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Mythology and Iconoclasm of Zeitgeist The Movie

The Big Lie: Parsing the Mythology and Iconoclasm of Zeitgeist: The Movie

by Charles Shaw

We humans are myth-driven creatures. Our mythologies help define us and shape us and provide us with the context of our lives, so that we may navigate through our days and make sense of a world that at times appears so overwhelming, out of control, and full of the unknown. Within our social archetypes we find personalities we can identify with, or demonize, and in our religious and historical myths we find the universal stories and symbols we teach each other to provide a common lineage and purpose, and the basic social ordering principles upon which our culture is based.

This mythic understanding is at the heart of the revelations in the wildly popular “mythumentary,” Zeitgeist: the Movie, a multi-million download phenomenon since its free release on the Internet last spring that examines how American culture is built around a tripartite, or three layered, myth of god, country, and prosperity. This myth structure serves the function of indoctrinating every citizen with the following belief system: they are the favored people of the One True God, Jesus Christ, living in the greatest nation in the world, The United States of America, under the One True, fair and just economic system of market capitalism protected by a legal system based in private property.

This myth structure is nothing new. In The Great Turning, David Korten identifies the origins of the American tripartite myth by explaining the three driving mythologies of what he calls the “Empire model” - the 5,000-year-old system of violent patriarchal domination and exploitation. These three myths are the Imperial Prosperity story, the Imperial Security story, and the Imperial Meaning story. The latter is divided into one story for religious adherents, and one for secularists. Over time the myths would morph to fit the needs of each successive Empire, whether Roman, Holy Roman, Spanish, British, American, or global corporate state, as manifested in the WTO model.

The Imperial Prosperity story justifies enormous disparities in wealth and class-based societies, turning them into a virtue, often implying divine blessing, and perpetuating the myth of limitless economic growth as a categorical good and the main metric of social health. The Imperial Security story casts humanity in terms of good and evil, creates permanent enemies and a permanent threat, and justifies war and the use of violence and aggression as instinctual human traits. The Imperial Meaning stories are the familiar myths of the One True God on the one hand, and the secularist mantra of man as the pinnacle of evolution, and science and reason as the new religion and dogma on the other. It justifies “exceptionalism,” and any number of atrocities against heathen non-believers.

Millions accept this without question, and subsequently filter the actions of this nation through that lens. This permits them to justify in their minds any number of heinous acts or contradictory policies by the State, such as preemptive war, torture and rendition, a prison-industrial complex in which millions languish, some for moral violations as innocuous as drug possession, or the growing pervasiveness of domestic surveillance and monitoring.

What’s most interesting, and ingenious, about this tripartite myth is that it does not require belief in all three sides to maintain its structural integrity; any one side is strong enough to prop up the other two because the three combine to create one all-encompassing integrated myth. In other words, America, intentionally, has become synonymous with Christianity, security, and prosperity, and if you don’t subscribe to one side of the myth, odds are you subscribe to one or both of the others.

Yet peering just slightly deeper into these myths reveals an alternate history where there is no more proof of Jesus Christ being the One True God then there is of the Easter Bunny; where America is not just a beacon of freedom but also a nation of brutal conquest and imperial control of one darker-skinned people and their resources after another; and where capitalism is viewed through a global lens as concentrated wealth, social injustice, ecological devastation, and a tendency toward greater and greater control over the public reactions to these.

Zeitgeist: The Movie comes at a time in human history when these lesser-known and intentionally suppressed stories, and the various counter-myths offered by authoritarians like Neoconservative thinker Leo Strauss or subversive iconoclasts like the Yippies, need most to be learned and understood to help many of us fully grasp the global condition. The free Internet film effectively bludgeons the American tripartite myth with a brutal iconoclasm that leaves some viewers dazed and confused, and others terrified. Many speak of nightmares and a persisting state of anxiety, weeks later. Invariably it finds itself connected to any number of conversations.

