This article, originally posted May 6, 2010, was updated on December 3, 2010. Scroll to the bottom for the update.
This blog is a follow-up to my earlier column about the infamous "Zeitgeist Movement." Just to recap briefly, the Zeitgeist Movement is a pro-conspiracy group based on the Zeitgeist films, created by former New York City musician "Peter Joseph" (true name Peter J. Merola), which make the claims that (1) Jesus never existed, (2) 9/11 was an inside job, and (3) a secret cabal of bankers controls the world. The second Zeitgeist film attempted to introduce a "cure" for these ills, which is the Venus Project, a neo-utopian idea created by designer Jacque Fresco in the 1970s which evidently involves computers ruling the world.
My blog was critical of the Zeitgeist Movement's insistence on using conspiracy theories, specifically 9/11 Truth, as a marketing tool to get people involved with the movement. The Zeitgeist Movement and its leader Peter Merola have gone to some length to address the issue of conspiracy ideology. In a post on their "knowledge base" (translation: propaganda toolkit) regarding this issue, the author, presumably Merola himself, states:
"The term "Conspiracy Theory" is, at the present time, used mostly as a derogatory term to condemn an idea (or set of ideas) that is contrary to the often presupposed claims of an established order, specifically in regard to an act of criminal conduct. The technical definition of "Conspiracy" has a few variations, the most common being : 1)"an agreement to perform together an illegal, treacherous, or evil act" 2) a secret agreement between two or more people to perform an unlawful act."
This is a common dodge by conspiracy theorists, which is to try to redefine the culturally-accepted usage of the term "conspiracy theory"--which we all know means wacky tinfoil-hat stuff like 9/11 Truth, "the moon landing was faked" and "global warming is a hoax" allegations--to be more in line with the legal definition of "conspiracy," which Merola sets out more or less accurately. This is a dodge because the legal definition of "conspiracy" is totally different than the cultural definition of "conspiracy theory." Why do conspiracy theorists do this? Because it lowers the bar on what can be considered a true "conspiracy."
In law, conspiracies are relatively easy to prove. Example: you and I decide to shoplift a six pack of beer from 7-11. We go into the store and you start an argument with the clerk to distract him while I grab the beer and run out with it. Even if I don't succeed--say I trip on the door jamb and fall flat on my face, and the beer never leaves the store--you and I could be convicted of conspiracy to commit theft, assuming that a prosecutor could prove we went to 7-11 with the intent to steal the beer.
A "conspiracy theory," however--such as the allegation that 9/11 was an "inside job," which Merola and most Zeitgeisters believe--is much harder to prove, and requires totally different proof. The attempt to substitute the broad legal definition of "conspiracy" for the cultural understanding of what a "conspiracy theory" entails is totally disingenuous.
But Merola's just getting started. He goes on to state:
"The qualifier of "Theory", as opposed to "Fact", is an ambiguity which means it has attributes that are unknown/unresolved. During the Richard Nixon Administration, in America, there was a criminal conspiracy which led to what we know today as "Watergate". While this conspiratorial event is widely understood and accept as "fact", there are still ambiguities, such as erased audio tapes/evidence, which reflect a less than total picture of the actions, unfolding, considerations, background, benefits, and the like. Thus, the widely accepted account of this event is, in fact, formally a "Conspiracy Theory."
Um, not exactly. Watergate is a historical fact. It happened. We have Nixon on tape obstructing justice, recommending to Bob Haldeman that he tell the FBI not to investigate the June 17, 1972 burglary at the DNC headquarters in the Watergate building. And yes, it was a conspiracy, though a very small one that fell apart relatively quickly, as almost all real-life conspiracies do. The fact that there are "ambiguities" about some of the details, such as the 18-minute gap on one of the tapes, does not transform it from historical fact to "conspiracy theory." In citing Watergate, Merola intends for his audience to conflate historical fact with conspiracy theories--possibly assuming, for instance, that there is just as much historical evidence to support "9/11 is an inside job" allegations as there is to support the facts of what happened in the Watergate affair. To Merola, not knowing all the facts is what makes it a "theory," and therefore in his mind Watergate, the existence of which is proven by historical evidence, is equivalent to the "9/11 conspiracy," the existence of which has not been proven.
