The Zeitgeist Debate

Blogger Robert Stacy McCain was one of the first opportunistic conservatives to jump on Jared Loughner’s friend’s assertion that he was obsessed with the Zeitgeist documentaries as proof that Loughner wasn’t motivated by tea party rhetoric, and that a biased media deliberately failed to report on the film. (Talk about conspiracy theories!) McCain, who called Zeitgeist “atheistic paranoid gobbledygook,” has encouraged his fellow conservative bloggers to push back, calling it “an Army of Davids against the liberal Goliath that wants to play a dishonest connect-the-dots game with murder and the Tea Party.”

Because the film draws on a jumble of disparate conspiracy theories — from religion to 9/11 to the Federal Reserve — to paint a vision of secretive, dark powers controlling our economy, politics, and social systems, it’s hard to characterize it as left or right, as Mike discussed in his post about the religion section of the film. The film, a repository of conspiracy theories, seemingly incongruously is connected to a movement that has claimed its chief mission is sustainability.

While the Zeitgeist Movement sells itself as being about peace and sustainability, though, the film about the Federal Reserve draws mostly on conspiracy theories favored on the far right about “international bankers” controlling the economy, theories with anti-Semitic roots (replace “international” with “Jewish” — although the film doesn’t describe any of its villains as being Jewish). At one point the film flashes a scare quote attributed to Mayer Amschel Rothschild, “Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes the laws”— oft recycled on right-wing conspiracy websites, even though there’s no proof that Rothschild ever said it. Simple Googling of the “information sources” listed on the Zeitgeist website would reveal — to the filmmakers, obviously — the anti-Semitism embedded in these conspiracy theories and the ongoing resonance of the theories in the far right. Conservative writer Byron York might believe they “resemble far-right paranoia from many years ago,” but if he pays a visit to the John Birch Society table at CPAC next month, he may be able to discuss similar conspiracy theories there.

In one example of Fed conspiracy theories propounded in Zeitgeist, the film discusses the Jekyll Island meeting, which Chip Berlet has described as the origin of anti-Fed conspiracy theories:

Popular tracts from the early Twentieth Century still circulate in the United States warning that the federal income tax is theft and that the Federal Reserve banking system is a corrupt plan to loot the economy hatched by secretive elites on Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia. These ideas continue to be repackaged by right-wing groups. In the 1960s and the 1970s these claims appeared as conspiracy theories peddled by the John Birch Society and the Liberty Lobby.

The Zeitgeist website lists Nation writer William Greider — a longtime critic of the Fed’s policies from the left — as an “information source,” particularly his 1989 tome, Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country. But the list is otherwise populated by right-wing conspiracy theorists. In Secrets, Greider maintains:

The conspiracy-minded critics exaggerated the importance of the Jekyll Island meeting, since it was hardly a secret that Wall Street wanted reform. But their suspicions were poetically accurate — the bankers met secretly because they knew any proposal identified as Wall Street’s bill would be doomed in the Democratic House of Representatives.

After the section on the Fed, amid a jumble of claims that veer from World War II to Vietnam to the Patriot Act to an indictment of Fox News, including superimposing Howard Beale’s rant from Network over an image of Rupert Murdoch, the film also links the Bush family to support of Hitler — a claim also made and documented by non-rightwingers. 

Fixated on “one world” conspiracy theories, the film glorifies Lou Dobbs for reporting on the North American Union — another right-wing conspiracy theory that Zeitgeist maintains was dreamed up and kept secret by the likes of the Council on Foreign Relations and the media. The film’s narrator ominously warns that this mythical thing will make the constitution “obsolete” and create a “one world government.” Other conspiracy theories propounded include microchips, “enslavement” by “men behind the curtain,” and an anti-tax argument based on discredited filmmaker and libertarian activist Aaron Russo.

Even though it draws on the right’s conspiracy theories, the film is disdained by the segments of the right, even before it was linked to Loughner. As Julie has documented, Christian Reconstructionists share a disdain for the Fed and believe it to be “unbibilical.” But the Christian Reconstructionist group American Vision years ago ripped into Zeitgeist’s segment on religion, calling it “cavalier nonsense.”

The Zeitgeist Movement’s own PR attempts to tell a completely different story. The movement claims to be the “activist arm” of the Venus Project, which, according to its website, is “an organization that proposes a feasible plan of action for social change, one that works towards a peaceful and sustainable global civilization. It outlines an alternative to strive toward where human rights are no longer paper proclamations but a way of life.”

About currency, the Venus Project continues:

The money-based system evolved centuries ago. All of the world’s economic systems – socialism, communism, fascism, and even the vaunted free enterprise system – perpetuate social stratification, elitism, nationalism, and racism, primarily based on economic disparity. As long as a social system uses money or barter, people and nations will seek to maintain the economic competitive edge or, if they cannot do so by means of commerce they will by military intervention. We still utilize these same outmoded methods.

Our current monetary system is not capable of providing a high standard of living for everyone, nor can it ensure the protection of the environment because the major motive is profit. Strategies such as downsizing and toxic dumping increase the profit margin. With the advent of automation, cybernation, artificial intelligence and out sourcing, there will be an ever-increasing replacement of people by machines. As a result, fewer people will be able to purchase goods and services even though our capability to produce an abundance will continue to exist.

The Zeitgeist Movement and Venus Project look at first blush like a futuristic, quasi-religious movement, attracting the attention of the local Fox News affiliate in Florida, where Venus is based, which gave it a glowing treatment, calling its founder, Jacque Fresco, who believes all our problems are caused by “BS — bad science,” a “brilliant man.” In the segment, Fresco complains that other countries want to hear about his futuristic “system,” but that the United States does not. The Huffington Post’s associate green editor, Travis Walter Donovan, reviewed the second annual Zeitgeist Day last year, writing that the movement “provides a wealth of dizzying information detailing why a new global system is not only preferred, but necessary, and just how we can get there.” (Dizzying indeed.) About the Zeitgeist films’ arguments about currency, Donovan continued, “While many people may find it hard to digest the idea of a world without currency, [Zeitgeist founder Peter] Joseph’s argument that our economic system is the source of our greatest social problems was supported with valuable evidence.”

We may never know the actual influence of Zeitgeist on Loughner or which parts were most provocative to him; we are relying, of course, on his friend’s remarks to the media, not on Loughner’s own statements or any other records of him watching or discussing the film. We may never know, even if Loughner is asked about it at trial. But the urge to analyze it is irresistible; we want to know what propelled an accused mass murderer, particuarly one who appeared to believe in grand plots by outside forces to suppress or manipulate him and who targeted an elected official for assassination.

But unpacking Zeitgeist may be more interesting than for understanding Loughner. The movement has a following, and unknown numbers — perhaps millions — of people have watched the films. It’s fringey but it garners a write-up in the Times or the Huffington Post, as if it’s just another interesting movement of people who believe our social structures are unfair or unsustainable. Watch the section on the Fed and you find some of the most pernicious conspiracy theories that still abound in the far right. Many of those conspiracy theories underlie right-wing anti-government rhetoric about the country being run by secretive elites out of touch with the Constitution and the people, or that taxes are illegal, or that the Fed needs to be dismantled. How those conspiracy theories made their way into a film which claims to be about peace and sustainability, and were blandly accepted by people buying the sustainability narrative, might be more interesting than how the film influenced Jared Loughner.