Since ConspiracyScience.com has been identified by Zeitgeist Movement (“ZM”) leader Peter Joseph Merola as an entity hostile to his organization—and even well before that identification explicitly occurred—we, the regulars at ConspiracyScience.com, have come to notice a cycle repeating itself frequently on our forum and to a lesser degree in comments sections of various blogs that have been posted here. One or more active ZM members will join our forums, posit a number of points disputing our views of the ZM, and then leave after a cataract of argument based on those points. (You can see an example of the most recent cycle here). As has been noted on or forums, by me and by others (here) the points raised by ZM members tend to be remarkably similar, often employing almost the exact same words and usually the same basic concepts. In the interests of saving time and repetitive keyboard-pounding in both camps, I thought I would write this blog outlining the most common “canned” ZM replies to our criticisms, and an evaluation of each of them in turn.
The purpose of this blog is not to stifle debate. At CS, we like and enjoy debate—perhaps too much! Many of our regulars are former or even current ZM members who have come to the CS forums to express criticism (and, sometimes, support) of things said within the ZM and by leaders of the ZM. However, as argument with conspiracy theorists almost always involves the eternal re-hashing of points that have been made before, this blog may be useful at least in the sense of sparing everyone the brain-ache of trying to “reinvent the wheel” every time one or another of these arguments comes up. In other words, we’re presenting our own canned answers to respond to the Zeitgeisters’ own!
The arguments that will be dealt with in this blog are the following:
- “The movies aren’t the movement.”
- “Any ZM member can come up with their own content. The movies are simply Peter’s content.”
- “Okay, what’s your program for solving the world’s problems?”
- “I’m agnostic regarding conspiracy theories” or, related, “What happened on 9/11 isn’t relevant.”
- “You haven’t even tried to debunk our (the ZM’s) 80+ page Orientation Guide…”
- “The Zeitgeist films are still valuable because they challenge people to think.”
- “I am not a conspiracy theorist!” or, related “You all are conspiracy theorists!”
- “Peter Joseph isn’t the leader of the ZM” or, related “the ZM has no leaders.”
- “You don’t research anything. All you want to do is make ad hominem attacks against me/Peter Joseph/the ZM.”
- “The ZM is a young movement” or, conversely, “the ZM is gaining supporters all the time and will soon reach critical mass.”
Taking each one of these arguments in turn:
1. “The movies aren’t the movement.”
Context: Usually stated in response to criticism of conspiracy theories promoted by the Zeitgeist films.
Example: Peter Merola himself said:
“My films are not the movement. If you don’t want me to promote the movement through a means which has a precedent for millions of views, just let me know!”
Purpose: The purpose of this argument is to turn attention away from the deceptive conspiracy aspects of the ZM and re-focus it on subjects ZM would rather discuss, such as the Venus Project and a resource-based economy (“RBE”).
Discussion: This is probably the #1 reply ZM members use when responding to criticism of the conspiracy aspects of the Zeitgeist films. That is not surprising, considering it’s the conspiracy aspects of the ZM that attracted the interest and criticism of ConspiracyScience.com in the first place. By way of background, Peter Merola came to public attention, even before the foundation of the ZM, as a result of the release of his 2007 Internet film Zeitgeist (often called Zeitgeist I or “Z1” by ZM members) with had as its three main theses the suppositions that Christianity is a false construct, the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, and evil bankers secretly rule the world. It was not until later that Merola was introduced to Jacque Fresco’s neo-utopian idea called the Venus Project, and later still that the ZM was organized as “the activist arm of the Venus Project.” In his second film, Zeitgeist: Addendum, often calledZeitgeist II or “Z2,” Merola again posited the same conspiracy theories as the first film, though he spent less time on them, and at the end advanced the Venus Project as the “cure” for these social ills.
“The movies aren’t the movement” is both a false statement and a disingenuous one. I, in particular, have devoted considerable words and attention to explaining why the Zeitgeist films and their conspiracy claims are in fact the heart and soul of the ZM, and why, despite Peter Merola’s occasional half-hearted attempts to distance himself from them, he will never fully repudiate or jettison them. (CS blog on this topic) (My personal blog on this topic) (Previous article by Edward Winston which addresses, among other things, the “movies aren’t the movement” argument) Just to sum up the basic reasons why conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking is so primal to the ZM, the main points are:
1. Zeitgeist I is the prime motivator of interest in the ZM and the #1 recruiting tool used by the ZM. Peter Merolahas explicitly admitted this. See also the quote above, evidencing his enthusiasm for promoting the ZM through the popularity that his conspiracy films have generated.
2. Zeitgeist I DVDs are still routinely handed out by ZM members at recruiting events, routinely promoted by ZM members, and its popularity is widely touted by ZM members. By contrast, Zeitgeist II, which still deals with conspiracy theories but spends less time on them, has been viewed by 90% fewer people than Zeitgeist I has.
3. The second Zeitgeist film has the subtitle Addendum. An addendum does not stand on its own. It’s connected to something, namely, the first Zeitgeist film. Some Zeitgeisters will try to make a distinction between the first film (which doesn’t mention the Venus Project) and the second (which does), but the use of the word Addendum means that the second film is forever shackled to the first one.