Signs of a Zeitgeist infiltration are everywhere lately. At three in the morning the other night I found myself in what was, at least to me, a relatively mundane group discussion about CIA drug running. I was telling the story of the WWII pact between the OSS and the Mafia, when our government asked Lucky Luciano to help make Sicily a base of operations against Mussolini’s fascists on the mainland. As described in A Tangled Web: A History of CIA Complicity in Drug International Trafficking, written by the DC-based progressive think-tank, Institute for Policy Studies, in exchange for their help in Sicily, Luciano and his coterie of Mafioso would be able to traffic heroin back into the states. Thus the long and fruitful relationship between US intelligence services and drug runners was born. A friend punctuates the end of the story with, “Whoa, I never heard that one,” then, after pausing a second, adds, “Have you seen this movie Zeitgeist?”

A month earlier another friend posted a mild freak out to our community discussion list. With a subject line that contained something cryptic like “And so it begins…” she linked to a story that claimed Congress had just passed a law making it illegal to protest the Iraq War. A bit of investigation of the document revealed the law was written to address insurgent activity in Iraq, not the United States. Although disturbing enough that we were in fact attempting to legislate the Iraqi resistance, it was not what my friend suspected it to be, overt martial law in the US. Others called her out on it, suggesting she be more thorough before forwarding information. There was fear in those responses, and she defended herself by stating that she “had been watching The Zeitgeist” [sic], implying that not only had it driven her initial reaction, but it was also fairly understandable why, since we had all been turned on to Zeitgeist a couple months earlier and it had rocked our worlds.

I must take the rap for this one. It was I who first dropped the film on my community in Chicago last July in response to a series of posts about withholding Federal taxes in protest of the war. I posited to the community that if they considered the Federal state the problem they should do what they could to remove themselves from avenues of direct control by the state, like not borrowing money, using credit, owning property, etc. I also mentioned that it’s much easier to contemplate this type of attitude towards the Federal state when you have sufficiently demythologized it and were no longer concerned about the taboos of “unpatriotic” behavior. By promoting Zeitgeist, I was attempting to help those that I knew and cared about begin the process of transitioning out of the contextual prison built around the American tripartite myth.

The material in Zeitgeist was, for the most part, familiar to me, so I had no real idea about whether it would resonate with the uninitiated. Prior to this my general experience was that even the most thoughtful and open-minded folk resisted this type of information strongly and pejoratively. My concern was the usual one; I didn’t want to appear at best alarmist, at worst, crazy, or that I endorsed everything in the film. But I knew the film hit so many points dead-on that people had to see it, not to absorb its conclusions, but to begin drawing their own.

Something also told me intuitively that the time was right for this message. It was something about how the film was put together, how it tied together the whole argument seamlessly, in spite of itself in some places. It had lots of what I call “resonant truths,” a mix of apocryphal and newly emergent stories and ideas that were beginning to percolate and resonate in the public consciousness. You could call it a mythology unto itself for which Zeitgeist offered itself up as a central load-bearing column.

It wasn’t until after Daniel Pinchbeck’s talk in the Entheon EarthRise series at this year’s Burning Man that I really got a pulse on how the film had begun to permeate the consciousness of the Burner set, who are generally good representative examples of the progressive minded. Daniel had asked me to come up and explain Zeitgeist to the people gathered, and what I said was that I felt the film was a perfect “red pill” tool of iconoclasm—“a challenge to and overturning of traditional beliefs, customs, and values”—in a time when we really needed to be demythologizing the mythic structures we have worshipped for so long. The fact that the message of Zeitgeist is packaged in a cogent, attractive, emotionally connecting free documentary makes it a potent weapon as well.

Bombast or not, Zeitgeist is uncomfortably effective at what it does, which is shatter people’s surety in the absolutism of the American tripartite myth. Over the next few days, people expressed to me a multitude of feelings on how the film affected them, or what they thought of it, or what they thought “was going to happen.” I met Reality Sandwich’s ST Frequency, who had just published “Chose your Illusion,” his largely unfavorable review of the film. We hunkered down against a rainstorm in the Gaia Ma’Treyia goddess temple, and ST laid out his argument as to why Zeitgeist was “not credible.” His argument was framed around a series of familiar straw man points that undermined some of the most far-fetched assertions, while reinforcing some of the most entrenched beliefs, like the Bush Administration could never have pulled off 9/11 because they’re “too incompetent.”

