Monday, June 13, 2011


You may have heard this story? The blog A Gay Girl in Damascus was not written, as one might think probable, by a gay girl in Damascus but, even more probably, by a white 40-year-old American academic in Scotland. Fortunately, it was not the white 40-year-old American academic in Scotland whom I know, although if he were to write his dream blog, I can't help but think "A Gay Girl in Damascus" would be a great title for it.

People have been very critical of the man; perhaps the most important criticism was the following:
Gay activists in Syria have reacted with fury to the revelation of the blogger's true identity and to the suggestion that MacMaster had written it in an attempt to help their cause."There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country," wrote Sami Hamwi, a pseudonym for the Damascus editor of "We have to deal with [more] difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] activism. Add to that that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us."
I haven't bolded or italicised anything here; the powerful points speak for themselves. One finds other journalistic critiques rather tiresome, especially in the United States where, as Glenn Greenwald shows with nosehair-tweezing regularity, journalists protect the anonymity of powerful sources as they disseminate their snide and deceitful opinion without any repercussions or obligation to the truth. The sources are like fat, breathless ninjas who need the protection of their journalist lackeys to assassinate the enemies of the state. In a way, then, not that different from what A Married Guy in Edinburgh did.

But one issue has particularly piqued my interest. He has been calling it a hoax. And it is being treated as a hoax elsewhere. From what I can tell, he had two main purposes in writing the blog: he wanted it to be a writing exercise and he had some political points-of-view.

In terms of the former, I'm sorry to say that my only thought when I read the blog (before the true author was revealed) was "This is pretty mundane, phony-sounding American writing in a tough situation" - let me hasten to add, I didn't think for a minute that the person writing the blog was a middle-aged, married American male; the phoniness was the phoniness of narcissistic bloggers, coy and brash at once. Basically, bad writing. So does that mean Macmaster's a good writer? It all depends upon intent. Are his poems intended to be good poems or bad poems? Either way, then, it's not so much a hoax on this count as an impersonation, and one can judge it on those terms. Judging it a "hoax" already suggests that we should sympathise with the point-of-view of the journalists and government officials who weirdly decided that they would take this ersatz Gay Girl in Damascus seriously; after all, we know how important the plight of the oppressed is to journalists when they're not a good story, and to government officials always.

And in terms of the latter, in terms of the politics, he holds the views, it would seem, of a great many internationalist, middle-aged, married Americans. I don't think that they were worked out in any interesting way, except insofar as the gullible, including myself, thought they were written by a gay woman in Damascus.

The OED defines a hoax as follows:
An act of hoaxing; a humorous or mischievous deception, usually taking the form of a fabrication of something fictitious or erroneous, told in such a manner as to impose upon the credulity of the victim.
That's just it. I always had a sense that a hoax was not merely an attempt to impose upon the credulity of the victims, but that it was "humorous and mischievous". The non-Gay, non-Girl not living in Damascus is not claiming anywhere that this was humorous and mischievous. It's all so straight-faced: his apology, the blog, the media reports. Because, weirdly, he'd get in more trouble if he said it was all just a joke. And yet he calls it a hoax? Of course, the wikipedia definition leaves out anything about humour or the mischievous, but that's because wikipedia is like one of those Crown-of-thorn starfish slowly consuming the coral reef of human knowledge.

Now, if you spend some time looking up the definition of "hoax", you'll find definitions that don't imply playfulness or mischief. There's an ambiguity in the word. It's a form of trickery that can be comic or not. Where does the comedy come from? After all, it seems to me like MacMaster was not perpetrating a hoax, comic or not, but an impersonation, one he started without quite expecting the subsequent consequences. As a lawyer, I can tell you that this can turn out to be quite nasty.

But here is another "hoax":

Apparently, McDonald's - note the Scottish theme to today's blog - did not determine that African-American customers had to pay an additional fee per transaction "due to a recent string of robberies"; and apparently the twitter meme #Seriously McDonalds, through which the hoax was disseminated, has done a terrible injustice to the fast food company. So why do some people, like myself, consider this a good hoax rather than just an impersonation? A good hoax makes the gullibility meaningful. McDonald's is fundamentally racist as part of a shit-food-industry that targets African-Americans and preys upon them as both consumers and employees (a statement I will only defend if anybody asks me to and, if you're a lawyer for McDonald's, you'll know that the statement is itself a hoax on my readers, ha, ha, ha); anyway, the hoax twists this around to suggest that African-Americans prey on McDonald's and so owe a debt to them. It even has a punchline - the phone number at the bottom, according to somebody somewhere on the web, who is probably a lesbian, is the number for Kentucky Fried Chicken!

But - oh Sweet Jesus, I can't go on. I just discovered that apparently another "lesbian blogger"was a man? Are there no lesbian bloggers out there who aren't middle-aged white men? Is it possible . . . that all bloggers are middle-aged white men? Christ, the company I keep.


A Lesbian in the Lowlands said...

I know everyone in Scotland appreciates your pointing out the Scottish origin of Ronald McDonald, not to be confused with Clan Macdonald of Clanranald.

Speaking of hoaxes, now that you've outed me I have no choice but to start a blog called 'A 30-Year-Old American Academic in Scotland'. Thanks, friend.

The question of whether the blog was a 'hoax' or not reminds me of arguments about whether James Macpherson's works of Ossian in the 1760s were a 'forgery'. Macpherson, as you know, claimed he had found the writings of a third-century lesbian in Damascus. Samuel Johnson thought this was a bad way to support the queer community abroad and challenged Macpherson to produce the manuscript.

sw said...

Thank you for the literary-historical perspective! It is most helpful! I still think Gay Girl in Damascus would have been the best title for your blog.