(Top photo: Zeitgeist promotional image; Peter Joseph photograph by iTomath, via)
I went to a festival recently called New Earth, which is kind of like a big series of Ted Talks organised by whoever started Burning Man. Some of the speakers there were members of The Zeitgeist Movement, which – perhaps unsurprisingly – was founded by Peter Joseph, creator of the 2007 film Zeitgeist, the documentary that offered up a load of controversial views – or, depending on who you're talking to, "conspiracy theories" – on religion, 9/11, the International Monetary Fund and surveillance society.
Some – but certainly not all – of these theories have been vindicated since then
It's been a long old time since 2007, and – politically, socially and economically – the western world has become a very different place. Many of these changes have been helped along by conspiracy theorists like Infowars boss Alex Jones pushing an agenda of fear and paranoia, which has had a direct impact on the way people vote.
So who better to speak to about this mess than Peter Joseph himself.
VICE: What inspired you to make the first Zeitgeist film?
Peter Joseph: It wasn't actually a film; it was a performance piece. I have a background in classical temporary percussion – that's what I went to school for, before dropping out – and what I did is I made it this piece and I threw up the film as background visuals accompanying a score. I was working in advertising and doing Wall Street things, believe it or not – two of my most despised industries – and I wanted to do something for my musical self and general intellectual self because of all the crazy stuff going on at that point in time, and that thing just kind of came out of me.
How was the initial reaction?
It went viral, but, you know, I would have changed it if I knew it was going to turn into what it did, because it sparked a great deal of critical interest, which was very healthy, but it also sparked a really nasty and impulsive backlash that I still feel to this day. I still get death threats and all sorts of stuff from the religious community, and, believe it or not, from this very dogmatic, what I would call the kind of "anti-conspiracy" culture – people who have a fanatic reaction to anything they think sounds like a conspiracy. So that was frustrating too, because honestly my focus was really a sociological one.
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Has the reaction to the film changed over time?
In terms of the religious section of the film, that's only been vindicated, because it inspired a lot of other researchers to continue in depth study, and I've only seen more support come out. In terms of 9/11 – well, that's just a big nasty mess, and I won't even go near the subject any more because you're instantly just derided as this Alex Jones type, where no one is really thinking about the actual arguments any more; they just slap that label on you as a fringe-conspiracy buff. In terms of the surveillance stuff at the end of the film, when I talk about the fact we're entering a surveillance society, that has absolutely been vindicated. We see from Wikileaks and all the anonymous leaks and Edward Snowden that this wasn't even close to being far from the mark. So I still stand behind the work as a broad thing, but in terms of wanting to affect social change today, I approach it, of course, very differently.
Do you feel like the film maybe inspired Alex Jones and the current wave of fake news and conspiracy thinking?
I don't take credit at all for the lunacy that I see in this kind of conspiracy culture. I understand the association; you know: "This guy talks about 9/11 – oh, he must think Columbine was fake, or there's reptiles coming back that gave birth to humanity, and the earth is flat or hollow." They just lob you in, and that is unfortunate. I don't think Zeitgeist had some kind of heavy hand in that. It's unfortunate that we aren't even able to criticise certain things any more because people are afraid to be labelled and stigmatised, and I think the biggest culprit of that has been Alex Jones and the people that surrounded him.
You spoke to Alex Jones before and it didn't go too well, right?
It's interesting to see Alex's development and distortion, because I think when he started he had genuine sense and he hadn't been polluted by his popularity and his wealth and so on. When I spoke with him I really tried to leave the things that would divide us to the side. You know, he has a religious disposition and he does have some terribly irrational views that are impulsive, and he's built this persona that he has to keep perpetuating. I put that kind of stuff aside and I tried to talk to him, and he basically turned around and said I supported the new-world order. Then he just went crazy.
It was proved with recent news about this lawsuit [in which Jones's lawyer argued that he is a "performance artist" and that his on-air persona is an act] that he really does put on an act, and there's only a threshold of things that he really believes [Jones has since said he believes "in the overall political programme I am promoting"]. I would never go back on his show again, regardless of popularity.
"No one knows how to solve any problems any more, so what do they do? They resort back to tribalism"
How do you feel about Brexit and Trump?
I see Brexit and the rise of Trump as a reverse of cultural sensibility, where we were attempting to think of things in a global way. Things are now getting worse in an exponential way because our systems are too outdated – both political and economic. No one knows how to solve any problems any more, so what do they do? They resort back to this tribalism and everyone goes, "Oh it's not working – this immigrant is taking my job, so let's just go back to reverting to a closed society," and that's dangerous. That's how I see the rise of Trump. People can basically control and confirm their values just by searching for things that they think will validate what they believe. That's why Trump's followers are so astounding, because they don't trust the media at all – they're just denying it. There's this amazing psychological wall that's been created.
So who do you think is benefiting from this rise in tribalism?
I think it depends on where you are in the world. But ultimately, as usual, big business is going to come out ahead. This tribalism is going to force an in-group loyalty, which will benefit certain elements of the community a little bit differently than the more globalised international effects, but either path still leads to massive wealth inequality and general socio-economic de-stabilisation, because the wealthy are going to continue to get more wealthy and the lower class and the poor are going to continue to stagnate. You have a whole society effectively predicated on a social warfare: country versus country; corporations versus corporations; owners versus workers; owners versus corporations and unions – and then people turn around and they wonder why the world is in such a groupistic situation all the time, and it's just the way it is.
How do you actually change that? What's your advice?
There's a structural problem that links to the economy, and while this is less sexy than talking about revolution and trying to overcome this or that tyrant, until we start to realise that we have to change the structure and change culture and incentives and behaviour, we're not going to get very far. People need to demand specific changes in the way that the economy works. I could go on a big tangent about what those changes are, but effectively it's about removing this unnecessary and scarcity-driven dominancy and competitive ethic, because it's not needed any more.
What can I, as a singular person, do?
Well, how does any social change happen? Eventually you have a group of people who have certain values and viable perspectives, and they build enough momentum to force political change, and it's really just that simple. But people are so afraid. You know, the parallel between Labour and the general election coming up is pretty much the same thing, from what I understand, with the Bernie Sanders campaign and the socio-democratic policies that he was putting forward. As most polls in the US indicate, people do want them. They do want universal healthcare and a sense of a social safety net, but then what happened was that fear and sense of paranoia takes hold. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that it's all going to work out necessarily, because I don't know, but it seems like these social pressures and the way that people are constantly being reinforced with these xenophobic and closed views and winning mentality and assumption that everyone else is to blame, that it could be this negative trajectory from here on out. But I do think there is room for change if enough education is put forward.