4. The ZM has the same name as the films. Merola explains this away by saying it would be pointless to change the name because those who want to research it can easily discover the association, so why bother? Of course this is silly; the real way to dissociate the ZM from the Zeitgeist films is not only to change the name, but to make unequivocal statements that the ZM does not support conspiracy theories, which would be unlikely to be credible so long as Merola remains the leader of the movement or so long as conspiracy discussion is openly permitted on the ZM forums. Neither the expulsion of Merola nor a ban on conspiracy discussion is likely to happen, because both would be PR and recruitment suicide for the ZM.
5. Most ZM members are conspiracy theorists. There are a few exceptions, and some of them are occasionally brave enough to speak up about their discomfort with being associated with a conspiracy movement, but they are usually shouted down or dismissed by conspiracy theorists including Merola himself. (Example) (Example) However, it is clear that conspiracy theorists constitute a large portion of, if not the bulk of, the ZM, and it’s why they joined.
Some ZM members have addressed this matter directly, by criticizing the statement that “the movies aren’t the movement.” One post by a member called DoniMusic states it pretty succinctly:
“Also, a quick thought on the “Z films” not being a direct representation of the movement. I’ve got to say that this kind of stance is weak in my opinion. I understand why Peter would take that stance. Most likely to distance the movement from the conspiratorial notions of the films in general. I suppose being connected to conspiracy theories could damage the credibility of what we are trying to achieve. However, those films are what got everybody in the door. It’s like going to a nudist colony only to find out that it’s “clothing optional”. The bottom line here is that people are in this movement because of the information they got from the films. I could not imagine many people are coming here having not seen them (understood is another story). So why are we towing this sketchy “the films aren’t the movement” line. It’s very doublespeak-esque, and in my opinion a bit of a weak cop-out to avoid difficult lines of questioning.”
DoniMusic is one of the few stating openly what should be obvious: to accept that “the movies aren’t the movement” is to accept that the ZM has committed a massive bait-and-switch on its members, and that those same members have accepted this deception without question. The Zeitgeist films promote conspiracy theories, and those who joined the ZM did so presumably to combat those conditions. Now Merola claims “the movies aren’t the movement” and what the ZM is really about is the Venus Project. How many of these members would accept the explanation from their leader that the reason they joined the movement in the first place is not relevant to what they are supposedly trying to achieve? That’s not very good marketing, and it sounds flimsy because it is: the bait-and-switch never happened. The movies are very much the movement, which means that conspiracy theories and the promotion of conspiracy ideology is a very strong—if unacknowledged—goal of the ZM.
“The movies aren’t the movement” is absolutely false. The movies, and the conspiracy theories they espouse, are the heart and soul of the ZM, by Merola’s own admission. The ZM is a conspiracy movement, as their members have asserted often and as the actions of the ZM leadership, especially Peter Merola, has demonstrated. Arguing to the contrary is simply pointless.
2. “Any ZM member can come up with their own content. The movies are simply Peter’s content.”
Context: Again used in response to criticism of the Zeitgeist films in relation to the ZM.
Example: Merola has stated, in response to one of his followers who was surprised to learn that Jacque Fresco does not believe in 9/11 conspiracy:
“One day I might make a movie about Fishing… that doesnt mean the movement has anything to do with it, despite the name ‘zeitgeist’.”
Purpose: The purpose of this argument, similar to the previous one, is to minimize the relevance of Peter Merola’s personal beliefs on conspiracy theories to the ZM as a whole in an attempt to decouple the ZM from the Zeitgeist films and pretend that the ZM does not have, as a strong but unacknowledged goal, to promote conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking.
Discussion: This argument is extremely misleading. It ignores the reality of who is in charge of the ZM and what the name Zeitgeist really means.
Yes, it is literally true that Zeitgeist I was a movie made on a solo basis by Peter Merola before he ever heard of the Venus Project. Yes, it is literally true that (to my knowledge) even Zeitgeist: Addendum was not specifically sanctioned or produced by the Venus Project, although the film touts it prominently. However, it stretches credibility to believe that any member of the ZM can make a movie with any content and use the Zeitgeist title, as if the title has no connection whatsoever to the content within.
Merola is probably right that someday he could make a film called Zeitgeist: Gone Fishin’ which, instead of conspiracy theories and the Venus Project, would be an education in how to bait hooks and reel in walleye on your local bayou. What would this “content” have to do with the ZM? Probably nothing, which begs the question of why he would even put the Zeitgeist name on it.
On the other hand, suppose, for example, I joined the ZM, and successfully passed the “test” that Merola has recently instituted to ensure that those who post on his forum know about and agree with the supposed tenets of the ZM. After three months of good behavior—meaning, without disagreeing with Merola or Jacque Fresco—let’s say I make my own Internet movie called Zeitgeist III: Total Refutation which refutes the first two films point by point, demonstrating the factual inaccuracy of Merola’s contentions regarding Christianity, 9/11 and the money system. What would happen to me? I would be expelled from the ZM, and Merola would almost certainly take some action to get me to take the title Zeitgeist off my movie that disagrees with him. By promoting my film—my own personal “content”—as aZeitgeist film, I would be trying to make use of the publicity and cachet (among conspiracy theorists, at least) that the Zeitgeist name carries. There is no way in hell that my own personal “content,” at odds with the official ideology of the ZM, would be allowed to stand under that name.
I venture to say that if I, as a hypothetical ZM member, made a movie called Zeitgeist III: Going Fishin’ With Muertosthat had nothing to do with conspiracy theories or refuting anything in the previous two movies, Merola would still not let me use the Zeitgeist name. After all, what’s wrong with simply Going Fishin’ With Muertos? (For the record, I hate fishing).
