On January 8, 2011, Jared Loughner walked up to newly re-elected Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and shot her in the face. The congresswoman was standing outside of a Tucson grocery store speaking with constituents at an event called “Congress on Your Corner,” when the 22-year-old leveled his Glock 9mm semi-automatic handgun at her. He continued firing into the small gathered crowd until he was “tackled by a bystander and taken into custody by the police.” Eighteen bystanders were shot, and six were killed before Loughner was subdued. One of his victims was a third grader.
His motive was unclear. Some reasoned it was about politics, since the target of the shooting was a Democratic politician. Others speculated it was because Giffords was Jewish. The answer, however, seemed to be something completely unrelated. “He didn’t watch TV. He disliked the news. He didn’t listen to political radio. He didn’t take sides. He wasn’t on the left. He wasn’t on the right,” a friend of Loughner’s told ABC News. “There was no political motive in this; he was just angry at the world. […] I really think this Zeitgeist documentary had a profound impact on Jared Loughner’s mindset and how he viewed the world that he lives in.”
As The Daily Beast reported at the time, “It’s hard to place Zeitgeist and Loose Change on the conventional partisan spectrum — both come from a shadowy conspiracy-mad subculture where the far right and the far left meet. [Alex] Jones was the executive producer of Loose Change, and chunks of Zeitgeist are taken from his documentary Terrorstorm.” Reason agreed with that assessment: “In the case of Zeitgeist, the labels left and right are pretty useless descriptors. The best label would probably be ‘New Age paranoia.’”
Zeitgeist: The Movie is the first of three films in a series, followed by Zeitgeist: Addendum and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward. The original film was composed of three parts — the first part compared the story of Jesus to earlier religious stories, thereby showing how it’s actually a coded narrative for the yearly cosmic migration of the sun. The second part focuses on the power of what it deems to be another myth — 9/11, using archival footage to construct an argument for why 9/11 was an “inside job” that was intended to advance the agenda of an international cabal of bankers and defense contractors. The third part hones this into a fine point, examining how the Federal Reserve is a central component of a system of debt that’s destined to enslave Americans, at which point the population will be microchipped. To further their plan, this cabal of bankers use “false-flag” events to goad a reluctant public into profitable wars.
Meanwhile, Addendum puts forward the work of Jacque Fresco from the Venus Project, considering the moneyless society and “resource-based economy” that Fresco envisioned. Moving Forward is pretty much more of the same. Either way, the last two films formed the foundation for The Zeitgeist Movement, which, despite its name, had very little to do with the first film.
The trilogy is the work of director Peter Joseph Merola (whose professional name is Peter Joseph). Despite the films’ popularity and influence, he has vehemently argued that he couldn’t possibly be to blame for Jared Loughner’s actions. To that end, Joseph has released both a public statement and a video on the matter.
“It has come to my attention that various mainstream news organizations are beginning to run an association between my 2007 performance piece/film, Zeitgeist: The Movie, and the tragic murders conducted by an extremely troubled young man in Tucson, Arizona,” Joseph wrote in the public statement. “They are also slowly beginning to bleed the obvious line between my 2007 documentary work, my film series as a whole, and The Zeitgeist Movement, which I am the founder. Frankly, I find this isolating, growing association tremendously irresponsible on the part of ABC, NBC and their affiliates — further reflecting the disingenuous nature of the America Media Establishment today.”
In his video defense, Joseph rationalizes any culpability on his part by arguing that his treatment of September 11th is “simply looking at 9/11 from a different angle.” He also countered with the idea that the official “government story is indeed a conspiracy theory.“ (As for the the last third of Zeitgeist, which, again, focuses on how a banking cabal is presently working to enslave the world with debt and microchips, Joseph argues that it merely presents the “history of the U.S.,” and does so “with no grand conspiracy element to be found.”)
He hasn’t really stopped distancing himself from Zeitgeist in the decade since. Yet no matter how much he protests, many people have pointed out that a plausible argument can be made that Zeitgeist didn’t just capitalize on the 9/11 Truth movement to garner attention, it also acted as the ball bearings that helped smooth the rise of anti-vaxxers and QAnon.
It’s not just Joseph critics who say Zeitgeist helped popularize anti-vaxxers and QAnon either –– it’s what anti-vaxxers and QAnon folks say, too:
In fact, this assumed association remains a constant fight for Joseph:
“Conspiracy theories have always been with us, and people have always believed them,” explains Karen Douglas, a social psychologist from the University of Kent who is a preeminent researcher on conspiracy theories and curates the Conspiracy Theory Research Database. “One thing that’s changed a lot, though — and which has allowed people to find and communicate conspiracy theories more easily — is the internet. This isn’t to say that the internet equals more conspiracy theories. It’s more complex than that. But having such an easy means to find and communicate conspiracy ideas means that they have a chance to spread, grow and evolve into something more complex.”
