This essay was originally published at Creedible.com in July 2011.
With a new political season in its early days (weeks? months?), it is tempting to direct readers to factcheck.org or politifact.com and let it go, but when I boldly wrote that one-word, provocative (and previously used) title, I had no candidate for public office in mind. Instead, I was thinking of a someone who was not a Gay Girl in Damascus.
Gay Girl in Damascus was the title of a blog that purported to be that of Amina Abdullah, a young woman of Syrian and American parentage, and described her thoughts and experiences as “Arab Spring” protests erupted across North Africa and the Middle East. Gay Girl was articulate, courageous, and quirky. She inspired confidence and compassion among English-speakers for a people of whom they knew little.
She was also an invention: the actual author is Tom MacMaster, a forty-year-old American from Georgia. In his “Apology to Readers,” posted June 12th, when researchers had successfully traced the posts back to him, he wrote:
“I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in thıs year of revolutions. The events there are beıng shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.”
Many responses to his fiction, however, which had gone on some years and went so far as to appropriate photos of another woman, have been angry and condemnatory. “No, I’m furious,” wrote Jillian C. York, Director of International Freedom of Expression, on Twitter. “Wasted my time, wasted my government’s time, wasted journalists’ time, hurt some vulnerable individuals.”
I have no complaints with fiction, which will come as a relief to my teenage children, both of whom are avid and talented writers. Storytelling frequently bears truth, even Truth, as a shining pearl within its shell. There is a striking and vital difference, however, between the truth we discover as the treasure in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and the cold pit of disappointment we find at the root of the Gay Girl in Damascus. With fiction, we know that the story is a story, and we are free to seek truth within it. In these blogs, we believe that the story is a history, and the revelation of the one lie makes any truth it purports to reveal suspect.
Other writers, writing honestly, may reveal these same truths, testify to these same facts. This lie has made their job of truth-telling that much harder.
I’m sadly familiar with lies. There are the bold lies, which bowl their way over truth with a relentless assertion and reassertion of their claims. There are the subtle lies, which use an extra “fact” or logical stretch to step away from reality. There are the lies of omission, in which ignorance is bliss for the teller. There are the lies of creation, building houses of cards that collapse when their basic nature is exposed.
I’m sadly familiar with lies. I blush at the ones I’ve told, and I blush at the ones I’ve believed. I blush, now with indignation, at the ones that get repeated again and again however discredited they might be, and I blush again at the credulity of humanity, that the lies get once more believed.
And I blush because the hardest lies of all to discern are the ones I might tell myself, and believing, pass on to others. My calling as a minister of the Gospel is to “bear witness,” and that means, at root, to tell the truth. In this one instance, I can sympathize with Pontius Pilate, muttering, “What is truth?” Indeed, truth does not always carry a sign declaring, “Here I am;” does not always fit with my comfortable assumptions, does not always contribute to my comfort.
Sometimes it’s not too hard. If I want to tell a story, then it’s up to me to tell you that it is a story. Jesus’ own parables make no claims that the man beaten on the road to Jericho, for example, really lived. The truth about what a neighbor is does not suffer because the Samaritan didn’t exist to offer help.
And sometimes it’s very hard, and then it’s time to wrestle with my prejudices, and offer my opinions for what they are. “This is what I know,” is what I should say, “and this is what I believe. This is what I hope, and this is what I fear. This is what I deduce, and this is what I’d prefer.”
Somewhere, perhaps, in the middle of it all, lies truth.