This argument is very silly, as these examples demonstrate.
3. “Okay, what’s your program for solving the world’s problems?”
Context: Used in response to less specific criticisms of the ZM as a whole, and sometimes specifically in response to criticisms of the conspiracy aspects of the ZM.
Example: This comeback was used on my own blog in one of the comments where a ZM member said:
“Also, I would very much be interested in your views of the world today and to know if you have, or know of somebody who has, an idea to improve the world’s, and the people that live on it, quality of life.”
Purpose: The purpose of this argument is purely diversionary. It is designed to steer conversation away from the conspiracy aspects of the ZM and to the tenets of the Venus Project itself, which ZM members are usually far more willing to discuss.
Discussion: This argument is a shameless attempt at agenda control. It tries to place the ZM critic in a no-win scenario: if you can’t come up with a program on the spot to solve the world’s problems, the ZM member will respond along the lines of, “Well, since I have the Venus Project and you admit you have no better idea, why not try the Venus Project?” If you do suddenly come up with an idea to save the world, suddenly you are debating the merits of your proposal versus the Venus Project. Either way you are no longer debating the conspiracy aspects of the ZM. And if you reject the legitimacy of the question, the ZM member will attempt to claim the moral high ground by asking why you want to talk about that ooky conspiracy stuff when you should be debating the efficacy of various proposals to save the world.
This is an old tactic from the antiquated Willy Loman school of door-to-door sales. “You don’t want to buy my vacuum cleaner? Well, then how are you going to get your rug clean?” By accepting debate on these terms you’ve implicitly limited the universe of permissible options to two, and only two, alternatives: either you buy what the salesman is selling, or you’re doomed forever to live with a dirty rug that cannot be cleaned by any other means. By deploying this argument Zeitgeisters want to trap you into a similar binary choice: either accept the ZM and its program to remake the world with an RBE, or you’re dooming the planet to a bleak future of economic rapaciousness and environmental degradation. It also has a moral component. It paints the Zeitgeister as an altruist who wants only to save humanity—appealing, incidentally, to conspiracy theorists’ conceit that they are privy to special knowledge that will “save” everybody—and portrays the ZM critic as a defender of the evil status quo.
For obvious reasons, under no circumstances should this argument be regarded as legitimate. It is shamelessly manipulative, counter-intuitive, illogical and silly—even if you do have a good idea for solving the world’s problems. Disputing conspiracy theories and the conspiracy aspects of the ZM is not a discussion directed at solving the world’s problems–I certainly do think making the world a better place is a worthwhile discussion to have, but that’s not the discussion you’re having when you’re talking about the conspiracy aspects of the ZM. When discussing the conspiracy aspects of the ZM, even answering the question is providing a “get out of jail free” card to the Zeitgeister. This question should not be tolerated in a debate regarding the ZM, at least not when you’re talking about conspiracy theories promoted and supported by the ZM.
This argument is also addressed in an article by Edward regarding the ZM.
4. “I’m agnostic regarding conspiracy theories” or, related, “What happened on 9/11 isn’t relevant.”
Context: Used in responses to criticisms of the conspiracy aspects of the ZM.
Example: Statements to this effect are often used by Zeitgeisters against each other, when arguing about the conspiracy aspects of the ZM, and sometimes against critics. An example occurs in this topic where a user called “jamesmcm” says:
“The 9/11 stuff may or may not be insane, but I don’t see why it matters. What’s done is done, there is no use in fighting over whether it was planned or not now – it will only harm our progress forward. We must focus on the future, not bicker over the past.”
Purpose: This argument, like #3, is also diversionary, used to steer the topic of conversation away from conspiracy matters, and it is sometimes used as an entrée to #7 below when ZM members do not wish to appear to be conspiracy theorists. Note in the above example jamesmcm is doing both: he establishes himself as a supposed agnostic regarding 9/11, but then wonders why anyone would bother talking about it.
Discussion: This argument tries to reach the same finish line as #3, but via a different path. The objective is still to change the subject from conspiracy theories to the Venus Project, but at least this one isn’t as shamelessly manipulative. What does make this argument faulty, however, is the fact that the Zeitgeist movies’ and many ZM members’ views regarding conspiracies, particularly 9/11 conspiracies, are directly relevant to how seriously we (the non-ZM rest of the world) should take the ZM. Conspiracy theories regarding 9/11 are factually unsupportable. Peter Merola continues to stand behind the Zeitgeist films and their 9/11 claims, meaning that either (A) he has researched the claims so poorly as to be taken in by 9/11 conspiracy theories that are easily disproven by only a few minutes’ research, or (B) he knows the claims are false but for some reason (probably recruitment) is willing to continue to be associated with them. Why, therefore, should anyone trust a movie that lies to them about 9/11 to propose a viable solution to the world’s problems in the form of the Venus Project? Zeitgeisters don’t want to discuss this dichotomy (see #6 below) because they can’t answer it. Consequently, they must try to sweep the conspiracy theory questions under the rug or minimize their importance in order to remain credible in the debate.