For her part, 40-year-old Veronica Wilson found Zeitgeist via a colleague at work, not the internet. It was 2015, and she was in the first year of her humanities studies at the time. “We must’ve been discussing money and capitalism, and he talked to me about The Venus Project in Addendum and the concept of a moneyless society. So I went home that night and watched Zeitgeist: The Movie first, and within days Addendum, and then, much later, Moving Forwards.”
Her reaction was “instant enlightenment, basically.”
“All of it was insightful, though I realize there are also ‘debunking’ responses to the movie,” she tells me. “So I try not to accept anything at face value, and I’m not particularly interested in the microscopic specifics in order to verify every single aspect of the movie. But overall, I found the movie very informative and it filled a lot of knowledge gaps, particularly in respect to the production of money (even though it’s Ameri-centric and I’m British). When I watched Addendum, that became my overall favorite of the three docs, and I found The Venus Project concepts very attractive as an alternative future.”
When I ask her if, as time has passed, the film has changed her thinking, she responds, “I don’t think it changed my thinking, but rather plugged some knowledge gaps in respect to the current ‘system,’ thus heightening my critical thinking skills overall. It’s difficult to analyze the effectiveness of a machine without understanding how each of the components work or why they exist. I was also in the first year of a humanities/English literature degree and studied Marxist literary theory over four years. So the combination of the Zeitgeist films and those studies were certainly pivotal for my thinking. They were very much an awakening.”
In the essay “The New Polemics of Discontinuity and Media Convergence,” which was published as part of the essay collection Captivating Screens: (Dis)Orienting Media and Narrative Mazes, Benjamin Eugster analyzes the creative influence of Zeitgeist. He makes clear that employing a “stream of seemingly non-sequitur transitions” has quickly become “typical for ‘today’s alternative news broadcast.’ This is exemplified by the strong affinity of conspiracy videos to certain polemics of discontinuity in reference to the far more outreaching movie Zeitgeist by Peter Joseph.”
Translation: Zeitgeist showed the rest of them how to do it.
“The main influence the series seems to have is that people are much more aware of how the system works and how money is created,” says Niels van der Molen, who was once an active member of Joseph’s follower base. “Even on a mainstream network in the Netherlands [where van der Molen is based], I saw an animation of how the fiat system works and that money is created out of debt. I wouldn’t be surprised if the creator of Bitcoin would have watched the Zeitgeist series.”
At the same time, though, van der Molen argues, “I think you can hold Zeitgeist responsible for some of the 9/11 conspiracy, but it feels off to go further than that. Believing in a 9/11 conspiracy does little damage. For a normal adult person to believe that taking the COVID vaccination is bad for them has a real negative effect — for the individual and the society. I’d rather put part of the blame on the current influencers like Joe Rogan and Bret Weinstein, who are continuously publicly skeptical about taking the vaccine. And I definitely wouldn’t give any blame to Zeitgeist for QAnon. I believe the rise of Donald Trump was pushback to the social justice warrior movement.”
He does, however, still believe in the value of conspiracy theories. “If you have a logical coherent narrative to explain things, it will give you a lot of psychological relief,” he explains. “In that sense, a conspiracy theory is a bit of a dogmatic religious belief where it does provide psychological value for an individual while it’s not the scientific truth. The word that’s used in the community for that phenomenon is metaphorical truth.”
As for Veronica Wilson, when I ask her about the straight line many clearly see between Zeitgeist and QAnon, she’s quick to point out, “It’s sad because [QAnon] simply shows how little trust these people RIGHTLY have in the system/establishment. There seems to be a common trend of people joining the closest movement they’re welcomed into, regardless of the cause.”
She has similar empathy for the anti-vaxx movement. “I didn’t trust the COVID vaccines before anyone else started saying anything,” she tells me. “This was my initial instinct when they were announced: ‘Too soon.’ I’m unconvinced they have good efficacy, or that they’re required for the vast majority of people. I’m horrified by the negative reactions some have had to them, and the media blackout of those who have legitimate concerns, including scientists. I, like QAnoners, have little faith in any part of the capitalist/Western establishment, and frankly, I don’t know if the current state of affairs were planned or the result of sheer incompetence of so-called ‘world leaders.’ Any conspiracy theories I’ve heard thus far are plausible. That doesn’t mean they’re correct. Maybe in 20 to 50 years we’ll find out some truths. Maybe not.”
Clearly, many of the people Joseph first “red-pilled” have moved past him. Yet, he still thinks he can regain their attention — with or without 9/11 conspiracy theories:
But here’s the thing: We don’t need more theories, we need dedicated moral action. After all, people are drawn to conspiracy theories because of a sense of uncertainty and powerlessness. Power, however, doesn’t come from decoding mysterious theories. It results from working collectively for change.