Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Zeitgeist - In the Spirit of Paranoia

NOTE: This is a re-post of a review I had up for a few years on Zaadz/ before the site was pulled down..

Zeitgeist: In the Spirit of Paranoia

The Intro

The movie begins with a trippy kaleidoscopic image set to hypnotic music - we are being inducted into something. 25 seconds later we are thrust for 40 seconds into scenes of artillery fire and explosions, rapidly cut to ominous chromatically descending music with driving percussion synched-up with the explosive action. For the next 2 minutes we take a macroscopic journey, again with trippy, hypnotic music, through the cosmos and earth seen from space that then transitions into sky, clouds and sunlight before going into a microcosmic cellular world and a series of very inventive morphing line-drawings that describe an evolutionary journey from single-celled organisms through plants - and then fish becomes lizard becomes mammal becomes monkey becomes human. Human develops opposable thumbs, learns to write 1+1=2 and then hey presto! the Holy Bible appears, double presto! a folded America flag drapes the bible and now a plane drifting lazily, dreamily across the top of the screen - right into a WTC tower.

Cue the ominously descending music with percussion synched to explosions! Flight of the Valkyries anyone? (I love the smell of napalm in the morning!) Forty more seconds of battleships, artillery canons and sundry explosions intercut with 911 footage and we dissolve on the collapsing tower. Now a full minute of dramatic orchestral music swelling around bloodied children, women in shock and trauma, Aushwitzian mass graves filled with emaciated concentration camp corpses, the famous Vietnam execution photo - but now in living video, gruesome shots of children with recently blown off body parts, or in hysteria near the bodies of dead adults, a full 6 seconds of a body in free-fall from one of the WTC towers, mothers crying on U.S. flag-covered coffins, soldiers tearfully saluting, a little girl in a little black funeral outfit doubled over over in iconic grief at the graveyard, face in her hands, hearse and flag in the background.

What an opening sequence. I would be impressed. I would be sympathetic - I hate war and the motives that often lie behind it. But I feel emotionally manipulated and have a sense of dread at the paranoid grand narrative that is about to unfold as the title "Zeitgeist" appears on the screen. Perhaps you have heard of this internet movie phenomenon. It is all the rage in alternative "spiritual" circles and manages to cobble together a poor understanding of mythology that deconstructs the silliness religion while seemingly giving credibility to the un-silly subject of astrology (of course!), a recycling of the (by now standard) elaborate and highly improbable 911 conspiracy theories, and a fight-the-power paranoia about the nefarious "international bankers" in the shadows behind, and profiting from, every war in history, while manipulating the rest of us ordinary folk through religion and media to keep the world's population enslaved via debt and taxes. The opening sequence all but yells - "Wake up motherfuckers!"

Now come the first (uncredited) spoken words:

The more you begin to investigate what we think we understand, where we came from, what we think we have been doing, the more you begin to see that we have been lied to. We've been lied to by every institution, what makes you think for one minute that the religious institution is the only one that's never been touched? The religious institutions of this world are at the bottom of the dirt. The religious institutions in this world are put there by the same people who gave you your government, your corrupt education, who set up your international banking cartels, because our masters don't give a damn about you or your family. All they care about is what they have always cared about, and that's controlling the whole damn world. We have been misled away from the true and divine presence in the universe that men have called God. I don't know what God is, but I know what he isn't, and unless and until you are prepared to look at the whole truth and wherever it may go, whoever it may lead to, if you want to look the other way or if you wanna play favorites, then somewhere along the line you're gonna find out you're messing with divine justice. The more you educate yourself, the more you understand where things come from, the more obvious things become and the more you see lies everywhere, you have to know the truth and seek the truth and the truth will set you free.

Yeah, I know. Try reading it again. What is this un-named but authoritative sounding person actually saying? Powerful rhetoric, vague paranoid assertions, the invoked uber-power of divine justice and the true presence of God...

Next comes a credited text quote, from an "Egyptologist" named Gerald Massey:

They must find it difficult, those who taken authority as truth instead of truth as authority.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Part One of Zeitgeist is a bit of a heart-breaker for me, because it does a very poor job of unfolding two subjects I hold very dear - 1) a critique of religion and 2) an exploration of mythology. Unfortunately it covers both these subjects rather poorly and, even more unfortunately, links them to a seeming elevation of astrology... Well of course, religion is just silly, but astrology, now there's something respectable, right?