This argument is disingenuous too, because Zeitgeisters themselves, including Peter Merola, do not really believe that 9/11 is irrelevant. In a post regarding the possible changing of the ZM’s name due to the conspiracy aspects of theZeitgeist films, Merola stated:
“As far as the 911 and religious “conspiracy theories” you denote- they are, despite the controversy, still highly relevant… 911 is not taboo- nothing is taboo. If everyone simply didn’t talk about ideas because they were afraid of what other’s thought, society would be paralyzed.” (emphasis added)
Regarding the “agnosticism” component of this argument, I have yet to meet a ZM member who is a true “agnostic” regarding 9/11. The problem with “agnosticism” regarding conspiracy theories is that it’s not intellectually possible in the same way as, say, a belief in God or something else that cannot be proven empirically. What happened on 9/11 can, and has been, proven beyond doubt with factual, empirical evidence. You can’t be agnostic about it. If you read the NIST report on the collapse of the WTC towers (most Truthers haven’t), and then watch Loose Change (or even Zeitgeist I) and after both experiences you scratch your head and say, “Hmm, I don’t really know which one to believe,” then you are implicitly accepting the conspiracy theory, because in order to take this position you must necessarily reject the empirical proof contained in the NIST report. I do not doubt that there are people out there (unfortunately) who do this sort of thing, and those people are probably genuinely unaware that they have become conspiracy theorists. (See also argument #7 below). More often, professions of “agnosticism” regarding conspiracy theories is little more than a fig leaf for a nascent belief in conspiracy theories, or unwillingness to acknowledge that one has become a conspiracy theorist. (I can already hear the hate mail coming based on that statement!)
So, argument #4 is false from two angles: most ZM members do not believe that 9/11 and other conspiracy theories are irrelevant, and most ZM who claim they are “agnostic” on these questions really aren’t as agnostic as they profess to be or as some may honestly think they are. Furthermore, if the ZM ever did achieve the 50 million members they say they want to get, these hair-splitting arguments are far too attenuated to translate successfully to any forum broad or persuasive enough to attract that sort of mainstream cachet–people would just assume that Zeitgeisters are conspiracy theorists, which in fact most of them are. Needless to say, this argument is a dead end.
5. “You haven’t even tried to debunk our (the ZM’s) 80+ page Orientation Guide…”
Context: Used in a variety of contexts where debate goes toward subjects ZM members do not wish to discuss.
Example: Merola himself uses this argument in his “Diagnosis of Intellectual Inhibition” (linked earlier). He states:
“There is no critical examination of any of my lectures, no critical examination of our 90 page Orientation Guide, etc. Nothing. It is dismissal by association in a profoundly biased way… which is yet another form of psychological denial.”
Purpose: Purely diversionary. This argument is, like #3, an attempt to change the subject, and like #1 an attempt to brush aside the conspiracy aspects of the ZM.
Discussion: Zeitgeisters are very fond of touting their voluminous Orientation Guide, which is supposedly required reading for all ZM neophytes. It drones on for page after page about the evils of capitalism and the shining hope for humanity that is a RBE. Conspiracy theories are nowhere mentioned in the Orientation Guide, which is why ZM members like to cite it (though the Orientation Guide does refer to the 9/11 attacks and mentions “supposed ‘Islamic terrorists’” in quotes, thus suggesting that they aren’t real).
This argument is disingenuous when deployed, as it usually is, in a response to criticisms of the conspiracy aspects of the ZM. However, an invitation to debunk the Orientation Guide instead of the Zeitgeist films results in a false equation. While the Orientation Guide does contain assertions of purported fact—many of which are spurious—its main purpose is similar to that of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto: it’s an argumentative document intended to justify an ideology, which is by definition a statement of opinion. The Zeitgeist films, particularly Zeitgeist I, serve a different purpose: they purport to explain to the audience what objective fact actually is. No one who drills into the ZM site deep enough to hit the Orientation Guide has any illusion that, by the time they sit down to read it, they are being asked to evaluate a belief system. However, most people who watch Zeitgeist I do not realize they are being asked to evaluate a belief system: they see a film that presents what looks to them like assertions of fact. DebunkingZeitgeist I is useful, because it causes people to realize that the assertions made in the film are not factually supportable. Debunking the Orientation Guide is not useful because you’re debunking Peter Merola and Jacque Fresco’s ideological opinions. I have plenty of ideological opinions; everyone does. That is different than asserting matters of fact.
Witness the difference:
STATEMENT 1: “The Beatles assassinated John F. Kennedy.”
STATEMENT 2: “You should listen to the Beatles, because they are the best rock and roll band ever.”
Statement 1, though facially ridiculous, is an assertion of purported fact. You can debunk it with facts: there is no evidence that anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK; the Beatles were not present at the scene; no evidence connects any of them to the assassination, etc., etc. Statement 2 is an argument. If you disagree that the Beatles are the best rock and roll band ever, you can certainly try to argue the point by comparing the Beatles to the Rolling Stones or Iron Maiden or whoever, but you’re now arguing opinions, not facts. To the extent facts are marshaled to support an opinion—“The Beatles have sold more records than anyone!”—you can, of course, evaluate those facts empirically, but the main point of Statement 2 is to ask you to accept a belief. The statements are simply apples and oranges.
Personally, I am not very interested in the Venus Project. I believe it’s silly, and would be an abomination if it was actually instituted (do you really want the world to be ruled by computers?) but if the Zeitgeist films had not come along and hijacked the Venus Project, I wouldn’t be writing blogs on the Internet explaining how silly I think the Venus Project is. The issue I care about is the promotion of conspiracy theories and conspiracy ideology. The Zeitgeist films present conspiracy theories as purported facts, and they encourage their audience to think in terms of conspiracy theories and view the world as a result of conspiracy theories. That’s what I have a problem with, because the conspiracy theories are not factually supportable. Whether the conspiracy theorists that comprise a large portion of the ZM membership think the Venus Project is a good idea is not really an issue for me. If they’re going to promote the Venus Project by using conspiracy theories, however, I’m going to argue that their conspiracy theories are wrong. The Orientation Guide doesn’t concern me very much.
