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David Hines [userpic]

one more Amina post, and I'm done

June 13th, 2011 (10:30 pm)
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The reaction to the exposure of Tom McMaster as being "Amina," the putative "Gay Girl in Damascus," is interesting.

I was suckered by him, and I shouldn't have been. I remember my reaction to Amina's post "My father, the hero," in which Amina's dad turned back Syrian thugs by making a brave speech; folks were forwarding that link around, and I was thinking, "Yeah, folks, this only works in movies. Here's what happens in real fucking life: THEY JUST COME BACK TOMORROW." And in subsequent posts, Amina wrote about her and her dad having to lay low and dodge the thugs. And I thought, "Yep, there you go." That was the moment I bought it. Which is interesting. I wasn't suckered by her politics, or by her claiming identity; I was suckered when "Amina" hit my comfort zone, which is to be cynical based on things my experience has trained me to expect.

Belief works that way. Politics works that way. And anger works that way, too. People are comfortable with, or angriest about, things that fit into pre-planned mental channels. And so I shouldn't be surprised, but right now, I am finding it amazing and disappointing that I am seeing far more angry commentary about Tom McMaster pretending to be a gay Syrian woman than I have seen angry commentary about the Syrian government *actually shooting Syrians.*

People get angriest about things they're already angry about, or things they already know how they will get angry about. People got angry about Egypt because Egypt is an American ally and the number-two receipient of our foreign-aid dollars; also, the general public has heard of Egypt. Libya has been shooting protestors like crazy and almost beat down their rebellion until NATO came in, which they did because the general public has heard of Libya and hates Qadaffi. Syria and Yemen are whacking people left and right, and fewer people care. Bahrain, like Egypt a putative US ally, has been shooting protestors like crazy, but the US is ignoring it and nobody gives a shit because the general public has not heard of Bahrain.

People are prepared to be angry at white people who appropriate the identities of non-white people, and so Tom McMaster is being roasted on those grounds. For example, ZunguZungu argues that it's highly significant that McMaster picked the face of a "light-skinned, close-mouthed, downcast" non-Syrian, a "single white face, a delicate femininity performing innocent submission for the camera." But I don't think that accurately explains McMaster's gimmick. I'm not sure how McMaster would have picked more than one face for what was supposed to be an individual blog, but never mind; the McMaster obviously picked it because it's a picture of a hot chick (not too hot!) who can pass as a light-skinned Arab (I'd have to ask Arab friends, but they've told me that *I* could pass in some places, if I got a good tan and kept my mouth shut; never been to Syria, though) and who's just Western enough. And, y'know, people *like* hot chicks. He's not just performing a role as Amina; he's thinking about the role Amina herself is performing, and that pic works for him.

I think that the key factor in explaining McMaster is remembering his audience: like a lot of majority pretenders to minority identity, he's adopting an ethnic identity to exploit the gullibility of people who are like him. (Remember, his first post on the blog was an attempt at the fashionable ethnic-focused autobiography; being white himself, and thus "non-ethnic," he sought to borrow one.) As McMaster told the UK press, "I really felt a number of years ago that in discussions on Middle East issues while living in the US, when I presented real facts and opinions, the immediate reaction to somebody with my name was 'why are you anti-American, why are you anti-Jewish?'" Whereas when he pretended to be Amina, people *accepted* that he was anti-American and anti-Jewish listened to what he had to say.

Look at McMaster: he represents himself as a Middle Eastern peace activist. He's working on a region-related master's degree at Edinburgh. His wife is studying the Syrian economy. McMaster has been to Syria and knows Damascus enough to fool people who've been there and even who live there; he has, as "Amina," spoken with actual Syrians who believed Amina was for real, so apparently the dude's Arabic is pretty goddamn good. This is not the profile of a guy who is unfamiliar with the concept of Orientalism. This is the profile of a guy who read Edward Said's ORIENTALISM in his early twenties and agrees with every freakin' word.