It dawned on me that although this kind of rigorous analysis should be applied to the claims made in the film, Zeitgeist was running the risk of being ghettoized as “another 9/11 conspiracy movie” when it was about, and represented, so much more. I felt ST overlooked the meta-argument entirely, and as a result, missed the film’s real significance.

One of Napoleon's more memorable quotes is that history is "an agreed upon set of lies written by the victors." So even in spite of its Libertarian ideological roots, a few flawed assertions, and at least three hyperbolic leaps in the conclusion, Zeitgeist still wields tremendous visceral power as one of the most effective and accessible tools of iconoclasm available today. It makes a strong enough case to accomplish its main mission, which is to incite a shift in perception that inspires people to rethink what they really believe. This often results in them seeking out knowledge for themselves. In this process of re-education, we begin the larger process of (re)evolution. Many people may regain the potential to become actors in history rather than passive receptacles with beliefs and values conditioned by the mainstream media and education system.

That being said, Zeitgeist should not be taken as gospel, which is to say, “something believed to be absolutely and unquestionably true.” In the crafting of a new mythology to drive a culture, opposing, unsupportive truths are the first to go. Some of the sources cited for Zeitgeist have been ignored by the mainstream and discredited by the academy, not because they are incorrect, but because their view of history does not serve the tripartite myth. The Zeitgeist website effectively says as much in a statement to viewers. In the old media model, information was much easier to control, dissident perspectives much easier to marginalize, and much of the source material in Zeitgeist had a historically difficult time getting into the mainstream.

As an event in the current cultural landscape, however, an underground phenomenon like Zeitgeist has few parallels. This type of mass dissemination is only possible in the age of web2.0, when the tools of creating media have become available to a vast and anonymous public. The web has created an “attention economy,” where an almost faceless product can define a new psychographic, potentially galvanizing a vast audience in the tens of millions and counting.

Pinchbeck suggests that one interesting aspect of watching Zeitgeist is the strange relation one has to the anonymous narrator – who has no authority from any established system yet precisely for that reason, perhaps, seems to speak as if from the collective subconscious, like the nameless narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. This reinforces the “samizdat flair” of the film, giving it a naughty, clandestine, even dangerous sense of import. Instead of exclusively critiquing Zeitgeist as a piece of scholarship like ST Frequency did, ruminating and dissecting, we might benefit more by considering it a way station on the road to a new reality. By taking us on a “demolition derby” ride through our received cultural story, it acts like a gateway or portal to a counter-myth of iconoclasm.

After 9/11, The United States had the sympathy and support of most of the world and the nation was presented with a golden opportunity to collectively ask, why did this happen? What about us needs to change? While many citizens did ask (some of us over and over) and were waiting around for an answer, we had a ready-made justification rammed down our throats by our government: we are the victims, and we are now at war. They hate us for our freedoms. We must hunt them down and eliminate them wherever they are. This war will take generations to win.

The establishment of an “us and them” paradigm opened the door for the Neoconservatives to set about the business of filling in the blanks within a collective story that justified their decisions. And there was a very particular story they needed to tell. The mythology they began peddling is that radical Islam represents a direct counterforce to the “good life” of physical comfort and liberal democracy that the US wants to bring the world. Right now, if you watch mainstream news, this is being hammered home day after day to prepare the psychological ground for what some say are possible, while others insist eventual, strikes on Iran.

The Neoconservative rationale for this mythology may be even more terrifying that the mythology itself. They believe that in an era where Liberal experiments in social engineering had failed, and America was growing increasingly corporate, media driven, multicultural and polyglot, the only means left of maintaining a unified nation with a collective purpose was in their war powers. The war paradigms of WWII and the Cold War successfully unified preceding generations, so they married that protocol to the half-baked idea that Empire would save America from the decadent moral abyss they believed it had waded into. It would take another war, “a new Pearl Harbor,” and a new mythology to hold it all together.

