Guest post from Ben Rosenbaum

Benjamin Rosenbaum is a science fiction writer. I know him (in person!) from the world’s largest feminst science fiction convention, WisCon. Here’s a guest post from Ben about the Amina hoax, identity, power and privilege, and sf writer James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon.

A funny note: Ben’s comments in the Amina posts under his email address, “”, sparked some very alarmed emails to me from other commenters!


I still like a lot of Amina wrote and see no reason not to continue to like it. I liked the thing about “Der Judenstaat and Al Awda”, I liked “Still Sunni”. The author, as Roland Barthes said, is dead. I can be enraged at Tom MacMaster and still find Amina an attractive hero. I like Matilda, even though Roald Dahl was apparently a complete jerk.

What was attractive about Amina is that she was articulate and interesting and knowledgeable, and also that she was personally courageous and speaking from earned experience. If some things felt a little off about her reports, one was inclined to forgive them — she was speaking from her own experience, after all, and she was under a lot of stress.

The hoax does not mean that the opinions were any less articulate. It does however unravel the package of articulateness, integrity, courage, and personal knowledge, replacing it with a somewhat less appetizing cocktail of articulateness, deceit, cowardice and academic knowledge.

It is correct that we judge opinions based on where they are coming from. This is not an error, or an unfortunate bias. We cannot check every detail of what we hear ourselves, so when we hear an opinion, we are entitled to ask: how does this person know? We very often have to go with gut feeling, with trust. In a constrained academic context we can check footnotes, we can replace some personal trust with institutional trust, but it’s essentially the same process.

Part (granted, quite a small part compared to real people’s lives put in danger) of the tragedy here is that Amina would have made a brilliant character in a novel. Minal is right about where
it’s full of Fail
— but if MacMaster had been building true alliances with real queer Arabs on the basis of honesty, all those years, they could have called him on those things; all the moments of Orientalist fail and male-gaze squick could have been first-draft problems. That that novel will never be written is not because of a lack of talent; it is because of a lack of courage and humility.

(I don’t, by the way, say that sneeringly. Indeed, I say it with a sort of “there but for the grace of God go I” — as a white guy, I can well understand the temptation of stolen authority. Maybe I’m projecting here, but in the Washington Post interview MacMaster says, “the biggest reason [for inventing Amina] was that I found that when I argued, debated and made points that I knew to be factually sound on issues relating to Middle East by myself, I got pushback. I was prevented from [saying] what I was trying to say. I created a relatively simple character, so when I commented on blogs or in a discussion online, it [was] not going to be about me.” My theory? I suspect he wasn’t prevented from saying what he was trying to say at all — he was just called on it. Privilege made that feel like suffocation. The pushback — which was actually a gift, a way in, a way to make allies, to come to understand — felt intolerable. And he did care passionately about the issues. He wanted to be heard. Stolen authority felt so natural, so right, that it was addictive. That’s just my theory. But it gives me a lot of compassion for MacMaster. People have been calling him a sociopath, and in some ways that is an accurate operational description of the way he carried on a lot of these relationships. But I don’t think he’s a sociopath in the technical sense.

Character is built of habits, and choices have a way of snowballing. This is not to excuse the choices he made; he knew full well what he was doing. He could have stopped any time, before being caught. He chose the easy way, the cheat, the stolen rush, and kept on choosing it.)

But what about the general case? Should people have a right to pretend-blog as a compelling-but-fake persona?

I don’t think there’s necessarily a hard-and-fast rule. Jackie Monkiewicz brought up the case of James Tiptree, Jr., who also carried on whole correspondences and friendships in a persona. One salient difference is that when Alice Sheldon revealed herself as the true Tiptree many of her friends were amused, or even joyful — not rageful and betrayed at all. Le Guin wrote “oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable — Wie geht’s, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! […] I suppose there are some who resent being put on, but it would take an extraordinarily small soul to resent so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic, and ETHICAL, a put on.”

I can think of some reasons why the reaction differed. For one thing, power relations are asymmetrical, and pretending to be in a more privileged position than you are does not create the same kind of infiltration, false authority, false protection, that pretending to be in a less powerful position does. For another thing, Tiptree could say, when she came out, “everything else was true”. She really had been in the army, in the intelligence services, been a big game hunter; it was all HER, just a male version of her (this may also, for all I know, be true of “Paula Brooks” — it’s definitely not true of Tom/Amina). But these reasons may not be the full story. Part of the deal is simply that if you can pull things off, you can pull them off; you just can’t be disingenuous that you’re taking a risk. Sometimes you can kiss people out of the blue and it will work out well, because you have read the situation right. Other times it will work out very, very badly. In those latter times you are not less at fault because you didn’t understand.