6. “The Zeitgeist films are still valuable because they challenge people to think.”
Context: Used to defend the Zeitgeist films as a whole, particularly when individual claims in the films have been shown to be false or misleading.
Example: Merola himself made this argument recently in a topic touting his forthcoming 300-page (!) “resource guide” to the new upcoming Zeitgeist recut. In this topic Merola stated:
“Z1 is less of a traditional docu[mentary] than a challenge in critical thought. There are also deliberate exaggerations as the work is artistic in it means. It is a combination of gesture and fact and is deliberately provocative.”
Purpose: This is an apologetic argument. It is usually deployed after a critic has highlighted factual deficiencies in theZeitgeist films, and is intended to illustrate the supposed value of the films even if those deficiencies exist (which Zeitgeisters rarely concede directly).
Discussion: This argument is patently ridiculous. Essentially, a ZM member asking you to accept this argument is telling you that it’s OK to lie to people as long as you are “challenging” their “critical thought.”
The Zeitgeist films were not made or promoted as “works of art by Peter Joseph.” They were made and promoted as documentaries, and the matters asserted in them are purported to be factual statements. None are presented as suppositions or “challenges.” The obvious intent is to induce literal belief in the matters asserted on the part of the audience. If this is done with knowledge that the matters asserted are not true, this is known, in arcane technical jargon, as “lying.”
Example: I see you at the grocery store. I run up to you in a panic and say, “I just drove by your house, and saw that it was on fire!” You jump in your car and drive over to your house, discovering that it is not on fire. The next time you encounter me you’ll probably have some unkind words for me. Suppose I reply, “My statement to you was deliberately provocative. I wanted to challenge your capacity for critical thought, and make you think about how you can be more fire-safe around your home.”
If I said this to you, you’d probably punch me in the face.
Yet this is precisely what Merola is asking his viewers to excuse. He admits to “deliberate exaggerations” and then praises the value of them because it’s “artistic” and “challenges” people. If this was his intent, why didn’t he write a novel or create a fictional movie positing these suppositions? You don’t make a documentary, purporting to tell peoplethe truth, and then when called on your deliberate exaggerations excuse it by saying it was “artistic.” Movie directors do this when they make films like Braveheart or Amadeus which deliberately distort history, but then again those films are understood as fiction or at the very least as being fiction that is based on a true story, which everyone knows means they aren’t literal truth. If Mel Gibson or Milos Forman wanted to tell the literally true story about William Wallace or Wolfgang Mozart, they’d make documentaries about them, and audiences would evaluate and respond to those movies on different terms than they respond to Braveheart and Amadeus. Peter Merola made a documentary—not a fiction film, not based on a true story. The argument that we are supposed to excuse his deliberate exaggerations is not only stupid, it’s morally offensive.
7. “I am not a conspiracy theorist!” or, related “You all are conspiracy theorists!”
Context: Sometimes resorted to when ZM members become defensive and flustered regarding charges that they and their movement promote conspiracy theories.
Example: Used recently in an argument on ConspiracyScience.com forum in which a ZM member stated:
“you guys are JUST as bad as the truthers, but opposite….No, sorry, im not a 9/11 truther, so your theories about me can stop….”
This ZM member had recently posted a YouTube video which supported the “no plane” conspiracy theory regarding 9/11. He did so in the context of claiming he was “agnostic” about 9/11 (see #4 above).
Purpose: Projection. Conspiracy theorists usually resent being called conspiracy theorists. Some 9/11 Truthers do not reject the term “Truther,” because they believe it reinforces that what they think happened on 9/11 is the “truth,” but even they reject the label “conspiracy theorist” because it’s almost universally pejorative. They are very eager to avoid this label, and will do almost anything to scramble out from under it. Usually rejection of the “conspiracy theorist” label involves one or both of the following tactics, which in any sane world should be mutually exclusive: either denouncing the label itself as pejorative and unfair, or conversely (or sometimes additionally) expanding its definition to include the viewpoints and behavior of the person making the accusation.
Discussion: Making this argument work essentially means skewing the generally-understood meaning of “conspiracy theorist” or “conspiracy theory” in any and every way possible. Merola himself has done this in a page on the ZM’s FAQ about “Do we support conspiracy theories?” (They claim they do not, but actually they do, as I explained in a previous blog about that specific page). One thing that conspiracy theorists love to do is to point to something that is generally accepted—which they often label the “official story”—and try to define that as a conspiracy theory, which is why you hear 9/11 Truthers talk about the “Official Conspiracy Theory” or “OCT,” the explanation that 9/11 was the work of Osama bin Laden’s 19 Al-Qaeda hijackers. The purpose of this is to try to level the playing field and make the “official story” and the conspiracy theory essentially equal co-claimants on the truth, which in their minds you are supposed to accept in the name of being “open-minded.” No evaluation is given to which story is more factually supportable. The name of the game is to call something, anything, a “conspiracy theory” to try to make the critic feel guilty about using that term.