Of course, they also wanted the oil. But as that was too gauche and potentially disastrous to be an official motivation (except when it answered the question of how the war was to be paid for), they allowed the public to nudge-nudge wink wink it into the background, to be mentioned by them only when the opposition had mentioned it first.

Neoconservatives and other global powerbrokers appear to have an awareness that control of the cultural story and mass-reproduced mythology is critical to maintaining their position of dominance. This was well understood by the disciples of the late Leo Strauss, ostensible pater familias of the Neoconservative movement. The former University of Chicago professor, who taught Paul Wolfowitz and influenced the thinking of Irving and William Kristol, Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, taught that myths were not only necessary but also justified in the maintaining of social order [video]. Strauss believed in the “noble lie,” that it was important for governments to create myths and legends which served the overarching ends of the ruling class, in order to give the public a common belief system.

Strauss’ teachings were not terribly original. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebels uttered much the same when explaining how the Nazi’s were able to sway a whole nation of Germans.

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie ... The truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state."

The new mythology of the “post-9/11 era” was contrived propaganda marketed to the American people as a so-called “clash of civilizations,” a “War on Terror” that had at its root the conflict between the ideologies of the world’s Christians and Muslims. Conveniently, the latter just so happened to live in the oil rich nations of the Middle East. This post-9/11 mythology, though, is little more than a slapdash, more racially and religiously tinged reworking of the myth of the Communist threat that drove the latter half of the 20th Century, as revealed in the brilliant BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares [video].

The Power of Nightmares unveils how both the Communist myth and the terrorist myth use war paradigms as cover for what is really a plan for economic domination and social control. As the film explains, the Communist threat was all-pervasive in the minds of the public during the Cold War, yet any intelligence analyst worth his weight in salt knew that the Soviet Union had neither the will nor the wherewithal for global domination. The threat was intentionally exaggerated into a boogieman to justify what ended up being something on the order of $15 trillion in Cold War defense spending and a sweeping set of domestic legislation.

The net result of America’s decision to invoke the war paradigm was to, essentially, tell the rest of the world to talk to the hand. But the failure of any reconstruction in Iraq represents the total collapse of this new mythic structure, so now we find ourselves in a new confusing world where there is no overarching ideology, and dominator violence has become its own legitimizing force. As long as the system keeps going, people accept it because they feel they have no choice and no alternative. In a very real sense, though, the cultural story and imposed mythology of the Neoconservatives has imploded, and we are living in its ruins.

Accompanying our shift to unilateralism was a sweeping set of domestic legislation that has the nation in what some are calling the 11th hour before the emergence of a full-blown police state. A quick search of the news finds mention of the phrase “Gestapo tactics” 238,000 times, and some of the stories are brutal, and unnerving. Nearly all cause outrage on the way to an epidemic of “outrage fatigue” that almost seems to be part of the plan. Although we still manage to maintain a sense of humor about it, a quick straw poll of the public confirms things are changing rapidly, and it’s growing more and more difficult to hide the fear, and the pain.

What may be the most hopeful sign in this negative shift towards repression is that people are beginning to wake up fast, and these issues are even finding their way into pop culture and mass communication. Some of the material produced is surprisingly cogent and well articulated, even if it tends to skew alarmist like Zeitgeist or America: Freedom to Fascism.

So as to the question of whether America can truly descend into fascism, as much as no American wants to ever have to seriously consider it, Naomi Wolf argues in The End of America that we are already well on our way. By way of example, here’s a rather uncomfortable comparison that, although tantamount to heresy these days, supports Wolf’s assertions and holds substantial resonance. It also shows how another mythology was crafted to drive a culture.

During the rise of the Nazi regime each successive consolidation of power was codified in German law by their parliament, just as Bush has done since 9/11. Hitler was freely elected by a populous that was scared and uncertain and ready to believe stories about both domestic (Jews) and foreign (Communists) threats. Then in 1933 the Reichstag burned under very suspicious circumstances, which the Nazis in turn blamed on Communists. The fire, they said, proved the threat was real, and Hitler declared that unless he was granted extraordinary powers to protect the “Fatherland” the evil conspirators and enemies of Germany (the “evildoers”) would prevail. The politicians immediately passed the Enabling Act that created the Nazi dictatorship. In other words, Hitler didn’t seize dictatorial power; the people of Germany gave it to him freely.

