Why so many hacks fell for the ‘gay girl in Syria’
Fake blogger Tom MacMaster is not the only person who has magicked up an identity by morally leeching off other people’s conflicts.
The revelation that the Gay Girl in Damascus is actually a stubbly bloke in Edinburgh has sent shockwaves through the media. ‘How could he have done this?’, journalists are demanding of Tom MacMaster, the American self-confessed nerd based in Scotland who for six months pretended to be a dissident dyke in Syria. ‘Doesn’t he know the damage he has done to gay people in the Middle East and to the reputation of political blogging?’
These are the wrong questions. Because the most striking thing about this blogging hoax is not its potential impact over there, but what it reveals about culture, politics and journalism over here. The thing that ought to cause jaws to drop and eyebrows to rise is not Mr MacMaster’s deceitfulness - he isn’t the first mundane man to masquerade as something sexier on the world wide web - but rather the ease with which he planted himself in the cultural consciousness. It is the manipulability of the modern media, their wide-eyed openness to unchecked foreign stories that seem to confirm their prejudices, which should really be in the spotlight.
In many ways, MacMaster has only done in a more extreme, unrestrained fashion what is now commonplace in the media: discovered himself, forged an identity for himself, through other people’s political struggles and their seemingly more exotic existences. In projecting himself into Syria, imagining that he was a lesbian called Amina Arraf clashing with the Assad regime, MacMaster has taken to its perversely logical conclusion the modern trend where journalists and activists try to give a bit of meaning to their lives by morally leeching off foreign upheaval. His creation of a ventriloquist’s dummy through which he could spout his supposedly ‘authentic’ political feelings mirrors the modern-day fashion for turning put-upon foreign peoples, especially Middle Eastern ones, into vehicles for the working-out of middle-class Westerners’ existential angst.
One of the most remarkable things about his blog was the speed with which it became a go-to place for liberal hacks, bloggers and tweeters who wanted to know ‘the truth’ about life in Syria. MacMaster started his hoax in February, yet by the time he had invented Amina’s arrest by Assad’s forces on 6 June – an invention that would lead to his hoax being exposed – everyone from the pouting princess of the human rights lobby, Bianca Jagger, to mainstream newspapers such as the Guardian was reporting Amina’s words and thoughts as fact. On 7 June, Esther Addley, the Guardian’s senior news reporter no less, reported - without the benefit of the word ‘allegedly’ or any quote marks - that ‘[Amina was] teargassed, arrested and detained with other protesters’ and had now been ‘snatched from a Damascus street by three armed men and bundled into a vehicle’. Thus did an American man’s ramblings, written in Scotland, make it into a serious newspaper’s coverage of repression in Syria.
The Guardian even republished a supposed photo of Amina, though it was actually a picture that MacMaster had nicked from Facebook, showing a London-based Croatian woman called Jelena Lecic who popped up on BBC2’s Newsnight to deny being Syrian, a lesbian or a blogger. Meanwhile, the online human rights lobby rallied to Amina’s cause. It set up Facebook pages called ‘Free Amina Arraf’, and designed posters calling for her release. Made to look like cool, 1970s, radical Arab propaganda, the posters quoted from one of the ‘poems’ that ‘Amina’ ‘wrote’ on ‘her’ website: ‘Borders mean nothing / When you have wings.’ Thus did an American man’s crap poetry, written in Scotland, become the rallying cry of an international campaign to free a lesbian in Syria.
The media’s current focus on the clever nature of the gay-girl hoax (‘it is an elaborate hoax’, says a track-covering Guardian), overlooks what is easily the most important dynamic in this story: not MacMaster’s alleged powers of persuasion, but the media’s susceptibility to delusion. However well-written or seemingly authentic MacMaster’s blog was – and as it happens, some Syrians have said it was unconvincing – the fact is that it was just a blog; just a self-started website with various bits of personal writing and nothing to suggest that any of it was accurate or authoritative. Those complaining about being duped, Scooby Doo-style, by the apparent master of disguise that is Tom MacMaster need to have a word with themselves: it was their openness to being duped, their embrace of the seemingly made-in-heaven ‘gay girl in Damascus’ narrative with its achingly right-on contrast between a morally sensitive LGBT gal and a male-dominated regime, which really blew this blog out of all proportion.
