Sunday, December 25, 2011

Zeitgeist: The Movie, or Conspiracy: The Product

One might think that there aren’t many conspiracy theories about Christmas, and one would be wrong. Today, however, I will not talk about them. Rather, I hope to show you something that rarely gets an in-depth look in book in books on conspiracy theories: their production and audience. To do so, I’ll with some words about one of the most influential conspiracist movies: the Zeitgeist trilogy, produced by Peter Joseph. Not only is it a good illustration, but it mentions Christmas.

The first part of the trilogy, entitled simply Zeitgeist: the Movie, released in 2007, became a phenomenon in itself. Millions of people watched it on Google Videos, and in a sense it paved the way for other such feature-length “alternative” documentaries that, while not “fit” for mainstream distribution, made their success on being easily available to anyone with an Internet connection, and for free. Not only that, the general Internet-savvy demographic overlapped with each other, bumping the statistics. But what made the first Zeitgeist’s success were the conspiracy theories.

The documentary consists of three parts, all of them barely related for the inattentive reader. The first is one of those “heavy-duty” eye-openers: Jesus Christ did not exist, at least not in the form we know today. A big claim to make, to be sure, but Zeitgeist strives to prove, step by step, that the story presented in the Bible is just a reinvention of an ages old myth about a Sun Deity, present in virtually any culture. That would be quite ok, if not for the fact that since the advent of Christianity as a state religion in the Roman Empire, it had become a tool for manipulating the masses.

The second part is probably the most well known; I have colleagues for whom this is the 9/11 Truth documentary (however untrue it might be). This section gives the almost classic by this time “inside job” theory, claiming that the U.S. government could stop the attacks, but chose not to for personal gain. Together with Loose Change it became the most widely watch documentary about the alternative views on 9/11.

Finally, the third part is a head-on critique of the current economic system, with claims that it essentially is the root of all evil. Not only does it thwart creativity, as we do only the things that can become profitable and we make no innovations unless we get paid, but also drives the governments and “international bankers” to lie to the people, cause wars and suffering for the sake of profit, and many other. The movie ends with a relatively short description of the “Venus Project” headed by Jacque Fresco, which it lauds as one of the ways to escape the current vicious circle of monetary economy.

The documentary was peculiar in its reception. The first part got a lot of flak for inaccuracies, quite justifiably, as it did simplify a lot, and in some places outright twisted the facts to fit the thesis. The second part made it popular and memorable; in 2007 Dylan Avery’s Loose Change went into its “final cut” version, and Zeitgeist provided “more of the same”, but in a new ideological package. Moreover, Avery paved the way for Joseph, and by 2007 the widely understood 9/11 Truth organizations became a respected, if notorious, social phenomenon. The third part, the real crux of the whole movie, the original thesis, the “new thing” (at least for the popular audience, as Joseph’s theories are not something new, only presented in an accessible way) was largely ignored. In 2007 the War on Terror was all the rage. But then the late 2008 happened.

In interviews and statements Peter Joseph claimed that the first two sections of Zeitgeist: The Movie were to demonstrate the specific pathological effects of the money economy. If they were, this demonstration was unnecessary after the 2008 market crash. The next two movies, Zeitgeist: Addendum from 2008 and especially this year’s Zeitgeist: Moving Forward needed no such examples. Both of them strongly downplayed the conspiracy theory element, with the last one even outright ridiculing those who claimed that to change the world one must expose some nefarious conspiracy. So why was this element dropped? Probably it was never the focus, but was used to win over an Internet so keen on new conspiracy theories. Now the audience knew that the bankers were evil. People became hooked, the name got exposure in the media, so now Peter Joseph would go for the real deal.

In the grander scheme of things, Zeitgeist demonstrates one thing: conspiracy theory is a product. Like a logo, a catchy tune, or a witty advertisement it can help to sell a product. And it does so through the same mechanism as your favourite brand: familiarity. People who went to watch Zeitgeist already knew most, if not all, of the theories about 9/11 presented therein. Yet still they watched. Perhaps they wanted to hear their convictions reiterated by an authority, or perhaps they simply liked the narrative. Maybe they simply did not want anything changed. The same mechanism makes conspiracy theories so frequently used in popular fiction, from novels to computer games. Like a primal myth, an archetypal scenario, we love to watch it repeated endlessly, for it reaffirms our view on the world (which does not mean such people are “crackpots” or “conspiracy buffs”, a future post will try to prove).

Fluoridation - From poisoned
wells to poisoned vaccines
Historically, such reinvention of conspiracy theories happened many times. The myth of the Illuminati was used in Europe to vilify the French Revolution, but it got “imported” to the newly created United States to claim that moral degeneration will bring a like revolution and slaughter. Every anti-war conspiracy theory since the First World War is alluringly similar. And every economic crisis in America’s history brings almost the same rhetoric. It is not only because the problems are, in general, like those in decades past, but because the makers of conspiracy theories use and readapt the old motifs, and the old enemies and scapegoats.

We, the audience (if not believers) accept or reject the content, we click the “like” or “dislike” buttons, but we watch. Like with the “adult” or modernised or steam-punk or science fiction retellings of the Tales of Brothers’ Grimm or Shakespeare plays, we do so not to learn something new, but because we want someone to tell us again about the cowboys and the Indians, the gangsters and the feds, about how good will ultimately triumph over evil...

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Infamous Day and a Reptilian Setting

It took me some time to produce a new entry here, so if I left someone sitting on the edge of their seats waiting, sorry. Life, both real and unreal, got in the way. And Skyrim. But, just like last time, I got jolted into life by another anniversary.

