Guest post from Ben Rosenbaum

Benjamin Rosenbaum is a science fiction writer. I know him (in person!) from the world’s largest feminst science fiction convention, WisCon. Here’s a guest post from Ben about the Amina hoax, identity, power and privilege, and sf writer James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon.

A funny note: Ben’s comments in the Amina posts under his email address, “plausiblefabulist@gmail.com”, sparked some very alarmed emails to me from other commenters!

—-

I still like a lot of Amina wrote and see no reason not to continue to like it. I liked the thing about “Der Judenstaat and Al Awda”, I liked “Still Sunni”. The author, as Roland Barthes said, is dead. I can be enraged at Tom MacMaster and still find Amina an attractive hero. I like Matilda, even though Roald Dahl was apparently a complete jerk.

What was attractive about Amina is that she was articulate and interesting and knowledgeable, and also that she was personally courageous and speaking from earned experience. If some things felt a little off about her reports, one was inclined to forgive them — she was speaking from her own experience, after all, and she was under a lot of stress.

The hoax does not mean that the opinions were any less articulate. It does however unravel the package of articulateness, integrity, courage, and personal knowledge, replacing it with a somewhat less appetizing cocktail of articulateness, deceit, cowardice and academic knowledge.

It is correct that we judge opinions based on where they are coming from. This is not an error, or an unfortunate bias. We cannot check every detail of what we hear ourselves, so when we hear an opinion, we are entitled to ask: how does this person know? We very often have to go with gut feeling, with trust. In a constrained academic context we can check footnotes, we can replace some personal trust with institutional trust, but it’s essentially the same process.

Part (granted, quite a small part compared to real people’s lives put in danger) of the tragedy here is that Amina would have made a brilliant character in a novel. Minal is right about where
it’s full of Fail
— but if MacMaster had been building true alliances with real queer Arabs on the basis of honesty, all those years, they could have called him on those things; all the moments of Orientalist fail and male-gaze squick could have been first-draft problems. That that novel will never be written is not because of a lack of talent; it is because of a lack of courage and humility.

(I don’t, by the way, say that sneeringly. Indeed, I say it with a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” — as a white guy, I can well understand the temptation of stolen authority. Maybe I’m projecting here, but in the Washington Post interview MacMaster says, “the biggest reason [for inventing Amina] was that I found that when I argued, debated and made points that I knew to be factually sound on issues relating to Middle East by myself, I got pushback. I was prevented from [saying] what I was trying to say. I created a relatively simple character, so when I commented on blogs or in a discussion online, it [was] not going to be about me.” My theory? I suspect he wasn’t prevented from saying what he was trying to say at all — he was just called on it. Privilege made that feel like suffocation. The pushback — which was actually a gift, a way in, a way to make allies, to come to understand — felt intolerable. And he did care passionately about the issues. He wanted to be heard. Stolen authority felt so natural, so right, that it was addictive. That’s just my theory. But it gives me a lot of compassion for MacMaster. People have been calling him a sociopath, and in some ways that is an accurate operational description of the way he carried on a lot of these relationships. But I don’t think he’s a sociopath in the technical sense.

Character is built of habits, and choices have a way of snowballing. This is not to excuse the choices he made; he knew full well what he was doing. He could have stopped any time, before being caught. He chose the easy way, the cheat, the stolen rush, and kept on choosing it.)

But what about the general case? Should people have a right to pretend-blog as a compelling-but-fake persona?

I don’t think there’s necessarily a hard-and-fast rule. Jackie Monkiewicz brought up the case of James Tiptree, Jr., who also carried on whole correspondences and friendships in a persona. One salient difference is that when Alice Sheldon revealed herself as the true Tiptree many of her friends were amused, or even joyful — not rageful and betrayed at all. Le Guin wrote “oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable — Wie geht’s, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! […] I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic, and ETHICAL, a put on.”

I can think of some reasons why the reaction differed. For one thing, power relations are asymmetrical, and pretending to be in a more privileged position than you are does not create the same kind of infiltration, false authority, false protection, that pretending to be in a less powerful position does. For another thing, Tiptree could say, when she came out, “everything else was true”. She really had been in the army, in the intelligence services, been a big game hunter; it was all HER, just a male version of her (this may also, for all I know, be true of “Paula Brooks” — it’s definitely not true of Tom/Amina). But these reasons may not be the full story. Part of the deal is simply that if you can pull things off, you can pull them off; you just can’t be disingenuous that you’re taking a risk. Sometimes you can kiss people out of the blue and it will work out well, because you have read the situation right. Other times it will work out very, very badly. In those latter times you are not less at fault because you didn’t understand.