A less commonly used, and infinitely stupider, tactic is for the ZM member to point to assumptions that critics make about them or their arguments and claim that those assumptions amount to “conspiracy theories.” Example: a high official of the ZM posted on the ConspiracyScience forums, using many of the arguments listed in this blog. He was predictably evasive about whether he himself was a conspiracy theorist, and professed “agnosticism” about what happened on 9/11. He did not respond directly to the questions regarding his beliefs about 9/11; however, the ZM member’s own personal web site contained a prominent link to the 9/11 Truther video In Plane Sight, which is a notorious conspiracy screed. When members of our forum pointed this out and said that the ZM member was a conspiracy theorist, the ZM member responded by denouncing the “conspiracy theories” that we were formulating regarding him. Never mind that this reasoning makes no sense whatsoever. Pointing out that a person’s statements and associations on another site are at odds with what he was telling us on our forum is not a “conspiracy theory.” It was just an excuse—a very flimsy one at that—to try to use the term “conspiracy theory” in any way possible as a weapon against the critics of the conspiracy theories in which the ZM member was a believer. Such is the very silly world and infantile argumentative tactics of conspiracy theorists.
8. “Peter Joseph isn’t the leader of the ZM” or, related “the ZM has no leaders.”
Context: often raised against criticism of how the ZM is run and/or criticism of Peter J. Merola’s goals, tactics and communications style as the leader of the ZM. Also raised when discussion turns to whether the ZM is a cult or exhibits cult-like tendencies, as compared to known cults with strong leaders such as the People’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate, etc.
Example: The ZM member who recently visited our forum employed this argument:
“peter is simply 1 member in a movement of no leaders. he is a prominent figure who attracts attention from people like you. the movement is ideas, not a person….leadership is another word for evil. i wouldnt be a member of TZM if i thought i was following someone.”
Purpose: As with many Zeitgeisters’ arguments, one main purpose of this argument is to (again) try to decouple the ZM from Merola’s conspiracy films—by distancing it from Merola himself—but it also serves another purpose. Much of the criticism of the ZM—on the ConspiracyScience.com forums, at least—centers around actions taken on the ZM forums, which are heavily moderated. Action is often taken by moderators, and by Merola himself, against members who express disagreement with Merola’s words or acts. The “Peter Joseph isn’t the leader” argument is deployed to defuse perceptions that the ZM is tightly controlled, that its message is carefully stage-managed or that Merola’s own actions have the capability of reflecting badly on the ZM as a whole.
Discussion: This argument is also patently ridiculous. The decentralized and open source nature of some aspects of the ZM, such as the establishment and conduct of local chapters, may present the illusion that the ZM is decentralized and open-source as a whole. However, it is clearly evident from even a perfunctory glance that the overarching content, message and message discipline, administration and direction of the ZM is under the virtually total control of one person: Peter Joseph Merola. Even Jacque Fresco, who created the Venus Project idea in the 1970s, is almost always spoken of by ZM members as a conceptual and consultative resource, a sort of Oracle of Delphi who makes proclamations that are then brought down from the mountain (or up from Venus, Florida, as it were) and then translated into reality by the footsoldiers of the ZM. It is Fresco’s ideas that are being implemented; it is Fresco’s designs that will be achieved; it is Fresco’s views on a RBE that will be validated, supposedly, by the eventual success of the ZM. Who is actually out there on the ground (supposedly) doing all of this implementation, achievement and validation? The members of the ZM, under the direction of Peter Joseph Merola.
In determining who “owns” or “runs” the ZM, it’s useful to employ an analogy. For the sake of this analogy let’s treat “Zeitgeist” and everything that it means—the films, the conspiracy theories, the “activism” to implement the Venus Project, the advocacy of an RBE, etc.—as a brand name, a sort of intellectual property. Who has ownership of this intellectual property? Merola does. He and people appointed by him are the ones who make the decisions about what you see when you click on the ZM website, which is the main portal through which ZM members interact with each other and with the movement. While I don’t know if Merola wrote every word of the Orientation Guide, certainly he must have at least approved it, and surely it is by his and his appointees’ direction that it is available and widely touted on the website. It is certainly by his fiat that the ZM has its name, which is named after the conspiracy films that he created and promoted. Just browsing the ZM forums, a pronouncement by Merola is almost universally treated as the definitive last word on the subject (evidently Jacque Fresco doesn’t post much). Merola often locks posts after he himself has spoken, to reinforce the point that his is the last word. Certainly the members of the ZM treat him as a leader.
Most importantly, it is Merola and moderators appointed by him who decide who is acting consistently with the goals and tenets of the movement and who is not. Similarly with the example of “the movies are just Peter’s content,” let’s hypothesize what would happen if I joined the ZM and put up my own website claiming to be a Zeitgeist Movement portal. Let’s say that my website presents evidence that refutes the claims in Merola’s Zeitgeist movies, contains a point-by-point rebuttal of the Orientation Guide, and denounces a RBE as unachievable in the real world. Let’s say that my website is very clear that instead of following Jacque Fresco and Peter Merola’s ideas, I think the ZM should follow the ideas of Karl Marx and become a Communist organization. Clearly this would be totally at odds with the orthodoxy of the ZM and its accepted ideology. What would happen to me? If I was posting on the ZM forums, I would certainly be banned for opposing the program of the ZM, possibly even by Merola himself. I’d probably be asked to take down Zeitgeist logos from my website and stop fostering the impression that I’m part of the ZM. I would be asked to pursue my objectives under the rubric of a different organization. The ZM would do its best to make clear that I was not associated with them.