The reason they were drawn to it, the reason this made-up blog could become a source for serious journalists, is not hard to fathom. It is because it pressed their political buttons, it massaged their moralistic worldview. Indeed it seems to have been designed to conform to the modern liberal tendency to reduce all foreign conflicts to simplistic morality tales, in which profound political complexities are airbrushed away in favour of flagging up the victimisation of (ideally gay) individuals by faceless rulers. Unable, or unwilling, to get a handle on what is really happening in Syria, to analyse or account for the inspiring uprising and serious violence there, journalists and activists glimpsed in this blog the opportunity to promote a fairytale version of events instead, complete with a pretty Cinderella-style figure (only gay) and the ugliest Ugly Sisters you could ever imagine (only male). That serious journalists fell for MacMaster’s fiction speaks to a profound crisis of objectivity in the modern media, and a preference for simplistic moralism over the tough task of reporting.
Indeed, many contemporary journalists and activists share something important in common with MacMaster. No, not a penchant for telling outright lies, but certainly a desire to discover themselves, to give their run-of-the-mill lives a shot of political adrenalin, by creaming off the experiences of ‘exotic’ Arabs or Africans or Asians. ‘I was very involved in issues surrounding the Palestine and Iraq struggles’, said MacMaster in his apology. ‘Ever since my childhood I had felt connected to the cultures and peoples of the Middle East…. So I invented her. Amina came alive. I could hear her “voice”.’ MacMaster says he mashed his own personality, and his views on Palestine, with Amina’s: ‘Some of her details were mine.’
Here, in this seemingly weird, po-mo, borderline crazy playing about with identity, we can actually glimpse a very mainstream modern phenomenon: the construction of identity and discovery of the self through the theatre of foreign affairs. From those Western pro-Palestinian activists who don the keffiyeh in a PC version of blacking-up, to the journalists and celebs who carved out new, super-moral public personas through their campaigning against the evils in Darfur, to the multitude of hacks and human rights activists who turned the war in Bosnia into their war, describing it with undiluted narcissism as a political ‘acid test for our generation’, time and again influential people in the West have reduced conflicts and clashes ‘over there’ to personality playpens, in which they might discover a new edge and spark to their own lives and existences.
Eschewing that oh-so-outdated approach of analysing the dynamics behind war or political upheaval, journalists and activists have preferred instead to make it all about them. Pro-Palestinian types advertise their moral indefatigability by standing alongside their favourite brown-skinned victims and shouting slogans at Evil Israel, while many journalists imagine that their brave reporting in Bosnia (I say brave. I say reporting) made them modern-day Schindlers facing down modern-day Nazis. The cultivation of identity through the moral hijacking of other people’s wars and misfortunes is an activity that has been around for years now, and it is one which has seen the line between fact and fiction in foreign reporting become increasingly blurred. MacMaster has taken it all one step further by completely inventing an imaginary exotic person through which he might express his desire for political momentum. That is because in the blind world of the blogosphere, it is possible for the wall between fact and fiction to be smashed down completely.
The trend for transforming other people’s struggles into self-serving morality plays has led to an alarmingly casual attitude towards the distinction between truth and lies. MacMaster justifies his fake blog by saying that he was ‘trying to enlighten people’. The Guardian says his blog might have been a hoax but it nonetheless ‘[drew] attention to a nation’s woes’. This sounds a lot like the ‘Good Lie’ defence, the idea that, yes, some of the facts might be a bit dodgy (all of them, in MacMaster’s case) but at least we have touched upon some broader if impressionistic ‘truth’. Such moral mendaciousness also echoes the arguments made by those reporters who, in the name of boosting their claim to historic fame, have in recent years warped or exaggerated events on the ground in various warzones: ‘Okay, we might have toyed with the facts, but we got at some deeper truth.’ This is another important thing exposed by the gay-girl blog hoax: the fact that modern political culture has a very dysfunctional relationship with Truth.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.