Monday, June 13, 2011

Irresponsible blogging: on 'Amina Arraf'

I am unexpectedly quite angry today, after reading the news.  It's been a long time since I felt compelled to write such a long blog post.

So, in case you haven't heard already, the latest tragic media figure in the Arab Spring, Amina Abdallah Arraf, has been exposed as a hoax.  (Read about it here, here, and here.)  Amina, who blogged at "A Gay Girl in Damascus," and identified as a half-American, half-Syrian lesbian, turns out to be the fictional creation of Thomas MacMaster, an American living in Scotland, and possibly his wife as well, both of whom are apparently graduate students at the University of Edinburgh.  (And you thought you were a handful for your advisor!) 

After crafting in great detail his creation's romantic history – including, as it seems, a long-running correspondence with a Canadian woman who honestly believed that she was conducting a long-distance relationship with Amina – and political opinions, MacMaster got too greedy for publicity, and wrote that she had been abducted by the Syrian secret police.  A lot of people who had been following the blog closely swung into action, and attempted to determine what had happened to Amina, and even to pressure the Syrian government to release her.  And in the media scrum over all this, close readers began to notice discrepancies that caught their attention.  Concurrent with their effort to connect the internet dots and figure out where the blog came from, a woman living in London saw herself splashed all over the front pages of major newspapers as 'Amina Arraf'.  (MacMaster had simply used a bunch of her photographs without her permission to create a visual avatar for his character.)  The woman, who is positively not Amina, pointed this out, and before you could say "harmful publicity stunt," the hoax was revealed.

Where do I start?

I cannot say what was in MacMaster's mind when he initiated his blog.  He seems to have sought to cover his ass by claiming that some of the things he wrote would be factual accounts, some others fictional, and he intended not to tell his readers which was which.  This has the effect of off-loading the work of sifting truth-claims from fiction onto the readers, which is a questionable maneuver, but hey, it's a blog, right?  Not like anyone signed an affidavit or anything.

But once the thing took off and people – real, flesh-and-blood people who sometimes came close to revealing their own identities at their own genuine peril – began commenting on the blog and veering off into discussions and arguments amongst each other based on the assumption that Amina was real and her blog updates factual reports, MacMaster let it ride.  There may have been a point at which he could have stepped in, even in character as his narrative voice, and reminded readers that some of this stuff was fake/fictional, and no one should get too worked up about it.  But honestly, I don't know when that would have been, since the blog seems almost purpose-built to lure people in very serious physical danger into revealing themselves and thereby exposing themselves to blackmail, imprisonment, torture, and murder by security forces in Syria, in Palestine, and other countries where homosexuality is either criminalized or so discriminated against that it may as well be a crime.  (I have seen commenters identify themselves on the blog as being Syrian or Palestinians, some of the latter in Israel and others in the West Bank.  I haven't taken comprehensive stock of the roll call, so I don't know who else participated.) 

Now, if MacMaster had started a blog called "Queer Life in the Arab World" and set it up as a clearinghouse for such issues, then no worries: people would know exactly what it was, or at least what it claimed to be, and could judge for themselves whether it was on the level, a front for some security branch, or whatever.  Queer people in the Arab world have to make those judgment calls all the time.  Or, if he had started a reformist Arab nationalist blog to use as a stick with which to beat the Asad regime, same deal: people could judge for themselves whether or not they wanted to participate in a discourse on that site.  There's no need for him to name himself if he wanted to keep a low profile and let some ideas get into circulation.

Except there is.  The cultural politics of the postcolonial Arab world do not readily allow for a white guy from the US to pretend to be an Arab girl in order to make people warm up to him.  It's not motherfucking sketch comedy, dude.

MacMaster is supposedly a "Middle East activist," which could mean practically anything at all.  From what I've gleaned, he has a history of working as an activist for the Palestinian national cause.  Well, all right; maybe he knows something about that.  Maybe he even knows a bit, somehow or other, about the practical logistics of being gay in a country that legally represses gayness.  But he seems frighteningly clueless about the implications of pretending to be someone that he is not in the Arab world, especially in the context of being an American activist.  American activists of all stripes in the Arab world have "possible CIA plant" written across their foreheads, even when they are totally on the level about their politics and their commitments.  For that matter, so do activists born and raised in the Arab world who pursue any kind of political project at odds with absolutely anything that their home country's regime does.  The very first thing that Arab dictators do when confronted with any kind of political opposition that they don't manage themselves is to accuse it of being a front for US or Israeli interests.  (Perhaps you have noticed such maneuvers this year.)  Since the same regimes have also been feeding their subjects this paranoia on a structural level in state-run schools and news media for many years, this line of attack finds a receptive audience.  All of which to say, oppositional activists must strive to prove their credibility with people who are inclined to view any kind of dissident politics, much less anything associated with the US, the major neocolonial power in the region, with suspicion and distrust.

