Zeitgeist: The Movie, Myths, and Motivations
The Internet movie Zeitgeist uses dishonesty to make an ideological point that could have easily been made ethically.
Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at one of the most popular Internet phenomena from the last couple of years: Zeitgeist, a freely downloadable documentary movie. It purports to critically examine Christianity, the cause of 9/11, and the world economy. Instead, it paints them all with a single wide stroke of the conspiracy paintbrush. "Zeitgeist" is a German word meaning the spirit of the times, thus Zeitgeist the movie purports to pull aside the curtain and reveal the true nature of the world in which we live. The problem with the film, as has been roundly pointed out by academics worldwide, is that many of the conspiratorial claims and historical references are outright fictional inventions. Zeitgeist does have a message that's not necessarily invalid, but it's lost underneath the unequivocal dishonesty.
For a long time, people have been asking me to do a Skeptoid episode about Zeitgeist. I've resisted, mainly because it's so poorly researched that I didn't feel it deserved any response from legitimate science journalism. But people have kept asking. And, obviously, a lot of viewers have been swayed by it. I've even had people who innocently bought into it write me and quote Zeitgeist as an authority, suggesting I do some episode promoting one of its claims. Zeitgeist, and the 9/11 conspiracy movie Loose Change, are largely what motivated me to produce Here Be Dragons, my free 40-minute video giving a general introduction to applied critical thinking, which I felt was a more appropriate response than publicly acknowledging either film. But I spent some time learning more about Zeitgeist, its sequels and related events, and its creator, and concluded that the mainstream criticism of the film doesn't tell the whole story, and its worldwide impact does make it deserving of a more critical examination.
Understanding Zeitgeist means understanding its creator, Peter Joseph Merola, a young musician, artist, and freelance film editor living in New York City, at last account. I've found no reference to any educational or professional experience pertaining to any of the subjects covered in the movie. He moved to New York in order to attend art school. That appears to be the extent of his qualifications to teach history and political science, but of course it doesn't make him wrong. It may, however, explain why many of his factual claims contradict what anyone can learn from any textbook on religious history or political science.
Merola made a second film, Zeitgeist: Addendum which offers much better insight into the man and his motivations for creating Zeitgeist. He's basically a postmodern utopian, who spends most of his effort speaking out against money-based economics. He advocates the rejection of government, profit, banking, and civil infrastructure: basically, the "establishment". Once you understand where he's coming from, it makes it a lot easier to understand why he made Zeitgeist and tried so hard to point out the corruption and evils of the establishment. The problem is that he simply made up a bunch of crap to drive his point, and that's where he crossed the line between philosophical advocacy and unethical propaganda.
Much of what makes Zeitgeist popular is that the sustainable utopia he describes is very compelling. It's probably not very realistic, but it's alluring at an organic level. Mistrust of the establishment has been a popular theme ever since a caveman first raised a club, so the two combine to make the message of Zeitgeist appealing, at some level, to nearly everyone. For example, in his sequel, Merola profiles futurist Jacque Fresco who envisions what he calls a "resource-based economy", a world without money where the Earth's natural resources are freely available to all and responsibly managed through public virtue and high technology. This is a fine idea, and while its practicality and workability can certainly be debated, it's perfectly valid as a philosophy. And so, it was from this utopian perspective that the young idealist Peter Joseph Merola set out to first convince us that our current system is fundamentally broken.
He began in the first of Zeitgeist's three chapters with an assault on Christianity. The film draws many parallels between the Nativity story and pagan sun worship and astrology, suggesting that their origins are all the same. This is followed by an impressive set of similarities between the life of Jesus and the life of Horus, the Egyptian god — similarities far too extensive to be simple coincidences. And then, taking key points from the life of Jesus (the virgin birth, December 25th, a resurrection after three days, and so on), we find that the same elements are found in the stories of many other gods from diverse cultures, namely the Phrygian Attis, the Indian Krishna, the Greek Dionysus, and the Persian Mithra. Merola's presentation is compelling, and constitutes a convincing argument that Christianity is just one of many branches of mythology stemming from the same ancient stories going all the way back to prehistoric sun worship.