I never assumed Amina was exactly who she said she was; I certainly hoped she was disguising and obfuscating crucial details. When it first became clear that it was a hoax, I imagined that perhaps the author was really an alternate Amina — a real Syrian-American lesbian blogger who was not in Syria, who was playing out a fantasy out what would have been, if she had stayed. That still would have been dangerous and irresponsible, she would have been putting people at risk and it would have been immature… but at the end of it I would have been able to read those entries as hers, and liked them as hers, instead of liking them as the entries of a fictional character.

I think it would be fine for a blog persona to be false, to be a hoax, if the effect of the hoax was neutral or just. The Sokal hoax is an example of a just hoax. It harmed no one and cleverly exposed sloth and timidity. A neutral hoax would be if it turned out that, I don’t know, say, Linus Torvalds was an Arab woman. So what? We’d still have Linux. His nationality isn’t relevant. We don’t believe in Linux, and trust it, and take it seriously because of personal authority based in its Finnishness.

The thing is, when you’re perpetrating a hoax, plan for the discovery. Plan to be outed, because if the average person on the internet is getting more
gullible (which I doubt, but whatever), the least gullible people, the Snopeses and Liz Henrys, are getting more powerful, more networked, and faster at exposing you. If you are doing a hoax, know that you will get caught, and — as in the Sokal example — make getting caught the punch line, make it part of your point. Make it so you can hold your head up high when you do get caught, because the hoaxiness was part of what you were really saying all along.

Benjamin Rosenbaum

Honoring Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ died today. I’m very sad. I didn’t know her personally but she was one of my feminist heroes, and I wrote back and forth with her a few times about her work. Now I wish I’d said more, written and sent the letter I was writing to her in my head these last few weeks… I had the envelope already addressed with a tiny book inside, waiting for the letter. Instead, I’m writing about her death.

I don’t know what to say. She was so important to me as a writer. I grew up reading tons of science fiction, history, literature, and poetry. When I was a teenager, I had a huge feminist awakening that most of what I read was by men, and that that wasn’t because men were just better writers. I began to go to the effort to look for women’s writing and their histories, in anthologies, in indexes of reference books, in bookstores, and when I got to college, picking classes based on the reading list gender breakdown. It was in my first year of college at University of Texas at a co-op overflow book sale where I saw a stack of Russ’s book How to Suppress Women’s Writing. I read most of it on the floor of the bookstore and then bought several copies for a dollar each and gave them away to people. I bought it for years whenever I saw it in bookstores (to give to people) and seems like I always had a few copies floating around my bookshelves. I read all her other work that I could find and was blown away by The Female Man and We Who Are About To…. Once I got to WisCon, and then even better once there were online bookstores, I read all of her work. I highly recommend What Are We Fighting For? as a thoughtful exploration of feminism and feminist practice.

book cover for how to suppress women's writing

But it’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing that means the most to me. Back when I was 17, a writer and already deep into researching and cataloguing women writers who I felt were neglected by history and literary criticism, it was absolutely life changing to come across this book that outlined *patterns*. Russ gave the methods of suppressing women names. She made them easy to recognize and name. That’s so important! From that point on I had a useful intellectual framework, a helpful bullshit-detector, that helped me identify bullshit as applied to cultural production in general. It helped my own identity, because I could detect the suppression techniques applied to myself and my work, and could better resist them. And it helped me to know how important it is to focus on, and support, other women, and to be in solidarity with them and with others in groups being suppressed by what I think of as intellectual violence, by underhanded, dishonest means. I felt like the need for choice and action, for active search, for being analytical and careful about my information feeds, what I chose to research as a scholar — so much of that stemmed from Russ’s little book. I’m so grateful for all her work, especially her funny, perturbing, weird science fiction — but I love How to Suppress Women’s Writing dearly for how it helped me when I was a young and angry woman. I built on that book and on Dale Spender’s work in writing my anthology of Spanish-American women poets from the turn of the century. And its central points motivated me to collaborate with Laura Quilter, archivist of the Feminist SF Wiki, kick-ass wikipedia editor, and really, another one of the feminist scholars who I deeply admire, with our friendship one of the mainstays of my life.

