of power, bloggers and online activists have become crucial to the future of an informed public. Yet it is also important to note that in the blogosphere, the editorial is king. Opinion, sarcasm, and unabashed bias color much of the independent journalism on the web, with sites like Daily Kos and TPM Muckraker leading the charge for a new media shaped by personal perspective. This trend speaks to an empowering development in the intellectual psyche at large. Amidst an onslaught of conflicting possibilities, it is increasingly up to the individual to come to his own conclusions.
Like Peter Finch as the ill-tempered anchorman in Network, Zeitgeist seems mostly interested in riling us up. If enough people get “mad as hell,” the logic goes, we won’t be lied to anymore. But deception and conspiracy are deeply ingrained in our consciousness. From the Tooth Fairy to the Tonkin Gulf, false authority and fantasy shape our entire lives, calling into question the true nature of the world around us. With the rise of “reality” television, our popular entertainment now imitates life, and vice versa, to an unnerving extent. In a recent blog article, Reality Sandwich contributor Kal Cobalt observes, “We have learned how to obfuscate reality so well through media technology that it is no longer possible to definitively determine what is ‘real.’" Zeitgeist succeeds in capturing the spirit of this pivotal time, where “truth” and “reality” are no longer absolutes, but products of our own boundless imagination. Rather than get angry, we could simply choose to believe otherwise – and then we may truly be free.Tweet