The thrust here involves disproving the factual historicity of the story of Jesus (earth-shattering, I know) and a well-done extrapolation on the fairly common archetypal mythic themes in that story. So far so good. Yes - the story of Jesus Christ is a re-telling of mythic themes common to several other stories around the world.

But this section fails intellectually for three reasons.

First in it's insistence on defining a myth as "something false that people believe is true." While this definition applies to one kind of myth - like, say, all redheads are passionate and prone to anger or that there are more murders on full-moon nights, brief study of pre-eminent, world-renowned mythology scholar Joseph Campbell's work will reveal his refuting of that definition as it applies to the study of actual mythology in the interest of a deeper analysis of it's psychospiritual function.

The film-makers would do better to draw a distinction between the innately human activity of myth-making as a poetic story-telling, psycho-cultural activity on the one hand, and religion on the other as the literalization of myth that does indeed have the power to control people via superstitious fear.

Second in making the case that the Christian myth is "stolen" instead of recognizing that all myth is a) in an evolving and synthesizing process and b) that the archetypal themes in mythology originate in the human psyche and so always share certain deep features while differing in surface cultural and geo-specific details. But of course this is part of the paranoid worldview or "zeitgeist" the film embodies - there is a "them" who have nefariously "stolen" from the pagan myths to construct the Christian myth in order to control "us.' What's difficult about this is the partial truth wrapped up in poor reasoning and driven toward a false and totalizing conclusion. It makes it seem true, while in fact it is a "myth" in precisely the way that they have chosen to define that word.

Third and perhaps intellectually worst of all is the astrological overlay. Now of course it is fascinating to understand how the ancients used the archaic pseduo-science of astrology to link their brilliant early astronomical observations to fanciful archetypal images in the constellations and the supposed predictive powers of this activity. It is really interesting to see how the Christian symbology is an extension of many of those astrological ideas (which of course should come as no surprise) - but the overall tone is slanted toward the popular counter-culture idea that there existed a truly divine and powerful pagan religion prior to Christianity that has been taken from us for the sake of control. As if we should nostalgically long for our astrological pagan roots and throw off the mantle of Christian enslavement.

Ah yes, i hear a matriarchal Utopian society of yore around the corner here - one in which equal rights circa the 20th century and Woodstock-era free thinking, free love and ritual celebration inhabited an intuitive and enlightened anarchic social context in perfect harmony with other tribes and the sacred cycles of the earth...

The problem is this was simply never the case.

In fairness, this section is beautifully made, is filled with fascinating mythic, astrological and religious correspondences and makes a lot of good points about the horrific violent and oppressive history of religion. Unfortunately it does not extend it's debunking gaze to astrology and makes the mistake for the viewer of perpetuating the false link between accurate astronomical observations and completely nebulous astrological beliefs.

Again it's the partial truth that kills me. Yes, of course religion has been a force for control. Yes, Christianity does demonize a healthy relationship to the natural world, our bodies, sexuality, and ritual practices that engaged direct personal experience of profound altered states. But the way out of religious delusion does not lie in romanticizing a culture of pre-religious sacrifice, superstition and quaint pseudo-scientific magical thinking. In Wilberian/Gebserian/Spiral dynamics terms that is a leap out of the mythic frying pan and into the magical fire! In Integral/SD terms this is the classic Mean Green Meme retro-romantic mistake.

Part Two: All the World's a Stage

Here's the segue (again uncredited):

The religious myth is the most powerful device ever created and serves as the psychological soil upon which other myths can flourish.

What other myths you may ask? Well the "myth" of 911 of course!

The credited segue comes in the form of a segment of a JFK speech about the threat of the Soviets contexturalized to make it appear that he was talking about some other secret cabal - so now we have an implied throughline and emotional resonance between the Kennedy assasination and 911 - it's a conspiracy wet dream!

So now we jump from the manipulation of the masses via religion to the manipulation of the masses to believe the patently false story or myth of our times, which is this:

The 911 Myth: 19 hijackers, directed by Osama B. Laden, took over 4 Commercial Jets with box cutters and, while evading the Air Defense System (NORAD), hit 75% of their targets. In turn, W. Trade Towers 1,2 & 7 collapsed due to structural failure through fire in a "pancake" fashion, while the plane that hit the Pentagon vaporized upon impact, as did the plane that crashed in Shanksville. The 911 Commission found that there were no warnings for this act of terrorism, while multiple government failures prevented adequate defense.

As with the opening of Part One, this initial gambit is very flawed.