I never assumed Amina was exactly who she said she was; I certainly hoped she was disguising and obfuscating crucial details. When it first became clear that it was a hoax, I imagined that perhaps the author was really an alternate Amina — a real Syrian-American lesbian blogger who was not in Syria, who was playing out a fantasy out what would have been, if she had stayed. That still would have been dangerous and irresponsible, she would have been putting people at risk and it would have been immature… but at the end of it I would have been able to read those entries as hers, and liked them as hers, instead of liking them as the entries of a fictional character.

I think it would be fine for a blog persona to be false, to be a hoax, if the effect of the hoax was neutral or just. The Sokal hoax is an example of a just hoax. It harmed no one and cleverly exposed sloth and timidity. A neutral hoax would be if it turned out that, I don’t know, say, Linus Torvalds was an Arab woman. So what? We’d still have Linux. His nationality isn’t relevant. We don’t believe in Linux, and trust it, and take it seriously because of personal authority based in its Finnishness.

The thing is, when you’re perpetrating a hoax, plan for the discovery. Plan to be outed, because if the average person on the internet is getting more
gullible (which I doubt, but whatever), the least gullible people, the Snopeses and Liz Henrys, are getting more powerful, more networked, and faster at exposing you. If you are doing a hoax, know that you will get caught, and — as in the Sokal example — make getting caught the punch line, make it part of your point. Make it so you can hold your head up high when you do get caught, because the hoaxiness was part of what you were really saying all along.

Benjamin Rosenbaum http://www.benjaminrosenbaum.com

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26 Responses to Guest post from Ben Rosenbaum

  1. Jesse the K says:

    Thank you for spinning gold from this dross, in particular:
    I suspect he wasn’t prevented from saying what he was trying to say at all — he was just called on it. Privilege made that feel like suffocation. The pushback — which was actually a gift, a way in, a way to make allies, to come to understand — felt intolerable.

  2. Corona says:

    — The hoax does not mean that the opinions were any less articulate. It does however unravel the package of articulateness, integrity, courage, and personal knowledge, replacing it with a somewhat less appetizing cocktail of articulateness, deceit, cowardice and academic knowledge. —

    Much of Tom MacMaster’s posts were not based on “academic knowledge” but rather were false statements made simply for propaganda purposes. If there is one theme that is common throughout the posts, it is the denial that gays in the Arab world suffer substantial oppression. Although “Amina” claims that being gay in Damascus is “probably easier than you might think” the articles linked to below seems to tell a very different story. The people in these articles do not have supportive families but rather had experiences of being homeless and threats of violence.

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/06/14/the_dark_closet

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/15/gay-girl-damascus-syrian-lesbians

    The reason for presenting this falsehood is that MacMaster is a Palestinian rights activists who supports a single bi-national state with the right of return. Such a resolution to the conflict would result in taking away freedoms currently enjoyed by gay Israelis. His writing distorts the truth to deny that Palestinian rights and gay rights are at odds with each other.

    • Corona, the last thing I want to do here is derail the useful conversation on sockpuppetry, privilege and Amina onto the Topic That Eats All Internet Conversations. But upon reflection I feel compelled to respond to your last sentence.

      I think you’re right that MacMaster drastically misrepresented gay life in Syria, and I suspect that you’re right that he did so for propaganda purposes. But to go from there to “Palestinian rights and gay rights are at odds with each other” is awfully sketchy.

      I’m speaking here a Jew and as someone who prefers a just two-state solution; nor do I want to be naive about the situation currently faced by LGBT folks living in a socially conservative, corrupt dictatorship like Syria. But if you have a commitment to human rights, it is not possible to accept two subsets of rights as being fundamentally, eternally at odds; rather, there are simply a set of problems to solve.

      It may be true (it was widely reported, though IIRC Nate Silver cast some statistical doubt on the reports) that African-Americans in California voted disproportionately for Proposition 8. Would you go from there to “African-American voting rights and gay rights are at odds with each other”?

    • Liz Henry says:

      I thought of MacMaster as being a bit deluded as to what it’s like to actually experience being marginalized. The extended hoax and his stated reasons for it start to look like one long “reverse sexism, reverse racism” plaint. It’s not like it’s a picnic to be LGBT in the U. S. either, for many people.