Seventy years ago the American base at Pearl Harbor was a shouldering ruin, with many ships and sailors left dead and destroyed by an Japanese attack. Almost instantly, the American Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan, while on the 10th of December, 1941, the Third Reich declared war on the U.S., an act that contributed to Hitler’s downfall. The event became a part of the American mythos: an archetypal struggle and victory against a dishonorable opponent, a proof of American enterprise and ability to win honorably in any conflict. President Barack Obama’s “70th Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor” speech attests to that; here, the struggle is the economic crisis, with the today’s middle class to fight as bravely as the soldiers in the Pacific campaign.

But, you are probably here for conspiracies, right? The outline above is what you’ll find in history books, in official texts and documentaries. In reality, a conspiratorial interpretation of the attacks was, for a long time “the” conspiracy theory of America. The theory has some variations, depending who penned it, but the gist is this.

President Roosevelt wanted the U.S. to get in the war. By 1941 he did as much as he could to help the Allies, sending munitions, supplies and money to the beleaguered Great Britain. But the society was very much against entering a foreign war. By the 1930’s many questioned the American presence in the First World War. The only thing the “war to end all wars brought” were deaths of millions and an economic crisis, and all it took for a new global conflict to emerge were twenty years. So the FDR administration effectively goaded Japan into attacking, and did not inform the military so that the losses would be more shocking. In truth, the question of how much the U.S. knew before the supposedly “surprise” attack is still and open one among historians.

Curiously, this theory became widely popular not soon after the attacks, but in the 1950s and after 2001. The time of McCarthyism saw claims that the FDR years and the New Deal were all concocted by Soviet agents, with FDR manipulated by his advisors into helping Russia. This, as one might guess, stemmed from the need of the Right Wing Republican opposition to slam their political opponents, but was also connected with the post-war disillusionment. Not long after the victory over Hitler, the Soviet Russia not only became the other global superpower, but seemingly surpassed the U.S. by stealing their military secrets and, in the early 1950’s, defeating the United Nation forces in Korea. The FBI fueled a feeling of helplessness with revelations about spy rings present in America. Pearl Harbor became the most terrible act of self-inflicted villainy and a proof of the existence of the conspiracy in the higher echelons of the government.

Those two "myths" of Pearl Harbor were used by both the official discourse and the 9/11 Truth counter-narratives. When used in the former, it affirms the notion that the U.S. could only be defeated by a treacherous, barbaric attack. The latter, on the other hand, repeats the 1950s theories, even though then they were voiced to attacks the other side of the political spectrum. I wrote about 9/11 some time ago, so I'll only point to this highly telling fact and leave it at that.

But what about the lizards? The second part of this post will talk about a setting I put together for a pulpish RPG campaign using the Savage Worlds system. I do it as a step-by-step demonstration of how a conspiracy theory can be used in world building, so often employed in RPG. The underlining idea behind the campaign, as you may guess, was to put American player characters in a world where the U.S. did not enter the WWII, where Pearl Harbor did not, and probably would not, happen. This would give me, the GM, all the richness of the popcultural , modern fantasy depictions and revisions of the conflict to explore in the sessions. The players could go anywhere in the world, and while the Nazis would obviously remain the villains, there would be more to the conflict than the tried Allies vs. Third Reich shtick.

The first element was a book by Philip Roth entitled A Plot Against America. The novel depicts the fates of a Jewish American family, the Roths, in an alternate version of America where the 1940 election were won not by FDR, but by the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, whom Roth depicts as a staunch isolationist and sympathizer of the Third Reich. Rather than following the novel to the letter, I only took the central idea: What if the U.S. were to become an ally to Hitler?

The theme would be that of occult spies – the characters were to work for the American special services, vaguely based on the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) led by William Donovan. The characters would visit their Nazi counterparts of the Ahnenerbe, hear their wild pseudoscientific theories (all of them historical, based on the concept of “ariosophy”), and soon find out behind the Germans there is a far greater evil that threatens the whole of humanity.

The theme, however, is quite popular, if fun, so I decided to add a little twist. Here I used a book I researched for my dissertation: The Biggest Secret: The Book That Will Change the World by David Icke. This conspiracy theory is “super” in many ways, as it not only tries to tie all such texts into one narrative, but provides a literal creation story of humanity and reality. The main point Icke makes, is that all conspiracies are controlled by the annunaki an extraterrestrial race of shape shifting, blood drinking lizards.

They just begged to be a monstrous, behind-the-scenes antagonist that the characters can combat, adding another layer to the standard antagonisms of a war-driven setting. As a possible evolution, I plan to include some elements of the Savage Worlds setting “The Day After Ragnarok”, with its main premise of Jormundgard itself being summoned by desperate Nazi occultists, only to be killed by an America atom bomb, its gigantic carcass literally changing the face of the Earth. It is a really great setting- try it!

So, there you have it - the Nazi racial occult pseudoscience and Icke’s theories blend together quite nicely, with a spice of apocalyptic snakes. What I did above was not strict adherence to a conspiracy theory. Rather I took those elements that I liked and merged them to create a setting. This could also be done on a smaller scale – a heretical sect of the Followers of Set or a Call of Cthulhu game could both make use of Icke’s theories, to give an example.

The sky is the limit, and the best benefit is that even though you will be trying something different, I can guarantee that most of you players will be more or less familiar with the motifs you will use.