By concocting this official looking statement, the viewer is guided toward words in the description of events that already contain hints of the coming counter-argument. This description is designed as part of a "straw man argument" that will create a convincing impression through manipulation, weak evidential links and poor reasoning.

What's worse, they pepper a lot of the familiar footage with a few shots of people jumping to their deaths before the towers fell - one in particular that shows a group of several jumpers in mid-air. This is in particularly bad taste, and it remained until now part of unspoken protocol not to use those images - but the film-makers succeed in creating the emotional effect they are after. If you can get people into a re-traumatized state it is easier to get them out of reason and very interested in assigning blame and fantasizing about revenge - it's just how our nervous systems and brains work - the Bush government did it after 911 (which of course they massively exploited) to get us into Iraq, and now (with a different agenda) this group is using the same technique. Bummer... Ironic too!

Here I have to say that I have great sympathy for the 911 conspiracy crowd. They are made up of many sincere and intelligent folks who are rightly appalled at the corrupt power structure, at the lies that got us into the Iraq war. They are aware of the ulterior motives that always play a part in war and of the past "false flag" operations that actually have occurred to pull the wool over an unsuspecting public's eyes. They feel manipulated and ripped-off, and I share many of those sentiments, but the 911 conspiracy theories are just not very convincing in the cold light of day. Doubt my sincerity and radicalism if you must, but none other than MIT scholar, speaker and author Noam Chomsky, rabid and astute critic of American foreign policy, called "the most dangerous intellectual alive" by the Washington Post will usually dismiss 911 conspiracy questions with two or three brief sentences as to their implausibility before moving on to more worthy targets for his analysis.

There is not a single prominent intellectual or political figure anywhere in the world involved in this 911 Truth movement and you have to ask yourself why. Proof of U.S. government involvement in an evil and elaborate black ops plot to pull off the biggest act of manipulative violence in the history of history would be incredible ammunition for Bush's many vociferous critics at home and abroad. For Bush and his cronies, this would be undeniable grounds for war crimes indictments, impeachment and criminal prosecution, perhaps even a glorious execution in a Texas prison after a lengthy stay on death-row. Why has no-one with any serious clout added their voice to this narrative?

Quite simply because it takes a lot more to add up to a serious case for this statement:

"911 Truth: Criminal Elements within the US Government staged a "False Flag" Terror Attack on its own citizens, in order to manipulate the public perception into supporting its agenda."

than this:

* emotionally convincing cobbling together of anomalies, oddities, anecdotal inconsistencies,
* loudly stated assertions from random "scientific experts,"
* true observations about U.S. foreign policy and self-serving two-facedness,
* far fetched scenarios ( it wasn't even a plane that hit the Pentagon, the plane that hit the towers wasn't a commercial airliner, there had to be explosives in the towers for them to collapse that way, Building 7 was the center of operations so they had to demo it too, Giuliani was in on it etc etc)
* and endless loose-ended questions that seem to imply paranoid conclusions


"911 Truth: Criminal Elements within the US Government staged a "False Flag" Terror Attack on its own citizens, in order to manipulate the public perception into supporting its agenda."

Hmmm - all of this, huh? The 2 - 3 thousand dead in the towers, the hundreds on the planes, the destruction of billions in property, an elaborate conspiracy involving many participants, manipulation of the media on a grand scale, keeping the conspiracy secret for this many years, in spite of all the agitating. All for what? To allow the Neocons to go into Iraq and pursue the rest of their agenda?

Now I know the Neocons are dangerous, manipulative, totally convinced in the rightness of their agenda, with few scruples about dishonesty - but this is just outrageous. It would be the most daring, cynical, evil, complex plot ever attempted by anyone anywhere. The degree of complexity itself makes the odds so unlikely as to be damn close to zero and also suggest that even if one of the conspiracy variations were true, keeping it secret would be well-nigh impossible - especially for a government that displays extraordinary incompetence in so many areas and puts such idiots in charge of such important tasks.

What makes the conspiracy believers able to go along with these highly improbable ideas, when the official details of the story make so much more sense?

Zeitgeist indeed. One dictionary definition i found says: "The characteristic thought, preoccupation or spirit of a particular period." The movie does succeed in capturing a particular part of the current zeitgeist, but just like pieces like What the Bleep, The Secret and the plethora of 911 Truth documentaries - it's more lunatic fringe than cutting edge. These ideas are not marginalized because they are so subversive and empowering, they are marginalized for an altogether more basic and mundane reason - they are silly and ill-considered. They simply do not match well with reality.