Merola is by no means the only 9/11 Truther to play games with the word "conspiracy." Many Truthers who resent being called conspiracy theorists point out that the "official story" of 9/11 (no one except Truthers uses the words "official story") involves 19 Al Qaida hijackers (20 if you count Moussaoui) who banded together to hijack planes on the orders of Osama bin Laden. Obviously this is a conspiracy in the legal sense of the word, so Truthers will often refer to it as the "official conspiracy theory" or "OCT," again as a way to confuse people into thinking that there is little difference between a real event supported by historical fact and a set of fanciful allegations totally unsupported by any fact. This is how they get to the finish line of arguing that the term "conspiracy theory" or "conspiracy theorist" is totally pejorative in nature, and is a weapon wielded unfairly by "debunkers" to ridicule non-mainstream explanations for historical events.
Merola tries to do this exact same thing, but fails miserably in his next statement:
"Likewise, the Government's account of the assassination of JFK by L.H. Oswald is, indeed, a government sanctioned "Conspiracy Theory". Oswald never confessed - therefore it isn't definitive as fact. It is one word against another and since Oswald was killed before any trial, the lack of legal conviction also lends to the ambiguity."
This is totally, egregiously wrong, intellectually dishonest, and a prime example of the sort of pseudohistorical propaganda that is Merola's forte in the Zeitgeist films. It's a failure because the conclusion of the Warren Commission--that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone to assassinate John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963--does not even meet the legal definition of "conspiracy" that Merola wants you to use. Once again, in law, a conspiracy is a secret agreement between at least two people to commit an illegal act. Oswald acted alone, and there is no credible evidence to indicate anything to the contrary. So it's not even a legal conspiracy, much less a "conspiracy theory." The conclusion of the Warren Commission is not "one word against another," either. We know the bullets that killed JFK were fired from Oswald's rifle, to the exclusion of all other weapons in the world. We know that Oswald fired that rifle on November 22. We know the rifle belonged to him. All of these conclusions are supported by evidence--mountains of it. There was no "grassy knoll" shooter; we know that too. This is not "one word against another." It's fact. Not a "conspiracy theory," or even a conspiracy in the eyes of the law. Fact. History. Merola fails in his basic grasp of this.
"So, again, the use of this term, coupled with the even more derogatory distinction of the "Conspiracy Theorist", is to take anything that is not inline with the current, accepted explanations of the establishment and dismiss them as mere " Conspiracy Theories", when in fact they are really "alternative conspiracy theories" to the existing "official conspiracy theories". It is one sided, in other words."
So, after trying desperately to redefine the term "conspiracy theory," Merola wants you to believe that there are "official conspiracy theories" and "alternative conspiracy theories," and the only difference between them is that one group has "official" sanction and the other does not. This is classic conspiracy theorist ideology, and also a classic conspiracy theorist argument tactic, which is to do everything possible to either elevate conspiracy theories to the level of accepted and supported fact, or (more commonly) undermine supported and accepted fact to the level of being a "theory" about which there can be more than one reasonable explanation. Conspiracy theorists often try to do this by emphasizing things that are unknown or not fully understood within the context of the "official theory." Merola himself does this in his very next sentences:
"As another example, The 9/11 Commission openly admits that there are many details they don't know about in regard to the events of September 11th. Hence, they have their "Official Conspiracy Theory", while others might have "Alternative Conspiracy Theories". It is simply a double standard. Very simply, the establishment chooses to present their "theory" as "fact", when it cannot technically be defined as such, based on the reality of missing information, which is constant in almost every case of known criminal conspiracies, historically."
This is, in a word, bullshit.