There are certainly many more parallels between the two nations, but this is not to say we are becoming Nazi Germany (although many are in fact saying just that). So then what is the point? Most apparently, it’s that even though we have not yet had a kristallnacht or devised a “final solution,” there is no reason to dismiss what has already happened.

But additionally, filtering the actions of an Imperial president like Bush through the lens of the American mythology keeps at bay empirical comparisons to other despots. Are Bush and Hitler similar? Yes and no. I imagine Hitler had a great deal more intelligence and creativity than Bush, whereas Bush has a better haircut. Do these two Imperial rulers have actions, strategies, and legislation in common? Without a doubt.

Bush’s single greatest weapon in this regard is that the modern mythology of fascism is rooted in the Nazi model, in which the Americans take immense, mythological pride knowing they conquered. It’s a double reinforcing of the myth, and renders any attempt at comparison down to a superficial analysis that states, in essence, that which does not look like it is not considered to be like it. Iconoclastically, we need bring ourselves to understand, collectively, that in the contemporary paradigm authoritarianism wears business suits, badges, and bulletproof vests, not jackboots and arm bands, and that it is driven more by corporate than state ideology.

Part III of Zeitgeist, ultimately, may be the hardest nut to crack. It posits that the end goal of the central banking/currency system is one of the most powerful and compelling instruments of social control, debt-slavery. It makes for a good argument when you consider that most people are living on credit or hand-to-mouth and are too busy trying to pay the bills to get active in trying to change the system, or even understand it. But when people see currency in their hand, they equate it with freedom because the myth of capitalism has people believe they are living in a free system even as they are steadily ensconcing themselves deeper and deeper in debt.

We find ourselves at the tail end of a fairly decent 60-year period of global peace, stability, and prosperity. It is important to remember that the middle class expansion of the post-WWII years in America and Western Europe was a derivation from the normal cycles of capitalism brought about by the benevolent sanity of Keynesian economic theory. Keynes placed moderate government controls and regulations on certain key sectors of the economy known as the “Commanding Heights.” These included industry, banking and finance, and key natural resources like energy and water. The net results were much more stable cycles of boom and bust, and less extremes of wealth in both the public and private sectors.

Protections and checks and balances that took 75 years to craft were almost entirely undone in less than 20 years during the largely non-consensual “free market revolution” of the 1980s and 90s. The net result was that the world economy transmogrified into the rapacious corporate-consumer monster that it is today.

We will need to unlearn so much on our way to learning anew. Without a lightning-like transformation of global consciousness, we may never know a world where monotheism, nationalism, and ideology have become historical relics. But the path to such a world does pass through the disassociation of the human race from their nationalistic, theistic, and ideological attachments. It could begin with the liberation offered though the iconoclasm of a Zeitgeist, something upon which the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s was predicated. If Yippie (the activist edge of the 60s hippie movement) and the poet Allen Ginsberg’s generational manifesto, Howl, were the first fully articulated iconoclasms geared at the American post-war political meme, Zeitgeist certainly serves the same purpose in this era, if only in spirit and without the obvious fun. That may be the most poignant unspoken truth about the current state of affairs.

Interesting as well that the secondary definition of iconoclasm is “the destruction of religious images used in worship, or opposition to their use in worship,” since what needs to take place amounts to a massive mythological BBQ where a whole herd of sacred cows are effectively grilled and consumed.

Thomas Jefferson made a point of saying that democracy was only possible through an informed populous that had a strong, independent media.

“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

We’ve lost the strong independent media that would ever deign to discuss something like Zeitgeist. While the Internet is allowing for new hybrid forms of media, there is no context for evaluating them yet (although we hope that this website may help develop such a context). And through the evolution of complex social networks knowledge and understanding is flowing with a speed and efficacy never before seen. Change can be brought on in terms of months and years instead of decades or centuries.