For a full and thorough debunking of the most popular 911 conspiracy theories, see this Popular Mechanics cover story which consulted with 300 experts in multiple fields to contrast the facts with the myths.

Don’t Mind The Men Behind The Curtain

This section continues the recipe established so far and turns up the heat even further: take a pile of disparate facts, remix history with an industrial strength blender, stir in a gallon of paranoia and sprinkle with some legitimate observations about the appalling cynicism and scary implications of our post 911 landscape.

The title of this section continues the paranoid assertion that there is a “them” behind the curtain – a despicable illuminati who are manipulating “us” and everything else to their own ends. This conspiracy premise sounds plausible, especially given the rapidly configured and reconfigured multimedia bombardment of facts, figures and thematic interpretations coming off the screen. The “international bankers” are behind all war. The underlying implication is that there is a long line of unbroken conspiracy passed down from father to son that is not only manipulating the circumstances behind every war and then profiting from it, but that is also inching itself closer and closer to a totalitarian world government in which all citizens will be controlled by microchip technology and so on… 911 is the central event that all of this is arranged around. Because of the success of the staged 911 event, the media (under the control of the men behind the curtain) have been able to sell the public lies that have enabled the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, wars which, just like Vietnam were never meant to be won – but will be dragged on to make money for the international bankers. 911 has enabled the government to systematically erode our civil liberties in the name of the so-called “war on terror.”

What’s again so hard about this position is that it takes some accurate and appalling observations about what has happened since 911 under the current neocon government and then draws an imaginary straight line backwards to the attack (and even further all the way to WWI) and forward to a Phillip K. Dick science fiction future of nightmarish proportions. In this grand narrative the entire history of the world is a story of us against them in which a singularly evil force is pushing onward towards it’s terrible objective by any means necessary. 911 becomes the dramatic and final culmination of this plot that will now allow total control to the men behind the curtain.

This is so flawed. I have to applaud the makers of Zeitgeist for their subversive verve, for their dedication to bringing truth to light, for their chutzpa, but listen – if you want to talk about the relationships between religion, 911, and the history of totalitarian agendas, there are a few important parts of the story that are being left out. Let’s take the little detail of Islamic fundamentalism and the actual reality of terrorism, for a start. Let’s bring in the presence of both fascist and communist dictatorships – real dictatorships on the world stage and America’s relationship to those forces. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, not to mention the problems in Africa and South America stemming from colonialism and continued by the Cold War and the superpower’s rush to control governments and resources around the world. The power of Christian fundamentalism in the United States over the last 30 years and its influence on the political dialog.

It’s just so much more complex and layered than this particular zeitgeist asserts.

In a shamelessly manipulative portion of part three, we see direct parallels being drawn between Nazi Germany and the current administration: 911 = the Reichstag, quotes from Hitler mixed up with quotes from Bush, pre-emptive war maneuvers. It is all rather chilling, but so heavy handed – and ultimately not on target.

Let’s not forget that other chestnut of conspiracy thinking – taxes. Taxes are this terrible, illegal exploitation of the American people? This adolescent attitude is barely deserving of a response. America has a lot of problems that scream for attention, is very imperfect and, as the most powerful nation in the world has a big foreign policy shadow and a real history of playing the good guy while doing some really sinister things – and using the media and education system to perpetuate that illusion, but I challenge the privileged makers and consumers of this film to live for a year in any of the hundreds of failed states on the planet and see what life without the infrastructure created by taxation is actually like.

There are real problems with so many things. This administration is without doubt the most corrupt bunch of criminals ever to be in charge of the United States. There is a real list of issues that need to be addressed, not the least of which is the Patriot Act, the removal of Habeus Corpus, the stranglehold of Free Trade on the first world poor and the third world sweatshop slaves, the massive influence of big money on politics, the dissolving separation between church and state. But there is not a secret cartel of international bankers pulling the strings behind the curtain. That is an act of global shadow projection that suddenly allows “us” to be all good victims and “them” to be the bad guys. Now there are bad guys of course and there are also victims. The call to critical thinking is important, very important. The critique of the media and American education is valid. The analysis of big money’s war profiteering is valuable. The problem is that what it all adds up to when structured with this paranoid and emotionally-based intent is something that does the details and indeed the truth an incredible dis-service – and that’s the “zeitgeist” we can do without.

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