Middle Eastern people are both the most hospitable and most paranoid people I’ve ever come across. It’s a wonderful cultural irony. Go visit. The people you meet on the street will genuinely invite you to dinner, but the minute you take a single photograph or write yourself a simple reminder, they will question if you’re a foreign spy of some sort.
Conspiracy theories about politics and the US are as much a cultural staple in the Middle East as hummus and pita.
In Egypt, the news broadcasters served as Mubarak’s puppets until 2011, when independent news sources popped up after the uprising. State-run news still exists in Egypt, and censorship is far from gone. Journalists face imprisonment on charges for anything from defamation to terrorism if the network they’re associated with “disturbs the peace”—basically, if it talks smack about the government. It’s not just journalists; a puppet was accused back in January for “sending coded messages of terrorism” in a Vodafone commercial.
Since Egyptians don’t know whom to trust, their imaginations often run wild, conjuring their own ideas and stories about “what’s really happening” to make sense of the chaos that surrounds them. Stories usually involve Zionism, the US, and the Muslim Brotherhood in some diabolical and fantastical plan on the basis of zero logic.
Like how The Simpsons episode “New Kids on the Blecch” from 2001 proves US involvement in the Syrian uprising.
A quick plot refresher: In this episode, Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Ralph form a boy band named the Party Posse, make a hit song called “Drop da Bomb,” and in the music video, they drop a bomb on what appears to be an unknown Arab country, but the Syrian opposition flag is prominently displayed on the jeep. Since the flag didn’t exist and the Syrian opposition wasn’t a thing in 2001, the conspiracy theorists took to Facebook and claimed that the US has been behind the Arab Spring the whole time. Either the revolutionaries are foreign-backed, no-good scum trying to destabilize the region, OR they had responded to subliminal messages sent through American pop culture that would only be in syndication in the Arab world years later, so that the collapse of the region couldn’t be traced back to the US government. Pretty fucking clever.
Well, these devious US antics couldn’t possibly get past the people who gave the world beer and algebra. The theory quickly migrated from social media to the actual news on May 5, when Tahrir TV anchor Rania Badwy aired the music-video segment of the episode. In her analysis she points out that the conspiracy started on Facebook, but she ends by saying that “the episode was created in 2001 before the Syrian opposition even existed… This raises many question marks about the Arab Spring and about when this global conspiracy began.”
Who knows! Maybe the US actually mapped out the Syria uprising 13 years ago and the hard evidence is this Simpsons episode. Did the US send subliminal messages to the Arab youth so they’d revolt against their leaders? My Egyptian blood might've been jonesing for a good conspiracy, but I needed validation. There was only one way to find out, so I called up Tim Long, the writer of the “New Kids on the Blecch” episode, and tried to get him to admit to me that the US actually orchestrated the Arab Spring.
VICE: I just want you to know that this is a safe space, and you can be honest with me. Did you know that the Free Syrian Army would exist 13 years ago when you wrote the episode?
Tim Long: I’ve been making a lot of jokes about how I totally knew and that was the secret reason I wrote it. I don’t want to make that joke in print, because people take these things very seriously. I will say to you that I did not know that.
So it wasn’t a subliminal message sent to the Arab youth to revolt against their leaders?
It so wasn’t, and the whole thing is so headachey, because the thing about being a comedy writer is that you’re a coward and you’re not willing to take stand on anything, much less a conflict that I don’t even begin to understand. It’s hilarious. The ironic thing about this [episode] is that it’s about subliminal messages. The idea is the Bart and his friends are recruited to join a boy band, but it turns out that the guy who recruited them is using it as a recruitment tool for the US Navy. There are all sorts of backward sentences in the song; it’s not a small episode in terms of its scope. Crazy things happened, but we did not take into account that it would somehow fuel the Syrian uprising.
What did you think when you first heard about the conspiracy?
I thought, Well, this is kooky. You take it seriously in a certain sense. As a comedy writer, sometimes you feel a little powerless because you’re just writing jokes; you’re not changing the world. If someone said, “Yeah, those guys are changing world history,” your first reaction is, “Fuck, yeah! I’m great.” But your second reaction is, “No. I was making dumb jokes about the Backstreet Boys.”
I’ve worked on the show for 16 years, so there are shows that I don’t remember working on, so your first thought is, Wait. What? I thought it was funny, because the conspiracy theory—like a lot of conspiracy theories—has a lot of holes in it. How could we have done this and why would we have done this? I feel like it walks a fine line between we have predicted this, and I’m some sort of comedy psychic, and we caused this. It seems that certain people in the Middle East believe that these uprisings were the result of Western influences. But even so, I wish I could talk to those people. How could we have known about it? How could we have used a flag that didn’t show up again for another 13 years?
How was the flag that would go on the car chosen?
I actually talked to the animation director of the show, Steven Moore—and this was all before the show became digital—and the flag in question existed in some form in the 1930s, but it was altered. I think he just used a reference book. Of course thousands of decisions like that get made at every stage of an episode. I’m sure I didn’t even sign off on it.
The lyrics of “Drop da Bomb” mention Saddam. Were you alluding to Iraq, or was it just an unspecified Middle Eastern country?
The only shock to hear that we did not have a consistent idea to what we were doing. There was not a geopolitical or military plot. We figured out at one point that “Saddam” rhymes with “bomb.” That’s the complexity of the plot. I didn’t read a lot of text books about this. I just thought, Well, those things rhyme. The crazy thing about this was that it was pre-9/11, but Saddam was still proving to be kind of an irritant in the region ever since the first Gulf War, so he was an easy reference. If I love anything as a comedy writer, it’s an easy reference.
This isn’t the first time a Simpsons plot is used to back some conspiracy theory. The “City of New York vs. Homer Simpson," for example, is said to have predicted 9/11. Tell me, what’s the future like?
[Laughs] There is an easy way to tell what the future is, and that is to tune in every Sunday at 8 PM and watch all-new episodes of The Simpsons. I also know that somebody thought that The Simpsons predicted the Super Bowl this year. There was an episode eight years ago in which the TV was showing Seattle versus Denver, but we didn’t get the score right. It's 552 shows, which is 226 hours of television. We’re gonna just mistakenly predict everything, really.
One of the great things about our show is that we have a lot of demographics, like college students, young kids, and a few crazy people with too much time on their hands. Plus the show has never been more available and accessible, so if people want to read into it, they certainly can.
Have you ever met a Simpsons conspiracy theorist?
We’ve all met some guy on an airplane who spits on you while he talks and claims 9/11 is an inside job, but I’ve never actually met a serious Simpsons conspiracy theorist. I would like to actually meet them, because I’d like to know how they think. How do they think we did that? What are the mechanics of their theory?
Well, there is the general plot that the US somehow orchestrated the uprising, and then there is this, which is looked at as another bit of evidence to prove the US actually did it.
It makes you wonder, if they think that the US could cause an uprising that way, would the US invade Iraq? Why didn’t they just put some messages in The Flinstones? It seems like it works just as well.
Seriously, though. Is Fox in cahoots with the US government to destabilize the Middle East?
You know, Fox—like all networks—is in conspiracy with the US government and all other elements of a military complex to maintain the status quo. We all know that. But seriously, the thing about conspiracies is that they require a tremendous amount of coordination amongst dozens and dozens of people who actually play their parts perfectly, then actually keep them a secret, where my experience is, you’re lucky if you get your lunch order right and no one has kept a secret ever. It’s a little hard to say that this was in any way a coordinated effort.
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