And although this essay tended to focus on the nefarious uses of mythology to degrade a culture, we must not forget to mention that mythology also drives us towards the light. Crafting a new counterculture to help transition humanity requires the creation of its own unique mythological structure. This was something that the Yippie movement realized during the late 1960s.

David Farber writes in his meticulously researched Chicago ’68 that in the July 1968 issue of The Realist, Paul Krassner’s satirical political magazine, Abbie Hoffman first articulated his vision of Yippie (Youth International Party) by explaining the Yippie relationship to myth. He wrote that Yippie had four main objectives: “the blending of pot and politics, the creation of a ‘gigantic national get together’ the development of a model for an alternative society, and the need to make some statement, especially in revolutionary, action-theater terms, about LBJ, the Democratic Party, electoral politics, and the state of the nation…”

Accomplishing these tasks, Hoffman explained further, “required the construction of a vast myth, for through the notion of myth large numbers of people could get turned on and in the process of getting turned on, begin to participate in Yippie. Precision was sacrificed for a greater degree of suggestion.” He quoted Marshall McLuhan at some length on the TV generation’s dependence on myth for creating a “participation mystique,” a feeling of belonging in the world. “Myth,” Abbie asserted, “can never have the precision of a well-oiled machine…it must have the action of participation and the magic of mystique. It must have a high element of risk, drama, excitement, and bullshit.” Maybe we don’t need the bullshit anymore and have evolved beyond what the Yippies knew or understood, in the context of their times? If we are witnessing the evolution of a new paradigm that integrates psychic and shamanic aspects of being along with political and ecological necessities, perhaps we can now have both precision and suggestion? If this is the case, then things have changed since the 60s – a possibility that Zeitgeist, for all its iconoclasm, lacks the sophistication to address.

Both Hoffman and Strauss, from their opposing angles, understood that myth drives and unites culture. All the great movementarians of our time understood that; the power of the myth was largely contained in its intention. Said Qutb, the man credited in The Power of Nightmares as the ideological father of Radical Islam, believed the American mythology of prosperity had imposed a kind of mental illness on the population where they spent more time caring for their lawns than they did for their families or communities. Many analysts have noted that contemporary forms of fundamentalism, whether Islamic or Christian or free-market-based, are a postmodern phenomenon, based on constructing a mythically pure past that never existed, rather than rooted in a real antiquity. All three of these thinkers understood the radical potential of myth, and accordingly, all three used myth to radical ends.

We stand today in a time and place, a zeitgeist moment, if you will, that has extraordinary parallels to that last period of radical change, and demands the same kind of radical response on the part of intellectuals and activists. There are many lessons we can glean from examining the successes and failures of the last cultural revolution, but if we continue to move forward under the same mythological framework, it seems pretty clear we’ll have to keep repeating it until we get it right. When we take into account the ecological crisis and the global spread of violence, it is obvious that we do not have another 40 years to squander.

Liberation can be exhilarating, but it is also dizzying. When the old myths get shattered, we are freed from our attachments, whether to a dogmatic religion like Christianity, an ideological nation-state like America, or the orthodoxy of a particular socio-economic system, like consumer capitalism. We are able to think beyond the constraints these impose and begin to create new social models based on distributed networks, local communities, and collaboration. It’s clear the dominator control culture is coming to an end, one way or the other, and either people awaken and deal with it, or we will degrade ourselves as a species and perhaps not survive.

Zeitgeist may have sacrificed a measure of precision for a greater degree of suggestion, but through that act it ripped open a hole in the mythological framework of American society. Millions of minds are at this very moment pouring through the fissure. This is why Zeitgeist simply is what It Is, a reflection of this particular moment in time and space, while at the same time serving as a tool of cultural, and potentially social, transformation.


--Chicago. October 17th, 2007

Charles Shaw is the Executive Editor of Reality Sandwich.

Final note: There is another film about the US and the War on Terror called American Zeitgeist ( that is unrelated to the film discussed in this article. That is not to say you shouldn't check it out.

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