Not all facts are created equal, which is a reality that conspiracy theorists have a hard time understanding. Some facts are more important than others. Yes, there are things we don't know about 9/11. But how consequential are the things we don't know in light of what we do know? For example: the "put options" placed on various airline stocks in the days before 9/11 certainly do seem suspicious at first glance, and it's true we don't know much about them. Truthers insist it's proof that somebody in the US had foreknowledge of the attacks. But think about what we do know about 9/11. We do know that 19 hijackers took over four planes, crashed two into the WTC towers, one into the Pentagon and one into Shanksville, PA. We do know that the attacks were planned by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed working in conjunction with Osama bin Laden, that both men confessed and that the hijackers left behind suicide videos. We do know that there was no indication whatsoever of any "conspiracy" within the US government (or any other government, such as Israel's) to either cause the attacks or knowingly allow them to take place. In light of these facts, whatever the answer is to the "put options" mystery, it must fall in line with what we already know--which means that whatever the answer is, it's not very consequential to the basic understanding of what happened on 9/11.
Let's take a hypothetical example. Let's say Jake walks into the First National Bank on Main Street at 2:00 PM, pulls a gun on a teller, hands over a canvas bag and demands the teller fill the bag with money. Jake is not wearing a disguise and is clearly visible on the security camera. The teller hands over the money, but puts a dye bomb in the bag. On the way out, Jake shoots a security guard. Police do not arrive in time to apprehend Jake and he gets away. At 4:00 PM, Jake is noticed at the bus station paying for a ticket out of town with cash smeared with purple dye which is also on his hands. He is arrested while getting on the bus. In his possession are found stacks of cash smeared with purple dye. The gun is found in a trash can a block from the bus station. The bullets that killed the security guard are traced via ballistics to Jake's gun, and we know it's Jake's gun because he bought it two weeks ago. Both the bus station clerk and the bank teller identify Jake in a police line-up, and the security camera image supports the identification. The canvas bag is never found, and we have no idea where Jake was between 2 and 4 PM. Jake pleads not guilty to bank robbery and murder, but before he can come to trial, Jake hangs himself in his jail cell.
Here is what we know:
1. Jake bought the gun and the bullets.
2. Jake came into the bank and robbed it.
3. Jake shot the security guard.
4. The dye bomb must have exploded sometime between 2 and 4PM, staining the money and Jake's hands.
5. Jake threw away the gun near the bus station.
6. Jake paid for the bus ticket with stolen money.
Here is what we do not know:
7. Where did Jake go between 2:00 and 4:00 PM?
8. What did Jake do with the canvas bag?
Because items 1 through 6 are established fact, this means that items 7 and 8, whatever the explanation for them, cannot alter the conclusion we draw from items 1 through 6, namely, that Jake robbed the bank and shot the guard. Therefore, items 7 and 8, although unknown, aren't very consequential.
By Merola's twisted analysis, however, Jake's guilt is only a "conspiracy theory" because (A) we don't know the answers to items 7 and 8, and (B) Jake never confessed. This is absurd, however; we know Jake robbed the bank and killed the guard, and the unanswered questions cannot impeach the conclusion.
Let's say Jake's girlfriend comes up with a crackpot theory that the man arrested at the train station at 4:00 PM wasn't really Jake, and that Jake is still alive somewhere. There is no evidence to support this claim, and it is in fact refuted by all the available evidence. However, in Merola's world, this "conspiracy theory" should be accorded equal consideration with the "official" judgment that Jake is a bank robber and murderer, and to prefer the "official" judgment to the "alternative" explanation is a "double standard."
After happily mangling the definition of "conspiracy," Merola pronounces his movement not guilty of spreading conspiracist ideology in this breathtaking display of chutzpah:
"So, no - we [the Zeitgeist movement] don't "support conspiracy theories", for it is a truncated, contrived, false notion. To ask if "we support conspiracy theories" is really asking "do criminal conspiracies exist". It is too narrow of a distinction, not to mention the question is intrinsically invalid, for it is, again, a falsely derived, derogatory contrivance."
Um, how about, no?
This entire argument is predicated on the ridiculous notion of Merola's definition of "conspiracy theory," which he wants you to conflate with the legal definition of "conspiracy"--something he doesn't even really understand anyway, as evidenced by his laughable fumble with the JFK/Oswald example. After elevating conspiracy theories to the level of factual history, he claims his movement doesn't support conspiracy theories! Say what? This is a person who came to prominence claiming that Christianity is a fraud and 9/11 was rigged. But no, he doesn't believe in "conspiracy theories," because the question is "intrinsically invalid." The mental gymnastics required to reach this conclusion is beyond my capability to assimilate, I'll admit.
