New World Order

New World Order

New World Order is a 2009 documentary about “conspiracy theorists.” Alex Jones figures prominently, but a fair amount of time is also devoted to rank and file believers.

The film is done in cinema verité, Pennebaker style—little or no background, narration, commentary, etc., just neutral, non-judgmental observation. The conspiracy theorists are not condemned or laughed at (or celebrated, though presenting them without some degree of condemnation comes across as sympathetic in itself, compared to the norm). There is no one interviewed to refute them or explain them away.

The film doesn’t show them laying out their ideas in any kind of a complete, coherent, organized way, but feels more focused on the sociology or psychology that gives rise to the ideas than on the ideas themselves. Though that focus is only implicit; again, there is no explicit analysis in any of these areas. It’s just a scattershot series of clips of these folks, from which we are to make what we will.

None of them come across as raving lunatics, but neither do they come across as intelligent, dispassionate folks skilled at logically assessing evidence and coming to sound conclusions. Somewhere in between I suppose.

The one scene that comes closest to showing a creepy kind of mental illness is an extended sequence where Jones is taking a call on his radio program. He and the caller are chuckling over law enforcement’s arrogant and unjust treatment of folks like them, and Jones slides into role playing mode, barking out orders and insults like a Smokey and the Bandit-style sheriff. Each time he pauses, the caller thinks he’s through and attempts to resume the conversation (“Yeah, yeah Alex, good one! But what do you think about…?”), but Jones stays in character and drops in another line. The longer this pattern is repeated, the more uncomfortable it is. His eyes are unfocused, and he’s seemingly forgotten about the caller (or anyone else) as he dreamily acts out this fantasy of being an abusive cop.

By the way, I have a good friend who is a pretty prominent figure in these conspiracy circles now. He has always been very smart—one of the best minds I’ve ever encountered—but he went from appealingly eccentric in his younger days to really far out there now.

I’m generally not very satisfied by this style of documentary. It’s not that I want to be spoonfed all the conclusions, but I’d like some kind of commentary, some kind of debate. A film is a “teachable moment.” A documentary like this is akin to a literature professor lecturing on War and Peace by simply reading passages from the novel to the class, meticulously avoiding adding “bias” to his lecture by saying anything about those passages or indicating if they were chosen at random or for some reason.

I don’t know how to respond to a film like this other than with very speculative armchair psychology and such.

Along those lines, I suppose one thing I’d say is a lot of the folks depicted have a real attachment to certainty, coupled with a contrarian streak.

There are billions of people equally flawed rationally that you don’t really notice because the dubious beliefs they espouse happen to be popular and mainstream. (That is, Heaven’s Gate folks are delusional for believing Comet Hale-Bopp concealed a UFO that they could board by killing themselves; Christians have a perfectly normal belief worthy of respect and tolerance that Jesus rose from the dead.) The fact that (many) conspiracy theorists are intensely emotionally committed to often fanciful beliefs that are rejected by, unknown to, or ridiculed by mainstream opinion leaders and the like makes them seem especially loony, but I don’t know that most “regular” folks are exactly geniuses by comparison.

It’s just that some people like to unthinkingly believe what brings them acceptance in the wider community, and some like to be mavericks and find reasons to doubt that.

Not that conspiracy theorists are intellectual non-conformists in any kind of a pure or individualistic way. Part of the draw is precisely being accepted into a group of those “in the know” who can then look down on and/or attempt to save the misguided sheep who believe what the powers that be tell them. So it’s conformity and dogmatism in the narrower context of the in-group, rather than in the context of a larger group or society as a whole.

But the certainty they often display is striking. The kinds of things they’re talking about involve vastly complex, multi-level relationships and causes and effects, yet they’ve figured it all out. This group is in charge, and it meets here to give orders to this group, and this gets enforced this way, and this media outlet is instructed to say this, and on and on—and it’s all so “obvious” once the scales fall from your eyes. (I will say my friend is something of an exception to this. He still speaks with the trappings of critical thinking. “There’s now evidence to believe this,” “So-and-so has some intriguing speculations about such-and-such that are worth investigating further,” “It appears that this may explain that,” “It’s unclear what really happened about this, though there are some things we can rule out,” etc.)

Probably the main problem I have with not so much the conspiracy theorists themselves as with the way people think of them or the way the media tend to present them, is that so much gets clumped together, both in terms of the “conspiracy theories” on disparate issues being dismissed as equally ludicrous when they’re not, and different “conspiracy theories” on the same issue being dismissed as equally ludicrous when they’re not.