When Joanna conferenced in to WisCon, for an interview with Samuel Delany, I transcribed the interview along with Laura . We sat there feeling so emotional and I think grateful, and for me at least, I felt sad that Russ had sort of retired from the fray, but glad that she could, and happy that she sounded so happy. I am wildly enthusiastic and passionate about many things but am often in pain and exhausted and fighting to get through the day, so I feel like I understand more and more that that is just one thing that happens and probably is in my own future. I am sorry if that sounds weird or isn’t well expressed. What I mean is that I think that the expectations of all of us who love and admire her might have been a bit of a burden — when is your next book! answer your fan mail! why aren’t you writing something else! — And I am glad she put down that burden at some point and was able to enjoy the sky and reading and watching Buffy, her friends and family, and kind of kicking back. It felt like a good thing to incorporate into one’s feminism. That we can respect each others’ lives or spaces and things are not all about productivity, work, writing, fighting — what are we fighting for? The right for us all not to have to fight, really. So while I’m sorry she was ill and had chronic fatigue and other problems I’m glad she had the space just to live. I hope that makes sense.

I wrote to Joanna to ask her to copyleft How to Suppress, and let me keep it in print and put it online for free, so that it wouldn’t be disappeared out of history and young people’s serendipitous discoveries — and would be online and easily bookmarkable for feminist bloggers to use as a touchtone. She seemed to like the idea and put me in touch with her agent, but nothing ever came of it. If not me, I hope someone else will be able to keep it in print in a low cost edition, maybe Aqueduct Press or someone else who will give it the care it deserves. But I loved it that she was kind enough to write me letters and postcards and stay in touch.

It helps to read other people’s thoughts on her and how her work was important to them — I was comforted a little (but sadder) reading the long thread on metafilter today.

I know a lot of people i know are devastated by her death, when I think about it, I am middle aged now and am watching the people I grew up admiring, my heroes, grow old and die. I’m sad for us all…

Cat eggs: another bad idea

This weekend one of my sister’s chickens laid an egg for the first time. I can’t wait till I get to find and eat an actual home-made egg. Everyone was super excited about this egg. My brother-in-law showed me an entire photo slide show of the egg, its yolk color, what it looked like cooking, and the egg on the plate with some toast, half eaten. I stared at their newly mature hen. Suddenly instead of looking delicious, like a cartoon moment where a starving shipwrecked sailor sees the chicken turn into a roast chicken, the hen morphed into a weird science-fictional egg-producing machine, and I saw it like a little robot centered around manufacturing this very complicated object, in cross section like a diagram of the Digesting Duck. OMG chickens.

The amazing taste and healthy yolk color of the fresh eggs from your very own hipster chickens, the fact that you fed them mealworms from your own urban homestead worm farm and the tops of the organic beets you had for dinner, are all lovely thoughts. But that’s not the point of chickens to me. My main love of the idea of eggs right from the chicken are about a farm girl mythos. I totally wish I could be a farm girl. In reality wouldn’t go well at all.

In books about kids on farms, chickens are awesome. You go into the barn or the henhouse amid soothing clucks and happy peeping chicks. It’s equal parts peace and bustling. You put your hand under the fluffy butt of a warm chicken into the sweet-smelling hay, and it sleepily protests as you take out the eggs and put them in basket lined with a red-checked cloth. It’s like this primal experience of nurturing comfort. Nice mother hens! Eggs! Yay! A little child could do it!

In reality, I’m allergic to chicken dander. Last time I touched a chicken, my face swelled up so much I could barely see. And hay makes me sneeze. It would be 4am and freezing on the farm. The hens would peck the hell out of my arms and face as I tried to reach under them. Even an inch-long cockroach flying into my face would make me scream and freak out, so a flapping chicken would basically be like a super powered palmetto bug that could knock your glasses right off. There’s no way. Also, in my real world, there would be no basket and everything would be covered in smelly chicken poo. Likely also covered in the blood streaming from my face and arms from being pecked half to death.

So the obvious way to fix these problems is to create cats that can lay eggs. A little genetic engineering and wham, we get CATS OF THE FUTURE. Cat eggs! There you are in bed in your cosy house. You get up and in its nest box your cat has laid a lovely unfertilized chicken-tasting egg. Hens are *not* peaceful and cosy and sleepy. Cats are! You simply side your hand under the fluffy cat and remove the egg. Instant breakfast!

Cat eggs!!!!!!!

Justbeinlacy suggests modifying the cats to also provide coffee. That sounds great in theory, but I draw the line at milking my cat.