In this article, MacMaster makes the fatuous claim that he pulled this massive stunt to let people focus on the issues instead of ad hominem attacks:
"I really felt a number of years ago, in discussions on Middle East issues in the US, often when I presented real facts and opinions, the immediate reaction to someone with my name was: 'Why are you anti-American? Why are you anti-Jewish?'
"So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issue."
Mr MacMaster said he had wanted people to listen to the facts without paying attention to "the man behind the curtain".
To which I respond: you fucking egotistical, self-aggrandizing, chicken-shit jackass!   You really couldn't handle being a "Middle East activist" in your own country?  Did no one mention to you at the sign-up table that you were going to be accused of being a traitor to your country, or an anti-Semite?  Did you really not have any reasonable counter-argument to these accusations?  And please: your name is MacMaster.  Not exactly a crypto-fascist signifier.  As a Jewish person who recognizes the difference between anti-Semitism and political debates about the Arab-Israeli conflict, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that your inability to handle such critiques stems not from your surname, but from the fact that you were incompetent at face-to-face political debate.  Shy little violets who need to resort to false personae online in order to make their political arguments are really not cut out for "Middle East activism."  Just ask anyone who actually has the guts to defend their positions in public, and knows how to field attacks from both sides accusing them of racism or imperialism or whatever else.  Some of them even have Scots-Irish surnames.

Is this man actually so stupid that he thought 'inventing a name to talk under' adequately describes what he did?  For the record, I have invented a name to talk under: Dr. Koshary.  In the meat world, I answer to a different name, but I have never represented myself as other than I am; I've given enough details of my life and my work that I think my readers will recognize that.  Thomas MacMaster invented a fictional persona, a Syrian-American woman, through whom he felt comfortable airing his political opinions or, at the very least, experimenting with voice to see what sounded convincing or right to him.  Since he seems to have some pretensions to literature, it's hard to figure out when he thought he was writing fiction, and when he thought he was writing fact-based polemic.

[Sidebar: MacMaster's fictional blogging persona is the only entity that I have ever seen mount the claim that the Asad regime betrayed the Arab people by "giving away" the Golan Heights.  In fact, the Asad regime is the most stridently and dogmatically Arab nationalist government going these days.  And, for the record, Hafez al-Asad didn't even seize power until 1970, three years after Israel had occupied the Golan.  It's kind of like accusing Queen Victoria of giving away the American colonies.  I can't say for sure that no one in Arab nationalist circles says this, but I can say for certain that it's the first time I've heard the claim.  It feels to me as though MacMaster is either way off the deep end, or essaying a very satirical portrait of over-the-top Syrian-style Arab nationalists.  And in either case, how exactly is that supposed to advance his agenda?]

And then there's the whole lesbian business.  Sexuality, as we scholars of social science [should] know, is complicated stuff, and so I don't see any point in holding up MacMaster's heterosexual union as proof that he's out of his depth.  Who knows what path his sexuality has taken over the years, or what people he has known intimately?  For all I know, he has many close friends who have confided to him tremendous amounts of detail of how they conceive of their sexual identities.  After all, many great novels and plays have been written about characters who were pretty much nothing like their authors.  No one complains that The Tempest is bullshit because Shakespeare wasn't actually a savage wild man who grew up as the son of an evil goddess on an island far from England.  (Do they?)  I don't object to a straight guy writing in a lesbian narrative voice in fiction, as long as it's done well.

But MacMaster not only failed to make clear that he was messing around with pretensions of writing a novel or some other fiction piece, but he led on all sorts of people with whom he was in contact from behind his fictional avatar.  He was conducting a correspondence relationship with that woman in Canada under completely false pretenses.  He was representing himself to people across the Arab world and the LGBT activist world as someone that he was not, living in a place in which he did not live, and subject to certain kinds of direct experiential knowledge that he was not.  He was lying.

His admission that he didn't want people to think about "the man behind the curtain" is even more damning.  You need to own your politics to be taken seriously.  It's why we laugh at writers and politicians and other such public figures who get caught inventing online identities in order to praise themselves and their books on Amazon or Facebook or wherever else.  And the metaphor of the man behind the curtain is deeply unsettling here.  Just look at the blowback that both Syrian anti-regime activists and LGBT activists expect to endure: a sympathetic and beguiling figure in both worlds has been revealed as an American dude with murky motivations.  Bashar al-Asad could hardly have asked for a better media foil to demonstrate to his subjects that the political opposition is all a Trojan horse for US imperialist interests, and that LGBT people in Syria are somehow in league with those interests.  Living under dictatorship makes people prone to concoct conspiracy theories just to have some kind of coherent narrative that explains the reality they encounter.  The fear of 'the man behind the curtain' is very real for people in Syria, just as it is for people in Research Country, not only because of concerns about US domination but also because a repressive police state tends to develop the habit of entrapping people as 'enemies of the state' with innocent-seeming conversations that end up in the secret police offices.

