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!

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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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Every day is Men’s Day

At BlogHer, when Jocelyn Harmon from Marketing for Nonprofits stood up during the keynote panel to ask Carol Jenkins how we can make stories, and news, and politics, more complicated around race, gender, and class, there were women cheering all over the room.

BlogHer DC BlogHer DC

Now, we didn’t get deep into that subject but I also didn’t hear what usually happens when you say that in a room full of white folks, which is someone stands up and goes “But shouldn’t we all just be colorblind? I don’t see race.” (If you are thinking “what’s wrong with that?” you can start at Angry Black Woman’s post, Things you need to understand #5: Color Blindness.) So I was really, really happy that at BlogHer, we could raise the issue without an immediate defensive racist backlash. Instead a somewhat diverse room full of women *listened* to two women of color talk with each other about the difficulties of everyday racism in media. About not wanting to have to choose a side, or choose an identity. That was a good moment!

Then at the cocktail party I was sitting across from this dude. And hey, it’s a cocktail party and we’re all drinking Cosmos and talking smack. I believe I was outlining a new world order in which we would all get to take turns having sex with Jon Stewart. (Would he satirize the sex during the sex? Or wait till after?) But we were also talking about the rise of mom blogging, the way we love it that people mix up their “topics” and blog about their lives and eclectic interests AND politics. That in the mainstream media story, you are a soccer mom or whatever, and that’s that. But in our world in the blogosphere, we know, more and more, that we have many roles in life. We’re moms or daughters or sisters or knitters or we love to shop for shoes or talk about marketing, but we ALSO have valid political opinions. We are black or white or Latina or Jewish or multiracial, AND we are women, AND we have all these interests and roles and jobs and experiences. In our world, we acknowledge the multifacted nature of ourselves and of all the people we might meet. For me, I don’t even sit across from another middle aged lady on the bus without assuming they have a complicated identity. Sometimes I like to imagine the blog-identity, the internal world and speaking voice, of all the people but especially the women, around me in daily life.

In this middle of this conversation, our intrepid BlogHim, one of the 5 guys at a conference of 300 women, got me all prickled up. He wanted to question the mere fact of having a BlogHer conference, a tech conference meant for women. He warned us he was about to be non-politically correct, in other words, he wanted to try to piss us off. “So, ladies, what about the men? And what about the white men? What I’m saying here is that I can’t be hiring someone and say to my managers, “I really want to hire this white man because he brings a unique and diverse perspective to our product group.” I can’t say that. And that’s just not fair.” There was a sort of pause around the table as we all assessed our level of ability to Deal with this asshattery in the moment, pushing our Cosmotinis out of mind and whipping up some serious coherence, without causing a Scene. I understood that the guy was just trying to get a rise. He was trolling us. And he was doing it with a layer of faux irony and friendliness, so getting mad in response was socially difficult. Yet it was such a stunning example of male privilege and white privilege that I can’t let it pass.

So, I told Mr. What-About-The-Menz a brief story. Here it is.

When I was a kid, about 10 or 11 probably, I remember asking my mom, “There’s Mothers’ Day, and Fathers’ Day, and even Grandparents’ Day. How come there’s no Kids’ Day? It’s not fair!” My mom shot me a really dirty go-to-hell-you-idiot look and went, “EVERY DAY IS KIDS’ DAY.”

Here is the bit of the story I didn’t mention:

I remember suddenly getting what my mom meant, and thinking about everything she did for me and my sister, and how her life basically revolved around listening to us, playing with us, taking care of us, feeding us, supporting us and planning for our future, getting us to school, taking us to the library and piano lessons; our comfort and well-being. A hot flush of shame came over me as I thought about how all the things that were done for me, I was not really appreciating, but took for granted. Like, that wasn’t enough? I want a tiara and a pony too on top of it? Ouch. My mom’s moment of sarcasm and snark was a good educational moment for me. I GOT IT.

I think that telling the first part of that story was an okay response. It quickly made my point which is that he is blind to his everyday white male privilege.

And as described very well in the article I linked to above on male privilege — the instant that men are not the center of attention and the norm, they feel like it’s an *attack*.

The other thing I did was not look at the guy. I continued with all my body language to focus on my sister bloggers at the table. And that helped us to shift the conversation off of the guy, and back onto what we wanted to talk about. Doing this was a conscious effort. I recommend it highly for those moments when your conversation with a group of women is hijacked by a braying jackass who assumes that women owe him every second of their respect and attention. Pay attention to the women. Pay attention to the women in the microcosm of conversation, and in the bigger picture of the blogosphere.

Then, a bunch of us told the guy that he was really lucky to be in a context where he got to experience not being the default normal. He gets to hear conversations and interactions he wouldn’t hear otherwise. What do techy, writerly, blogging women talk about when they’re framing the conversation themselves and not being told what’s important by an array of expert men? What’s it like to be at a tech conference where you’re one of 5 of your gender there, and it’s very noticeable? That’s a rare experience for guys in social media. A bunch of us said that. With a helpful smile.

In short, a table full of women told him, very politely and obliquely, to shut up and listen. If only for one day. I don’t think he got it.

As is so often true, I saw a bunch of women soft-pedal their responses to a guy. And then immediately afterwards (and in fact a day later over IM with others) they all went “OMG, what a jackass.” Again, I felt sorry for guys who are that way, because they don’t have any reality check. I’m calling out the behavior, and point it out, not to be mean to this one dude. In fact, I give him credit for coming to a women’s conference and giving it a shot. I don’t expect him to learn and process every bit of it at once. On the other hand, I can’t let those kinds of statement pass without a mention.

I had no wish to get into a giant discussion of the idea of affirmative action at that moment. But I could do it on this blog.

What would you have said to him “in the moment”? What would you say now, online, with time to think it over and express yourself clearly, to a guy who described his wish to hire white men for their diverse perspective?

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