The point is that, if the ZM truly had no leaders, it would have no orthodoxy either. If the ZM has no leaders, that would mean that if I joined it I have just as much clout in the ZM as Peter Merola does. If that were the case, why would my attempts to steer the ZM toward a different set of objectives and ideologies have any less validity than the objectives and ideologies favored by Merola and Fresco? If there are no leaders in the ZM, the “brand name” of Zeitgeist becomes the public property of its members, theirs to do with absolutely as they please. Unquestionably, this is not the case. There are no ZM members who oppose a RBE. It’s exceedingly difficult to find a ZM member who is not a conspiracy theorist. Those are the tenets and ideologies of the ZM established by Peter Merola. Consequently, he is the leader of the ZM.
In the real world, movements and activist groups, which the ZM purports to be, can’t function without leaders. The Communist Party said it was about bringing equality to the people of Russia, but even Russians in 1917 made no mistake that Lenin was its leader. The Democratic Party in the United States may accept all comers who wish to join it—there’s far less policing of who joins (or remains in) the Democratic Party than there is in the ZM—but no one has any illusion that Barack Obama is the leader of the Democratic Party. An organization cannot function effectively without some form of administrative direction, and to be cohesive an organization must have some form of orthodoxy.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not criticizing the fact that the ZM has a leader. What I am criticizing is that ZM members claim either that the ZM does not have leaders, or that Peter Merola is not the leader. The protestations by ZM members that their movement is leaderless bring to mind scenes of toga-clad Greeks standing around in ancient times practicing pure democracy. It’s an illusion. It’s not real and never was. No one who knows anything about how organizations in the real world work can have any doubt that the ZM has a leader. Contending otherwise is simply absurd.
9. “You don’t research anything. All you want to do is make ad hominem attacks against me/Peter Joseph/the ZM.”
Context: Used as a blanket argument to dismiss all criticism of the ZM, the movies and/or Peter Merola.
Examples: There are many of them. Almost all ZM members resort to the “ad hominem” protest eventually. One ZM member makes both the “you don’t research” and “ad hominem attacks” arguments here. A particular ZM member who has sometimes commented on my blogs uses the “ad hominem attacks” protest nearly every time:
“Funny stuff; though yeah do wish you had some actual information to share instead of just spewing your rage & destructive nonsense. You prove the point that it is easier to tear down other people’s efforts than to make your own.”
Purpose: This is a classic debate-ending tactic, akin to “Screw you guys, I’m goin’ home!” It is meant to terminate the argument by dismissing all criticism of the ZM and its leader as irrelevant and motivated solely by irrational animus.
Discussion: As I am fond of saying, “ad hominem” are conspiracy theorists’ two favorite Latin words. Any questioning of any source of pro-conspiracy information, particularly a questioning of that source’s credibility, is universally dismissed as an “ad hominem” attack. In truth an ad hominem is totally different (seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem) but conspiracy theorists love it because they think it is a legitimate shield against all criticism, mainly because conspiracy theorists are generally incapable of distinguishing between the questioning of a source’s credibility and an ad hominem attack.
This is not a very serious argument. In the world of the ZM, no one is allowed to legitimately question Peter Merola or Jacque Fresco about anything, at any time, in any fashion. ZM members admit disagreement with Merola or Fresco only very reluctantly and usually in an offhanded manner as a bargaining chip to some other statement (“I agree the conspiracy claims in Zeitgeist I might be exaggerated, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Venus Project is really great”). In the world of the ZM, no one is allowed to question Merola’s education, his understanding of history or economics, his research skills, or his motives in maintaining extremely tight message control without engaging in an “ad hominem” attack. Similarly, if anyone questions why Jacque Fresco hasn’t done more in his fifty years of industrial design to make his nifty Venus Project models closer to reality, that too is an “ad hominem” attack and totally illegitimate. It matters not at all to ZM members that their leaders’ education in and understanding of the subjects they purport to be experts on is directly relevant to the credibility they are entitled to by the world at large.
This blindness and grotesque misunderstanding of what is and is not an “ad hominem” attack frequently extends to the level of the sources Merola relied on to make the Zeitgeist films. One that stands out in particular is D.M. Murdock, also known as “Acharya S.,” a notoriously inaccurate pseudohistorian with no track record of peer-reviewed scholarship whose bizarre views on the history of Christianity served as much of the inspiration for Merola’s claims of religious conspiracy in Zeitgeist I. Acharya S.’s materials have no validity in the academic world, are poorly researched and themselves rely on spurious cherry-picked sources, and consequently are not taken seriously as credible research into comparative religion or ancient history; yet, time and time again, ZM members flood to the ConspiracyScience.com forums to defend her and claim that no one at ConspiracyScience.com has “researched her claims.” Any criticism of Archaya S., or questioning of whether her views are entitled to any sort of credibility, is regarded as an “ad hominem” attack. This myopia proceeds from a profound misunderstanding of the academic process and how and why academic research and writing is judged to be credible, as I explained in a portion of an earlier blog responding to Merola’s specific criticism of ConspiracyScience.com’s statements regarding D.M. Murdock.
The truth is that conspiracy theorists in general, as well as many ZM members, do not understand what an “ad hominem” attack is. It is, unfortunately, this lack of understanding that makes this one of the most popular arguments made by conspiracy theorists against material posted on ConspiracyScience.com, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.