Mircea nails pretty much my reaction: McMaster is not trying to appropriate for his own benefit so much as he is trying to create a pro-Syrian image in his Western readers, to say that if Syrians had democracy they would basically be Canadians. I've traveled a little bit in the Middle East, okay? I am miles from being an expert, my Arabic is barely good enough to ask where the toilet is, but lemme tell you, IT IS NOT CANADA. Democracy is hard work, guys, and so is respecting diversity, and when you go somewhere that hasn't got the hang of it yet you realize that despite their very real problems *Europe and North America actually are pretty frigging amazing at these things,* which may be the most depressing thought you have all day. But that's why Amina got so popular: she was the artificial embodiment of Stuff White People Like.

People have pointed out that Amina created a distraction from the real problems Syrians face, and they're absolutely right. Real Syrians have pointed out that McMaster has made their lives materially harder and more dangerous by getting the Syrian government to focus on democracy bloggers and the LGBT community in Syria, and they're absolutely right, too. But it's the Western anger at McMaster that's the strongest, and that's weird to me.

McMaster absolutely deserves anger, and social punishment.

But I really don't like that a lot of people will write more words about McMaster's appropriation of Syrian identity than they will ever write about the Syrian government murdering Syrians.

Originally posted on my DW. | people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.


Posted by: cyano (cyano)
Posted at: June 14th, 2011 04:23 pm (UTC)
Cylon White Rage

I hadn't made any comments on the blog incident, partly due to not having read up on the details on Syrian politics, and partly having not followed the blog to begin with.

I started to notice the blog when people started posting links to Free Amina petitions, which I generally don't click back on due to cynicism regarding the efficacy of lobbying a foreign political body into doing ANYTHING by virtue of a internet petition.

My general reaction to the whole thing, I think he was shortsighted. If he presented the same information that he did in a journalistic manner, I think there would be less unintended consequences for everyone. (not no consequences, simply less)

I am appalled that people are more vocal about him creating a false identity than the part about the Syrian crackdown on their own citizens.

In short, I agree with you, and I appreciate your perspective on it.

oh, and apparently this just came out too.. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/paula-brooks-editor-of-lez-get-real-also-a-man/2011/06/13/AGld2ZTH_blog.html

Edited at 2011-06-14 04:27 pm (UTC)

Posted by: pokeyburro (pokeyburro)
Posted at: June 15th, 2011 11:12 pm (UTC)

Great post. Very meta; very self-aware. This is the sort of post I've hoped to see more of as Internet forums mature, and people get used to the way opinions and facts bounce around in them, and why people have the beliefs they have.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: June 22nd, 2011 12:31 pm (UTC)

As for whom to be angry at: I feel a lot more responsibility for what jerkass aspiring American academics do than for what Assad does. And, especially because I can't imagine a successful U.S. military intervention in Syria, I can do more about the behavior of jerkass aspiring American academics than I can about Assad.

I expect that a lot of people feel this way. My concern is that this contributes to the worldview that Western moral failures are beams whereas moral failures in other parts of the world are motes. I don't thinks that's any more productive for a society than excessive rumination and self-recrimination is productive for an individual human life.

If nothing else, it takes you to the point where VOGUE magazine can run a profile on the Assads as being glamorous and progressive, and then quietly pull it from the internet when the Assads' goons start whacking people en masse.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: June 22nd, 2011 02:45 pm (UTC)

Emphatically disagreed. They are closest to you, yes, you are responsible for them, yes, and you can do something about them, yes; none of these things mean that they are greater, and to act as if they are means that you essentially trap your society within a moralistic Zeno's paradox.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: David Hines (hradzka)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2011 12:09 am (UTC)

This would have the unfortunate effect of setting large amounts of the universe outside the bounds of moral criticism. If we treat not only our beams, but our motes, as beams, and treat others' beams as motes, we're turning morality into a privilege by which we consign suffering to invisibility by the simple expedient of not deigning to comment on it.

I don't expect people to fight for every cause with the same fervor; John Donne to the contrary, each death does not diminish each of us to the same degree. But when we criticize our lesser failings more fervently and eagerly than we criticize others' greater ones, we're not telling them we recognize our proper study; we're telling them that we acknowledge that we are wrong and they are right.

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