After this statement, Merola goes on to apologize for the conspiracist ideology that is spewed with a fire hose out of his virtually fact-free films by stating:
"Now, with that out of the way, a part of TZM's educational imperative is to bring to light the consequences of our social system and how it creates aberrant human behavior ("crime"). When there is a criminal "conspiracy" by Goldman Sachs to defraud it customers, we view the event as a systemic consequence of the monetary structure. In other words, we view any such "criminal" or offensive acts as products of culture and attempt to consider the cause/motivation of these acts, and adjust society according, ideally removing the motivation for such offensive acts."
So, there you have it. Why did those evil conspirators blow up the World Trade Center on 9/11? It's a "systemic consequence of the monetary structure," whatever that means. What should we do about it? We should "consider the cause/motivation of these acts" and "remov[e] the motivation for such offensive acts." Okay. Not sure what that means except that, as I'm sure the Zeitgeist defenders who will post angry comments on this blog will tell me, it means I have to join the Zeitgeist Movement and support a "resource-based economy" or else I'm as evil as those awful people who blew up the World Trade Center and lied about Jesus existing.
Conspiracy theories are a corrosive cancer that destroys rational thought and political discourse. It should be very clear from even a cursory examination of the Zeitgeist Movement and the materials produced by Peter Merola that a major--but unacknowledged--goal of the Zeitgeist Movement is to promote conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking. I really could not care less about a "resource-based economy" or the pretty models Jacque Fresco makes in his garage. I do, however, care when people who should know better are fire-hosing the public with false theories unsupported by fact, and who then make intellectually dishonest arguments to justify having done so--and who then claim, equally dishonestly, that "the movies aren't the movement" or that somehow all that ooky conspiracy stuff in the Zeitgeist films is secondary to some wonderful utopian goal that we all must strive for. You don't need to lie to people to make the world a better place. Try telling them the truth once in a while. You might find it easier to get them behind your program. Gee, you think?
UPDATE (December 3, 2010)
It's been a while since I wrote this blog. In the seven months since I originally published it, the Zeitgeist Movement has removed the section from their "knowledge base" specifically addressing conspiracy theories and which I addressed here. It's now replaced with a pretty generic statement denying any association between the Zeitgeist Movement and the Zeitgeist films.
It remains open to question whether this subtle change-which appears to have been made without any overt announcement-indicates a shift in the Zeitgeist Movement's official ideology toward an acknowledgement of their previously unacknowledged goal to spread conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking.
What is intriguing is that on November 1, about the same (roughly) time that the deletion of the "Do We Support Conspiracy Theories?" topic from the dogma occurred, Peter J. Merola posted on another forum (link here) a rather bellicose statement aimed at those who suggest that the Zeitgeist Movement change its name to avoid association with the conspiracy films:
"Anyone semi-intelligent person who has eyes and cerebral cortex can see through the propaganda coming from the anti-z1 community as they try to apply it to the movement. anyone who cant think through it isn't fit to understand the materials at that stage anyway. it is a progression...I'm sorry to say, but as long as i am here - you have to deal with the bad press [of the association]. live with it...in time, Zeitgeist I propaganda will fade- our message is just that strong."
To put this statement in context, in July of this year Merola re-released the Zeitgeist film and promoted it heavily with a lengthy "companion guide" purporting to source all the statements in the movie and refute the "debunkers" who, he says, have falsely attacked the conspiracy theory claims made in Zeitgeist I. So, in essence he is saying, "Zeitgeist I is true, I'm standing behind it, and I utterly refuse to change the name of my movement away from the name of the film I continue to promote, but anyone who explicitly draws that association is merely spreading false propaganda and is unworthy of understanding us anyway."
In my view these actions and statements underscore the Zeitgeist Movement's continued, deliberate and enthusiastic association with conspiracy theories. In short, Merola's actions appear to have proven the main point of this blog to have been right.