  3. Gray says:

    “this may also, for all I know, be true of “Paula Brooks””
    So, not! Lots of stories about Graber now, lots of lies he told to people he communicated with:
    – Worked at MSNBC
    – Worked for Rachel Maddow
    – Worked at the Smithsonian
    – Worked at the NSA
    – Married to a woman who died of cancer
    – Adopted a deaf boy
    – Was at the persident’s inauguration party
    – etc etc

    No, unlike Alice Sheldon, Graber didn’t just “change” his gender, he invented a totally different person, completely unrelated to his life experiences. And he was good at that, remembered all the past lies (and that is the part were lesser liars often are exposed). Also, all the manipulations, lying about other people to advance his own interests. May very well be that the guy is a sociopath.

    • Ah, thanks, Gray, good to know. I haven’t really been following the Brooks story much.

    • Liz Henry says:

      Brooks’ story is developing to be *really really weird* and I can’t get a handle on it. The people writing to expose their interactions with him right now are shining a light on whatever was happening, so I’m hoping that collectively we’ll figure something out.

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  6. Julia Rios says:

    Thank you! This guest post is just as thoughtful and compassionate as I’ve come to expect Liz’s posts to be. I really appreciate that both of you are taking the time to try to understand, deconstruct, and think about ways to get something good out of this whole mess.

  7. C.S.E. Cooney says:

    Great post! I admit I got sidetracked down the Roald Dahl rabbit hole, but emerged only slightly filthier than usual, and reading the rest of this guest blog was like walking through a generous, scouring wind.

    • Josh says:

      Yeah, me too: maybe that was the best essay available for aggregating all of Roald Dahl’s squickiness, but it was so awful it coulda been written by a pro-Dahl provocateur trying to discredit the antidahlian movement. Dahl was a Nazi Communist British patriot who hatefully depicted the Bucket family as being poor?

      More to the point: great post, Ben, esp. with the standout insight Jesse the K noted. Also your contributions in WisCon Chronicles 5 are moving and brilliant.

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  9. Straight Midwesterner says:

    One thing that gets lost in all the talk of privilege and so on is that, for those of us who followed the blog, “Amina” always claimed to have it in buckets in Syria:
    her Arab family was wealthy, politically and socially connected and so on.
    However, in the blog, she was also half-Anglo and the Anglo half was depicted as ‘white trash’ Appalachians. One grandfather is supposed to have been a senator, the other an alcoholic truckdriver.
    Everyone now who is attacking McMasters for claiming male and Anglo privilege seems to be missing that.

    • Hey SM, can you explain a little bit where you’re going with that? How do Amina’s fictional white relatives of different social classes relate to criticism of McMaster for impersonating her? Do you mean that that part of Amina’s heritage might be more congruent with McMaster, so that he might in some way have been telling his own story there? It’s an interesting supposition, but after being forced out into the open he hasn’t made that claim — he has talked about Amina as solely a fictional creation, and not given any impression that Amina’s Anglo heritage is any less fictional than her Arab heritage. Or am I misinterpreting what you’re saying?

      • Straight Midwesterner says:

        I am pointing out how the class issue appears to be completely missing from all discussions on this issue. From what little is reported about McMasters, he would appear to have a very similar working-class Appalachian background

  10. J R R Tolkien says:

    “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Fuhrer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery …. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot.”

    — J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

    • J R R Tolkien, at first I couldn’t understand how your quote was relevant to this discussion. Then I realised you are perhaps advocating actual prison for MacMaster and Graber, in which case, great idea! Their writing could only improve, and at least they’d have something to whinge about.

      • J R R Tolkien says:

        Wow, you are truly thick Defeated and Gifted!

        The complaint is that McMaster created a fiction and wrote in the voice of someone who wasn’t him.

        That makes every writer of fiction a criminal.

        The hoax was not his fault but was the fault of a media that refused to do basic journalism steps and preferred to have a nice story handed to them (though according to McMaster, they approached him and not the other way around).

        He wrote a good story convincingly and now people are angry that they mistook fiction for reality.

        A prisoner can write of things beyond prisons; so too can a Scottish man write of things beyond haggis and sheep or an Arab woman write about things other than camels and hummis

        • Kenzo Mogi says:

          We don’t hate McMaster for creating a fictional character. We hate him for **misrepresenting fiction as truth**, getting people on a wild goose chase trying to find his character

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