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
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.