Politics is an intensely personal business in many places, but especially in Syria, where people are understood to hold political loyalties based on a complex network of religious and familial ties.  The idea that MacMaster believes that he can get people to focus on the issues he raises without worrying about the source of the information is head-slappingly naïve at best.  It's not as if his avatar were a near-blank cipher that merely announced itself as a narrative voice and made no claims of particular identity, like some kind of accent-less voice emanating from a blank screen.  He represented himself as a Sunni Muslim, a Syrian-American, a lesbian.  He invented an entire deep-background for his avatar in the ways that Syrians reckon personal identity.  And they liked Amina because all of those details together added up to a brave and compelling person, who may have had her disagreements with some readers but seemed to have earned her self-knowledge the hard way.  She could criticize the Syrian government as an Arab nationalist, and criticize the Western-based LGBT rights movement as a proudly out lesbian.  Her critiques mattered partly because she was seen as invested in making those institutions better, not in knocking them down from the outside.

And now it comes out that she was an insider to none of those things, as her readers understood her to be.  Even if her creator really believes every word that he wrote in her voice, he is an outsider to all of those things, which makes a real difference.  It is not a fatal flaw to be an outsider with a critique to offer, but it is a subject position that one must acknowledge and accept.  Some people won't listen to an outsider no matter what, and that is sad and frustrating, but that is not sufficient justification to invent a fictional character and interact with the world through that creation.

Every LGBT activist in Syria with whom MacMaster was in contact must be in a heightened state of paranoia right now, wondering who exactly was that person behind Amina's emails, and what consequences they might face for having corresponded with that email address.  As if those people didn't have enough to worry about nowadays!  MacMaster's stunt is an act of reckless endangerment: people in Syria who read that blog actually called up governmental offices asking about Amina Arraf's whereabouts.  They have outed themselves as readers of the blog, which in the secret police's perspective is pretty much outing themselves as LGBT, and more likely than not, opposed to the Asad regime.  And, now that this has been exposed as a hoax, those well-meaning people have also outed themselves as potential dupes of yet another American indulging in some skullduggery, as the secret police will explain to some of them in interrogation cells.

I am appalled to consider all of this, and even more so to see that MacMaster seems unapologetic about those real-world consequences while continuing to push his claim that people should focus on "the issues."  He does not understand that he has become the issue, and it will take a long time for his erstwhile readers and fans to sort through all this and try to see the good intentions behind the erroneous actions.  I mean, if they aren't tortured and killed first.  I half-expect to see a succession of news stories in the next few days in which MacMaster either walks back some of his claims of factuality of material or admits that he made up huge amounts of reported information wholesale because it sounded consonant with other things he had heard.  I also expect to hear about some terrible things happening to people who don't deserve such misery, all because they bought into the fruits of MacMaster's atrocious judgment.  I wonder: what will he have to say about that?


  1. Wow, what a jerk. Can you say "first-world privilege?"

    One of my friends who does politics complains about the "leftier than thou" activists who always complain about whatever sort of protest or organizing moment you set up --- I have a feeling he's one of those, and did this instead of, I don't know, lobbying his congressman or joining Amnesty International or whatever.

    He'd almost be doing less damage if he joined Greenpeace and chained himself to a whaling ship, eh?

  2. I think that guy wishes he were a lesbian in the middle east. Sigh... what an idiot.

  3. Wow, that post was long! I do find it amusing though, how close arraf is to 2araf in Latin letters.

  4. @Sis: I'm pretty sure he'd be doing less damage if he chained himself to any part of a whaling ship.

    @Fie: I actually disagree — I think he wishes he were a widely read and respected author, and he figured he'd get there faster by faking people out with this scam than by being an honest polemicist. He pulled off 'widely read' for a while, but he's totally screwed himself out of being respected.

    @Shedding: You would notice that. :D And hey, I warned you about the length of the post.

  5. PREACH.



    I'm certain I have a longer set of comments in me on this topic, but at the moment, I got nothing more elaborate than that.

    (Word Verification: lonol. It's like LOL and NO had a baby, which is precisely the response this whole scenario deserves.)