When the media and internet were buzzing about the shocking discovery that the celebrated blogger “A Gay Girl in Damascus” was really “A Straight American Man in Scotland” who had fooled all his readers and followers through the lie-machine called the Internet, one of those who expressed shock and criticism of the hoax was Paula Brooks, the deaf lesbian editor of the popular lesbian news blog, Lez Get Real. When a man who said he was Brooks’ father told Washington Post reporters who called to interview the blogger that they could only speak to her through him because of her hearing disability, the reporters did some checking. Son of a gun: Paula’s “father” was really Paula, who was really Bill Graber, a straight, married, former construction worker.
- There are three forms of unethical activity that thrive online and that are also persistently rationalized by Internet users, especially the young ones: stealing (through file sharing and plagiarism), incivility, and lying. None of them are ethical, and none of them are defensible. Stealing intellectual property does the most financial harm, but the betrayals engaged in by Graber and Tom McMaster, the alter-ego of “Amina Arraf,” whose sensitive posts as a Syrian woman seemed to provide genuine insight, do more cultural harm by far. I have written many times here that the erosion of trust in any person, organization or institution is one of the greatest threats to our communities, culture and happiness, and these episodes just wash away some more. Those who followed and admired “Amina” and “Paula” were betrayed in a direct and personal way.
- Both Graber and McMaster claim to have had good intentions, and their commentary was apparently sincere. Both felt that their observations were important, and that they would not carry as much weight and persuasiveness because the authors were the wrong gender, sexual orientation, and in the case of “Amina,” nationality. They were right about that, and their solutions were ethically indefensible. What they did was no different, in its effect and motivation, from the job applicant who is convinced that he can be stellar, but whose credentials don’t convey his abilities, so he puts fake degrees on his resume. It is no different from author James Frey, with an inspiring, but fictional, story to tell, publishing his fantasy as his memoirs. It is no different from fake doctors who think they can give sound medical advice. It is no different, in fact, from John Edwards pretending to be someone who can be trusted to be President of the United States, when he can’t even be trusted to be decent human being.
- It is true: no matter how wise or perceptive any of us are, our influence, power and the persuasiveness of our opinions depend at least as much on who we are as what we know and say. Sometimes an Eric Hoffer will emerge from obscurity solely on the strength of his brilliance, but the facts of existence and human nature make it far more likely that a homeless man somewhere has the solutions to society’s worst problems, and nobody cares what he thinks. Meanwhile, we listen to Donald Trump. That is frustrating to that brilliant homeless man, but his solution is not to go online in the guise of an eccentric and reclusive billionaire, but rather to get out of the streets. Lying and fraud are not solutions.
- Both Graber and MacMaster have given the same excuse: a lie just got out of hand, became too big, and they were trapped. Bernard Madoff says the same thing. True, and so what? Every day of lying compounded the wrong, and they didn’t have to think very hard to figure out that the truth would come out eventually. Being too cowardly to address your misconduct and be accountable for the consequences before you have no choice isn’t a defense.
- Finally, Graber’s conduct is helpful for those who seem to have trouble with the concept of hypocrisy, which is not the act of doing something that is inconsistent with your sincere beliefs or political positions. Graber, while masquerading online as a lesbian woman so people would take his commentary on gay issues seriously, criticized MacMaster… for masquerading online as a lesbian woman so people would take his commentary on gay and Arab world issues seriously.
Now THAT’S hypocrisy.