Jamie Stern-Weiner analyzes the hot air in zeppelins

December 24, 2013

In Blog

Adventures in the Fever Swamp

By Jamie

23 December 2013

Former Israeli army prison guard Jeffrey Goldberg is interested in Egyptian conspiracy theories. It’s not that he’s interested in why they exist in the way and to the extent that they do. It’s more that they make for “entertaining” viewing and offer him an opportunity to patronise the “Egyptian Fever Swamp”:

“The proclivity of so many Egyptians to embrace conspiracy theories—anti-Semitic or otherwise—suggests an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is. An inability to grapple with the world as it actually is an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.”

Goldberg knows what he’s talking about. Ahead of the invasion of Iraq, his essays in the New Yorker lent support to the Bush administration’s efforts to fabricate a conspiracy between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. His work, which was singled out for praise by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, helped sell a war that went on to destroy a country. How many Egyptian conspiracy theorists can claim that level of influence? Goldberg’s belief in the Saddam-Bin Laden conspiracy may help to explain the analytic failures that characterised much of his work in that period. Thus, dismissing those whose “lack of experience” led them to “the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected,” he made a bold prediction:

“In five years… the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.”

Goldberg encountered similar difficulties in January 2009, during Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip. Over the course of three weeks, Israeli forces killed more than 1,400 people in an operation designed, an authoritative UN inquiry concluded, to “punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.” In the midst of the massacre, Goldberg declared himself mightily “pissed off.” Not at the Israeli army, to be clear, but at the international community for criticising it. But how to explain the world’s revulsion? Surely, it had nothing to do with Israel’s “indiscriminate” blanketing of “densely populated residential areas” with white phosphorus, in a besieged and impoverished territory under military occupation. Instead, Goldberg suggested, the world’s peculiar interest in “Israel’s failings” was the product of two mutually reinforcing conspiracies. First, behind the humanitarian concern expressed by peace activists, human rights groups and UN bodies lurked a much darker motive: a global “pornographic interest in Jewish moral failure.” Exacerbating this universal perversion was a second conspiracy, more dastardly still—the grisly images coming out of Gaza were less a product of Israeli weapons than of Palestinian theatrics:

“we’ve all seen endless pictures of dead Palestinian children now. It’s a terrible, ghastly, horrible thing, the deaths of children… But ask yourselves this: Why are these pictures so omnipresent? I’ll tell you why, again from firsthand, and repeated, experience: Hamas (and the Aksa Brigades, and Islamic Jihad, the whole bunch) prevents the burial, or even preparation of the bodies for burial, until the bodies are used as props in the Palestinian Passion Play.”

One might ask why Palestinians would need to parade their dead if international hostility were founded on anti-Jewish rather than humanitarian sentiment, but as Goldberg points out, it is the “nature” of such conspiracy theories to be “not explicable, even on their own terms.”

If Goldberg’s “proclivity… to embrace conspiracy theories” has at times resulted in “an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is,” its consequences are not always as destructive as he fears. Belief in conspiracies may, as Goldberg claims, be inimical to economic growth and political development, but it does not seem to have harmed his career.