For example, to express skepticism that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy doesn’t strike me as anything all that insane. Maybe the evidence taken as a whole supports the skepticism and maybe it doesn’t (I’ve read a fair amount about it and don’t have a strong opinion either way), but you can make a pretty darn good prima facie case for it that doesn’t have to involve bizarre supernatural claims or an implausibly massive conspiracy involving thousands of people. Things like assassinations routinely—though not always—turn out to be something more than the act of a lone nut, and there’s plenty of suspicious stuff surrounding the Kennedy assassination that at the very least raises questions.

On the other hand, I’ve never been persuaded that the whole “moon landing hoax” thing is anything other than lunacy (so to speak). It’s hard to see any even minimally plausible way the conspiracists could be right about that.

Yet it’s not uncommon for both sorts of conspiracy theorists to be ridiculed equally, as if anyone who is skeptical of the official account of either of these issues is beyond hope.

But then I would also claim that within a given issue, there are widely variant “conspiracy theories” that cannot reasonably all be treated alike.

What does it mean to be a skeptic about 9-11, for instance? Who are the despised, insane “Truthers”?

Well, one skeptic might think conservatives exploited the post 9-11 sentiment in the country to push through various policies that a more rational and dispassionate populace and government would have rejected. Another skeptic might think the Twin Towers were brought down with futuristic secret laser weapons by forces within the U.S. government itself, which then conspired with the mass media and others to make up out of whole cloth a story about Bin Laden and foreign terrorists.

Are these equally loony ideas? Should we roll our eyes equally at any nut who believes either of these things (or anyone who holds any of the other dozens of positions that constitute some version or some degree of skepticism about 9-11)?

No. I’d say some of the skeptical positions about 9-11 are almost certainly true, some are almost certainly false, and the rest are somewhere in between. They’re not all the same by a long shot.

The “official” version of many things (probably most things) is wrong to at least some significant degree—either mistaken or more often in part a product of self-serving lying—and it’s good to be skeptical. Specific countertheories to an official version of something range from more plausible than the official version itself, to completely wacko. They should be considered and assessed on their merits, not all lumped together as “conspiracy theories.”

I’ve been thinking in terms of specific events like the Kennedy assassination, but really what Jones and his ilk are focused on is at least as much an overall theory of how power operates in the world—who’s calling the shots and how.

And I think in important respects they’re wrong about that, but in a very, very broad, almost trivial, sense they’re absolutely right.

Of course the richest and most powerful people in the world act primarily in their own interest, and work in concert formally and informally to achieve their ends. How could it be otherwise?

I just don’t buy that it’s all this secretive cloak-and-dagger stuff, or that there’s anything remotely like the kind of unanimity at the top, and tightness and discipline of structure, and nearly omnipotent control of events that the conspiracy folks suggest.

Most of the string-pulling is more or less out in the open. You see who makes campaign contributions to whom, who is on the Forbes lists of richest people and companies, who holds what governmental positions in which countries and whom they meet with, what countries’ militaries invade what other countries, what stories lobbyists and various corporate p.r. hacks leak to the mass media, etc. This isn’t creepy hooded figures secretly conspiring in a cellar; it’s regular folks openly wielding power the way they always have.

Usually when members of these elites seem to be disagreeing amongst themselves, it’s because they are, not because they’re pretending to as part of some ruse. “They” don’t all agree that so-and-so needs to be the next president, and then arrange things to ensure that that happens. “They” don’t all know that the stock market is going to do this or that next year because they can issue the orders to manipulate it to make sure that it does. Not every war, every revolution, every OPEC price hike, every election, every recession, every failure to cure cancer is something “they” predicted or engineered and controlled in their own interests.

It’s all a lot more complex and sloppy and chaotic and conflictual at the top than the typical conspiracy theorist imagines. Sure, it’s mostly evil people doing mostly evil (or at least self-interested) things and then lying about it. (There’s a fair amount of correlation between the extent of moral scruples you have about how you pursue and retain power, and lacking power.) I agree with Jones and them as far as that goes. But I disagree that the details of it all are both as secretive and as knowable as they’ve convinced themselves they are.

But I’m just going on and on about conspiracy theories and such instead of the movie. But that’s because there’s just not much to New World Order. It can get you started thinking about things, it can give rise to various speculations, but it’s pretty much all a matter of what the viewer brings to the film rather than vice versa.

That’s the nature of this kind of documentary. It gives you a lot of almost raw footage and leaves it up to you how to interpret it and where to go with it. I don’t come away from a film like this feeling like I have much if any additional insight into the various issues it touches on.

I generally have trouble giving a documentary of this style any more than a lukewarm evaluation for that reason, and this one is no exception.

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