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Posted at 05:16 PM ET, 06/13/2011

A gay girl in Damascus and other online unicorns

A gay girl in Damascus?

Zero out of three ain’t bad.

The popular blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus” has turned out to be none of the above. Its half-Syrian, half-American lesbian author, Amina Arraf, is a work of fiction created by an American grad student.

Last week, a “cousin” of Amina’s posted on her popular Facebook page that Amina had been taken by government agents, igniting an online sensation. The State Department began an investigation.

But soon doubts began to form – had anyone met this person? Her pictures turned out to be from the Facebook page of a woman in London. And her story quickly unraveled.

Amina Arraf is, in fact, a married 40-year-old man from Georgia. And somehow, I’m not surprised. The 86th law of the Internet is that if someone online identifies herself as a “fun-loving lesbian” she is almost certainly a 40-year-old man from Georgia.

MacMaster wrote in his admission and apology that “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

“An important voice?”

Baloney.

These are the words of a man who thinks the most exciting thing about the situation is the fact that he has showed up to cover it. As a general rule, if you feel the urge to become the voice of the voiceless, eat a sandwich and wait for the feeling to pass. The truth will come out eventually. Look at Margaret Seltzer’s faux-memoir “Love and Consequences,” where she claimed she was trying to “put a voice to people” from gangs. It’s a dangerous impulse.

He claims he was practicing his prose style, trying “to improve my creative writing quality.” I’ve heard that before. That’s what I told Chris Hansen.

But this is a classic cautionary tale of the Internet age.

The first rule of the Internet is that the person you are talking to may not exist. Look at “Catfish,” or all those people on Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator.”

Of course, the online self is in certain ways more real. Everyone contains strange and intimate worlds that sometimes emerge more truthfully under a pseudonym. But this was not one of those cases. This was, as its author describes it, “role-playing.” “I also had a real ego boost in thinking that, ‘I’m good. I’m smart. These journalists don’t realize I’m punking them.’ I was vain enough to think that even if it wasn’t my name, I was seeing my words in print,” he told Post reporters.

Oscar Wilde described the joys of a double life as “feasting with panthers.” But he also said that what we have done in the secret chamber we will have one day to cry from the rooftops. MacMaster is feeling that, all right.

Now he says, “I feel really awful about the fact that the Syrian government has been claiming that the Western government is making up stories, and now they can use me as evidence. That allows them to steer away from real things happening in Syria.”

You should have thought of that before.

It’s an understandable motivation.

Fiction can often be a more effective tool than fact for awakening people to injustice. “The Jungle” was fiction. So was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” So was “The Kite Runner.” Fact has a tendency not to unfold quite as we’d like. There is always something on the lens. Heroes and villains are never so clear-cut as we want them to be; war is not a parade of unceasing valor and terrific explosions, but rather boredom punctuated by flashes of terror. Political conflicts feel remote and seem to revolve around arcane matters among which we find ourselves helplessly adrift. That is why fiction exists — to tell a truer story, in many cases, than the facts make possible.

But nothing is more injurious than fiction masquerading as fact, fiction that fails to comprehend that the distinction between the two is as non-trivial as it is possible to be.

Fiction has privileges denied to fact, but only on the condition of admitting it is fiction.

Inspired by a true story is still untrue. Arraf’s blog, unfortunately, was neither fact nor fiction. It was lying.

When unleashing nonexistent people on the world it is wise to exercise some caution. You can be someone else online, cultivate a secret life. But plant the tiniest seed of suspicion, and the bread-crumb trail is there.

Perhaps this is also the fruit of an Internet that increasingly demands that everyone be identified by his or her real name. There are still areas of exception to this. But Amina existed on Facebook, the area of the Internet cordoned off for “real” people, not in the anonymous wilds of LiveJournal. Had she not vanished, no one might have doubted. The Internet may be credulous, but it is also compassionate.

It was the disappearance of a person who never existed in the first place that forced us to peer inside this particular Pandora’s box. Then all the dark and ugly things came leaping out — the egotistical shade that makes anyone who is not actually voiceless decide that it is time to Become a Voice for All Those Out There, the other illicit correspondences, the deception and not too much hope for the real story that deserves to be told.

Never tell people to hunt for something that does not exist.

They may find it.

By  |  05:16 PM ET, 06/13/2011

Tags:  the Internet, Amina Arraf, oops

 
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