I really felt, a number of years ago, that in discussions on Middle East issues while living in the U.S., it was often—finding that when I presented real facts and opinions, that the immediate reaction to someone with my name was, you know, why are you anti-American, why are you anti-Jewish? Which, both are completely false…
Getting that kind of reaction was distracting from the real focus. So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issues.
So he thought that he, Tom MacMaster, had an identity interesting enough to prove to be a distraction, to the extent that it needed to be hidden behind one that was suitably abstract and invisible, and that “Amina” fit the bill? There are insults wrapped in insults in this story. After all, MacMaster is not claiming that he invented Amina because she was compelling enough to get the attention he couldn’t—which she was, and that is bad enough—but that she could be enough of a cipher to allow his fascinating insights to shine through. Amina was, by his account, designed not as a muse or an idol but as an amanuensis.
Given his methods, he couldn’t accomplish even what he said that he wanted. And he may have endangered people who let down their guard trying to help Amina, as well as those who actually try to be heard. In one of his posts, Amina is saved from the secret police when her father yells at them. Who was MacMaster instructing or reproaching with that one? His confession, and partial apology, posted on his blog yesterday, was gapingly inadequate, culminating in these lines:
This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.
However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.
It is not charming to hear someone who has emotionally manipulated any number of people—not just readers of the blog, but correspondents he deceived and allowed to confide in him over the course of years—to go on about the shallowness of others. Should we feel better because we have moved him? In a followup, posted today, he begins by making some of the proper apologetic gestures, but then veers into a self-indulgent stream of discussions about his literary ambitions, how great his mother is, his fake Internet dating profiles, and how, while he “enjoyed ‘puppeting’ this woman who never was,” fake blogging “was a terrible time suck.” Girls are such trouble.
Is this an indictment of the Internet? He couldn’t have pulled precisely this hoax without it—but we’ve had hoaxes for ages. Some of the writers of anti-Catholic nun abduction stories in past centuries (also involving fanciful lesbians) might have made similarly spurious claims about the importance of their message. And the Web, when roused, was remarkably efficient at exposing MacMaster, from alerting the woman in London whose pictures he used to tell-tale Picasa accounts and I.P. addresses. Most of all, there was a stubborn belief that, if Amina did exist, she, or someone who knew her personally, must be findable via social media. That is a remarkable place to have arrived at. We assume that a gay girl in Damascus wouldn’t be alone, or unreachable. But MacMaster may have made her harder to recognize, and her situation more precarious than it needed to be.