10. “The ZM is a young movement” or, conversely, “the ZM is gaining supporters all the time and will soon reach critical mass.”
Context: These arguments usually come at the end of the discussion, as they are intended as debate-enders to render irrelevant any previous criticism.
Examples: Again, some variation of these arguments is almost certain to come up in any sustained debate with a ZM member. One example appears here where a ZM member says:
“When we will reach a critical mass of people maybe even the most religious will see the benefit of joining the struggle to build a more sane, egalitarian and sustainable society which after all is the goal of most monotheistic religions.”
Purpose: These arguments, which seem contradictory to each other on their face, actually serve the same purpose. They are intended to render irrelevant all substantive criticism regarding the ZM. They differ only where they’re deployed. “The ZM is a young movement” is intended to excuse the ZM’s lack of any substantive real-world impact—i.e., why they haven’t done more to advance their purported goals—and “we’re gaining critical mass” is intended to predict that whatever anti-ZM viewpoints are out there will be relegated to the dustbin of history when the ZM belief system becomes the dominant one in society, as many ZM assume will eventually happen.
Discussion: I group these arguments together because they are both meant as blanket antidotes to criticism. “The ZM is a young movement” or “the ZM hasn’t been around very long” is a relatively weak response to the incontrovertible fact that the ZM hasn’t accomplished very much since its beginnings. They have made no progress on building a model city that demonstrates the capabilities of the Venus Project; to my knowledge they have raised no funds even to start a model city; and they are channeling most of their energy into “let’s get the word out!” projects like a big-budget movie that is supposed to be bigger than Titanic and Avatar and will showcase the tenets of their belief system. One who doubts why efforts of this nature haven’t proceeded farther is invariably reminded that the ZM hasn’t been around very long, and a “just wait and see” attitude will vindicate all their predictions.
“The ZM is gaining critical mass” is a conceit that plays into a common delusion of conspiracy theorists, that their point of view is always on the verge of gaining mainstream acceptance. Statements like “the worm is turning” or “we’re gaining critical mass” are common, for example, among 9/11 Truthers who accept on faith that their conspiracy beliefs will eventually become shared by a significant proportion of the public, if not the media. To be sure, this argument may be intended just as much to buck up wilting spirits within conspiracy theorists’ own circles as it is to warn critics that they are on the wrong side of history. With respect to the ZM in particular, the “critical mass” argument is more often deployed as a trump card, in the nature of “Once everybody believes in the Venus Project, your criticisms won’t matter in the long run.” Who can argue with that?
But is the ZM really gaining “critical mass?” As with any other social cause that’s primarily based on the Internet, it’s difficult to tell. This analysis from Alexa.com, which tracks web trends, does not bode well. As of this writing (June 2010), page views for the ZM’s main web portal are down 38% over the past three months, and graphs going back a year show page views on a gradual, though not a precipitous, decline. Considerably fewer people visit the ZM site now than did a year ago. Certainly the grandiose predictions of media notice for “Z-Day”—supposedly a worldwide awareness and promotion day, held in early March—did not come to fruition. Merola has claimed that his movement has 400,000 adherents. That is merely the number who have registered on his website; the percentage of those who are actual participating members is clearly much, much smaller. There is no way to judge how many members the ZM has, but one thing is clear: if there has been a significant, sustained increase in real-world membership participation in the ZM over the past year indicating that a “critical mass” is soon at hand, there is no evidence to show it.
My own view is that the ZM’s predictions of steady membership increase in the future are unwarranted. Zeitgeist Icame out three years ago. It was far more popular, by a factor of nearly 90%, than its sequel, Zeitgeist: Addendum, showing that the public’s appetite for Zeitgeist films was almost entirely satisfied by Merola’s first effort. True, he is supposedly working on a third film, or at least a new recut of the first film, and these will probably generate at least some temporary interest, but whether this will translate into significantly more members depends on how much cachet the main premises of the film—that Christianity is a lie, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that bankers rule the world—still have in 2010, three years after Merola already presented his conclusions on those points. How much popularity the ZM will have in the future is anyone’s guess, but for purposes of this article it seems clear that claims that the ZM will achieve “critical mass,” in the sense of broad acceptance by the public in general, are wildly fanciful.
The ZM has many things wrong with it, but I think we can give pretty much unequivocal praise to one aspect of their organization: their message discipline is extremely tight. The fact that ZM members continually spout the same ten arguments analyzed here, and often in the exact same words, is a tribute to how completely the ZM ideology and argument style has seeped down to the rank-and-file members who feel motivated to respond to criticism of the ZM and its leader. While I certainly don’t expect these arguments to stop being deployed as a result of this blog, I do think a comprehensive analysis of them has at least some value.
Speaking only for myself—though I suspect I’m not alone—I would rather not wind up discussing the ZM as often as we seem to do on ConspiracyScience.com. Nearly every week there are recent events in the news that spawn new conspiracy theories, or new twists on old conspiracy theories, that need debunking; a recent example is the BP oil spill, which some believe was staged for whatever nefarious reason. By contrast, the ZM promotes the same tired theories over and over again, and their defenders use the same tired arguments over and over again to deflect criticism of their movement. There is something soul-grinding about arguing the same points over and over again. If this blog saves somebody somewhere even five minutes of responding to these shopworn shibboleths, my time writing it will not have been in vain.