Luke Myer and Andrew Neel’s New World Order opened at New York’s Cinema Village on Friday. The film follows various so-called ‘conspiracy theorists’ and activists as they pass out flyers outside Ground Zero, cover a Bilderberg Group meeting in Istanbul, and prepare for the imminent collapse of American Civilization in Idaho. Without narration, New World Order allows the theorists and activists to speak for themselves, for better or for worse, and never attempts to debunk or counter their claims. The result is disappointing.
Part of the reason why the film is so underwhelming is that the filmmakers make the choice to not pass judgment, yet simply by grouping these individuals together they affectively classify them as conspiracy theorists, albeit in different shades. As far as I can tell, there is no real thread linking the film’s subjects other than that most would consider them conspiracy theorists, as one doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to talk about the emergence of a New World Order – the term’s recent popularity come from a George Bush Sr speech in 1991 following the first Gulf War. The film attempts to humanize its subjects but its participants are essentially labeled cranks by association. The result feels hypocritical and it would have been better if they took their subjects seriously enough to engage them in debate or juxtapose their pronouncements and arguments with those of equally passionate, and sometimes no less bizarre, mainstream commentators.
Coming to a definition of ‘conspiracy theory’ is difficult. The dictionary definition is: ‘1. a theory that explains an event as being the result of a plot by a covert group or organization; a belief that a particular unexplained event was caused by such a group. 2. the idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.’ The first definition is neutral and could be used to characterize both something like the official 9.11 Commission Report (19 hijackers conspired with Bin Laden) and someone who thinks the events were orchestrated by Cheney from the White House. The second definition is not really broad enough to cover the various theorists in New World Order. Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy, claims that most conspiracy theory has three main principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything in connected. He also differentiates between three types of conspiracy theory. Event conspiracies, which seek to explain a single event by positing a conspiracy of some sort (JFK, 9.11); systemic conspiracies, which try to explain a series of important events by identify a certain group behind the scenes pulling the strings (Bilderberg, Jews, Masons); and super conspiracies, which see certain, sometimes shifting, organizations or cabals to be molding the development of history over a considerable period of time (Illuminati, reptilian humanoids).
New World Order stars exponents of at least the first two of Barkun’s types. Mike Edgarton, a 9.11 skeptic from Florida states in the film that he doesn’t care who shot JFK or whether or not NASA astronauts walked on the moon, but is adamant that 9.11 was an inside job. Timuçin Leflef (writer and director of the “cult classic” A.D) and Big Jim Tucker both focus on the Bilderberg Group’s control over recent history. While some of New World Order’s participants may very well believe in super conspiracies, it is never revealed. Alex Jones seems to come the closest as one gets the impression that there aren’t many theories of conspiracy he doesn’t buy into (or perhaps sell).
Alex Jones is the dominant presence in New World Order and is perhaps the biggest celebrity of the so-called ‘lunatic fringe.’ He has featured in two Richard Linklater films and through his radio show and Prison Planet and Infowars websites and films, sells books and dvds on everything from how Obama is here ‘to con the American people into accepting global slavery’ to the sex gods worshiped by the Illuminati. Alex Jones describes himself as a paleoconservative and wears a Ron Paul shirt for large portions of the film. One of the highlights of the documentary is a single shot close up on Jones during his radio show where he does his Officer Jackboot routine to an audibly uncomfortable caller for what feels like three minutes.
One of the most frustrating aspects of New World Order is that while it certainly achieves its goal of getting the audience to listen to many theorists that most people would dismiss outright, it never deals with many of the most pertinent questions surrounding conspiracy theory. Each participant is asked how they came to dedicate such a large portion of their lives to exposing power, but other than an espousal of a vague will to knowledge generated by a certain traumatic moment of awakening – for Alex Jones it was Waco, for Jack McLamb it was Ruby Ridge, while for others it was their encounter with alternate explanations for the 9.11 attacks like Loose Change – New World Order provides little insight into the origins of these activists and theorists’ positions.
Christopher Hitchens has claimed that “Conspiracy theory becomes an ailment of democracy. It is the white noise which moves in to fill the vacuity of the official version. To blame the theorists is therefore to look at only half the story, and sometimes even less.” Conspiracy theory is here not only associated with the vacuity of the public sphere or the distance of political elites from ‘ordinary’ citzens, but the rise in secrecy in all branches of life: as secrecy multiplies so does the fear of conspiracy. While conspiracy theory can obviously be found everywhere, conspiracy theory theorist Peter Knight theorizes that it can perhaps be felt stronger in the US because of American liberalism’s obsession with rugged individual agency and the fear of ‘big government’ and the state in general. I would suggest that it also has to do with the country’s size (both in terms of population and geography) and great disparities of wealth and power.
None of this is covered, never mind elucidated, by New World Order. Furthermore, very little of the footage cannot be found elsewhere. These activists are media savvy and a simple youtube search will reveal numerous instances of them saying more or less exactly what they say in the film. Jon Ronson’s Secret Rulers of the World series on Channel 4 in England met with many of the same theorists (Alex Jones, Jim Tucker) and engaged them with considerable more nuance and humor (the episode David Icke: The Lizards and the Jews, for example, covered the links between conspiracy theory and anti-Semitism while also documenting what Jack Bratich has called ‘conspiracy panics’ was particularly excellent). Ronson and Alex Jones, both with their own sets of film crews, tried to infiltrate the infamous Bohemian Grove gathering outside of San Francisco and the watching their respective programs is extraordinary.
Conspiracy theory is getting increased coverage as it gains more adherents (or vice versa) and as up to 36% of Americans believing in some government involvement in the 9.11 attacks, it is certainly no longer confined to the absolute margins. As such, it deserves more seriously treatment than it gets in New World Order. The trend of books, magazines, and television shows dedicated to debunking various conspiracy theories is probably a good thing, but much more has to be done to understand the attractiveness of these theories, their relation to scholarly standards of research (which is more complex than most people allow), and how one can balance a perspective that allows for the existence of really existing conspiracies within a larger systemic understanding.