Where this compelling presentation breaks down is, well, almost everywhere. The majority of Merola's assertions are flagrantly wrong, as if he had begun with a conclusion, and worked backwards making up facts that would get him there. He gave no sources, but it turns out that most of these same claims about other gods having the same details as the Jesus stories come from a 1999 book called The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Christian scholars in particular have been highly critical of Merola's unresearched and wrong assertions, which is understandable given that they are probably the best authorities on religious histories.
Part II of the movie depicts the 9/11 attacks as having been perpetrated by the American government, essentially repeating the same basic charges found throughout the 9/11 "truth" community. These charges fall into two basic categories: innuendo and misinformation. Innuendo like the Bushes knew the bin Ladens, the alleged hijackers have since been found to be alive and well, the inexperienced pilot couldn't have hit the building; and misinformation like straw man arguments mischaracterizing what we all watched that day. These, and many other tactics claimed by the "truthers" to be evidence that the attack was an inside job, have been thoroughly addressed elsewhere and I'm not going to go into them here. In short, searching for alternative possible motivations, and finding and making extraneous connections between various people and events, does not prove or serve as evidence of anything. Raising the specter of doubts or alternate possibilities is very effective in distracting people away from the facts, as we saw so dramatically in O. J. Simpson's murder acquittal, and as we see throughout the 9/11 "truth" movement.
According to a New York Times interview with Peter Joseph Merola in which he was asked about the 9/11 conspiracy claims made in Zeitgeist, he says he has since "moved away from" these beliefs. While it's great that he was willing to come out publicly and say that he's abandoned one line of irrational thinking, to me it says more that he leaves it in the movie anyway (Zeitgeist has gone through a number of revisions, and he's had ample opportunity to edit out sections he no longer believes). This is only speculation on my part, of course, but I'd guess he leaves it in because it so dramatically illustrates the evils of the establishment, which is a pillar of his philosophy. If true, it would show that the content of Merola's films are driven more by ideology than by fact.
That this is Merola's ideology is most impactfully illustrated in part III of Zeitgeist. This asserts the existence of what Merola believes is a worldwide conspiracy of international bankers, who are directly responsible for causing all wars in the past century as a way to earn profits. From his student art studio, Merola purports to have uncovered plans, known only to a select few of these hypothesized bankers, to combine the currencies of Canada, the United States, and Mexico into a single denomination called the Amero, as a next step toward an eventual one world government. In fact, the Amero was proposed in a couple of books: in 1999 by Canadian economist Herb Grubel in The Case for the Amero, and in 2001 by political science professor Robert Pastor in Toward a North American Community. The number of economists not proposing an Amero is much larger. This chapter of Zeitgeist goes into great detail, most annoyingly in the way it quote-mines everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Carl Sagan (from letters both real and counterfeit) to suggest that leaders in government and science have always known about this. People knowledgeable in this subject have gone through Zeitgeist point-by-point and refuted each and every one of its dishonest claims, none more effectively than Edward Winston on his Conspiracy Science website, which I highly recommend if you want to discuss any of the nitty gritty details in any section of Zeitgeist.
I can empathize with Peter Joseph Merola on one level. When I first started the Skeptoid podcast, I didn't really yet know what it was going to be about or where it was going to lead. I didn't keep references either. Having done it a few years, I now have my focus dialed in much better. I can see the same evolution from the conspiracy theories in the original Zeitgeist film to the utopian and philosophical topics Merola now talks about. He described Zeitgeist's inception as a personal project and a "public awareness expression", a context in which it was unnecessary to keep references or even to be historically accurate. I suspect that if he'd known where he was going to be today, he wouldn't have made Zeitgeist, and would have instead gone straight to the sequel which almost completely omits the conspiracy theories and untrue history.
If he had, the Zeitgeist franchise would probably not be nearly so successful. Nothing commands attention and feeds our native desire for power like a good conspiracy theory. If you know about the conspiracy, you're in on the secret information, and you are more powerful than the conspirators. For better or for worse, we all have a deep craving to have the upper hand. This is perhaps the main reason for the unending popularity of Zeitgeist, Loose Change, Alex Jones, Richard Hoagland, and other conspiracy theory machines. It also explains the passion shown by those who defend them: All that matters is "being the one who knows more than you," and the facts are a distant second.
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