Zeitgeist: the nonsense


PresentTense: Davin O'DwyerWho doesn't love a good conspiracy theory? Most of us, of course, prefer our conspiracies to be entirely fictional. An early scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, for instance, sees the CIA dispatch an assassin to dispose of a meddlesome Guardian journalist in Waterloo Station.

While this exaggerates the risks of our profession somewhat (I think I speak for most of my colleagues in saying that we can walk through Heuston Station, and even Connolly, with neither fear nor trepidation), it does make for marvellously tense movie-making.

But have we become so inured to seeing the fictionalised CIA doing nefarious things such as assassinating foreign leaders and listening to phone conversations that hearing about renditions and illegal wiretapping seems almost pedestrian? At this stage, we surely expect much worse than that. In an age where the truth is a flexible commodity, conspiracy theories spring forth like oil in the Middle East.

So move over Oliver Stone, because conspiracy theories have outgrown you. The web is now home to a plethora of US-based guerrilla film-makers making laptop agitprop about the conspiracies of the day. And while the 1960s and 1970s provided fertile territory for US paranoiacs - regular assassinations, grainy moon landings, the Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate (what do you mean, the Gulf of Tonkin and Watergate really were government conspiracies?) - 9/11 has been a godsend for the suspicious and the sceptical. An entire industry, the 9/11 Truth Movement, has sprung up to debunk the official line on the attacks.

The latest internet movie to tread this ground is the portentously titled Zeitgeist: The Movie, which has attracted massive interest since it premiered in June. For a DIY effort, Zeitgeist sure doesn't want for ambition - it "exposes" the three great frauds perpetrated on humanity to keep us under control: Christianity; 9/11; and the international monetary system. Rather improbably, it begins with a quote from the Egyptologist, Gerald Massey: "They must find it difficult, those who have taken authority as truth, rather than truth as the authority."

It's not hard to see where this is all coming from. President Eisenhower, of all people, warned the American people about the dangers of the military- industrial complex in his farewell address, and since then Americans have endured a rich succession of presidential mendacity, so one can't be too surprised when they don't automatically accept what they are being told. (We are rather less conspiratorially minded here, though I could plausibly speculate that our negligent planning regulations and poor public transport are the brainchild of the automobile industry, determined to turn us into the most car-dependent nation in Europe by forcing us to spend hours commuting from our sprawling suburbs, but I wouldn't want to risk getting shot at a Luas stop.)

Zeitgeist's theory that Jesus is a literary and astrological hybrid is a fairly old one, considering it seems to be based on a quote from Thomas Paine, and its 9/11 theories - that the attacks were organised by the US government as an excuse to initiate a totalitarian power grab - are almost directly lifted from Dylan Avery's Loose Change, an earlier paranoid web doc that racked up 100 million views and displayed a sub-Michael Moore fondness for facts. It is the final sequence, however, that most explicitly displays Zeitgeist's brand of unhinged libertarianism. The world's monetary system has been designed by a cabal of "international bankers" - originally the Rockefellers and JP Morgan, don't you know - to enslave humanity and create a one-government world order. And the conclusion is worthy of Philip K Dick: we are all going to be microchipped and permanently observed by a "monitored control grid". Dare to dissent and your chip is "deactivated".

Now I'll be the first to stand up and admit that Zeitgeist had its finger on the pulse if we all end up getting "Intel Inside" (and if the chip allows me to stand up), but this is surely adding two plus two and getting Pi. These are surreal perversions of genuine issues and debates, and they tarnish all criticism of faith, the Bush administration and globalisation - there are more than enough factual injustices in this world to be going around without having to invent fictional ones.

One really wishes Zeitgeist was a masterful pastiche of 21st-century paranoia, a hilarious mockumentary to rival Spinal Tap. But it's just deluded, disingenuous and manipulative nonsense. It gives the last word to that famous philosopher, Jimi Hendrix: "When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace." Between Massey and Hendrix, neither exactly germane to the arguments at hand, it's obvious that the anonymous makers of Zeitgeist are partial to chiastic phrases, those delightfully symmetrical rhetorical devices that make the speaker appear a zenlike fount of wisdom. So here's a zenlike chiasmus of my own, for all the conspiratorial DIY moviemakers daring to foist more gibberish on a credulous populace: "If you pretend to know only truth, in truth you know only pretence."

Shane Hegarty is on leave