The problem with deriding conspiracy theories is that it really does leave a columnist feeling like he's just playing his part in the International Bankers' plan for one-world government.
Yet the topic asserts itself this week, despite a years-long attempt to ignore it. A two-hour movie, slickly produced and wrapped in an air of appealing mystery, has been making the rounds, propelled by recommendations from bloggers whose eyes were opened and lives changed. The reputable A-list websites are starting to acknowledge it. People in the offline world have asked me about it.
The thing is called Zeitgeist and can be found via Google. It's an online video set against a black backdrop, with no clue as to its creators' identities. It assembles archival footage, animations and breathless narration into a kind of primer on conspiracies.
The movie comes in three parts. The first makes the case that Jesus is a mythological figure built from parts of earlier mythological figures. Christianity, say the filmmakers, is a concoction, just a form of social control.
So far, nothing ground-breaking. But now the movie jumps to 9/11, and things really get moving. The middle segment steps us through the orthodoxy of 9/11 conspiracy thinking. The twin towers weren't destroyed by jetliners; they were intentionally demolished with explosives. Something fishy happened to Flight 93, which the banker-controlled media will tell you crashed in Pennsylvania.
The Air Force, we're told, deliberately failed to intercept any of the planes. Meanwhile, the Pentagon wasn't hit by an airliner, but by something more like a missile. All of this leads to the conclusion that 9/11 was an inside job, staged by elements of the U.S. government to provide a pretext for invading Iraq and curtailing civil liberties.
To what end? Warming to its topic, the film shimmers into its third act. It seems that the Federal Reserve, the U.S. money-printing organ, is in fact the implement of a small cabal of International Bankers (the ethnicity of these money-lenders goes undisclosed) who stage global calamities to spur federal spending and enrich themselves.
They arranged for the Lusitania to be torpedoed, dragging the U.S. into the First World War. They manipulated FDR into essentially staging Pearl Harbour, starting the Second World War. (That was the start of the Second World War, right?) Ditto Vietnam, ditto 9/11.
Their ultimate goal? A one-world government whose citizens all carry implanted microchip IDs. And all the while, the hidden powers are using the consolidated mass media, the church, and the educational establishment to create a complacent zeitgeist - a spirit of the times - that leaves us dumb as sheep.
The film is an interesting object lesson on how conspiracy theories get to be so popular. (In 2006, one poll suggested that a full third of Americans thought their government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.) It's a driven, if uneven, piece of propaganda, a marvel of tight editing and fuzzy thinking. Its on-camera sources are mostly conspiracy theorists, co-mingled with selective eyewitness accounts, drawn from archival footage and often taken out of context. It derides the media as a pawn of the International Bankers, but produces media reports for credibility when convenient. The film ignores expert opinion, except the handful of experts who agree with it. And yet, it's compelling. It shamelessly ploughs forward, connecting dots with an earnest certainty that makes you want to give it an A for effort.
The funny thing about this stuff is that it's all been thoroughly debunked for years. Everyone from Scientific American to Popular Mechanics have produced reports puncturing the central claims of the 9/11 theory, and when you look gullible next to Popular Mechanics, you know you're in trouble.
Evidently, debunking isn't the issue. You can't argue aliens with someone who has an "I want to believe" poster on his or her office wall. Nor can you cite the findings of the professional, journalistic and academic consensus to someone who has decided that having credibility means being under the sway of shadowy forces. To that line of thinking, an expert who is rejected by his peers - say, for lunatic conspiracy thinking - gains credibility just for being ostracized.
What troubles me the most is that, for all the talk of skepticism, conspiracy counterculture is really an anti-intellectual, populist movement - much like Intelligent Design. For all their absurdity, conspiracy theorists try to drag everything back to the level of common sense.
Just look at the video evidence, they say! Did the collapsing buildings on 9/11 look like they were being demolished? Then they must have been demolished. Did the 757 that hit the Pentagon's blast-proof walls fail to make a plane-shaped hole? Then it must have been something else. Are there unexplained quirks in the official story? Then it must be the work of a higher power.
That's the thing: Conspiracy theorists want to see a guiding force, a malevolent design, behind events. The notion that calamity might be the unintended consequence of subtler causes doesn't hold the same appeal. Evil, whatever its other uses, drives a great narrative. Complexity, not so much.
The Internet bred the 9/11 conspiracy movement, and thanks to films like Zeitgeist, it's alive and well. Now riddle me this: I look at what's happening, and I see people using the Internet to gain widespread currency by rejecting social institutions in favour of an amateur-accessible common-sense approach.
I see people who are highly selective about facts, and who are ready to write off opposing views as the bile of powers that be. I see them using the Web's echo-chamber to create a place where they're right, and everyone else is wrong.
Does this sound familiar? If I told you that I look around the Internet, and am troubled to see this pattern everywhere, would you accuse me of seeing a conspiracy?