Historians in the News: “Gay Girl in Damascus”

It turns out that Tom MacMaster, the now infamously counterfeit “Gay Girl in Damascus” was an American graduate student in history. Todd Gitlin, in a thoughtful essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, notes that “evidently it comes as a belated surprise to a graduate student in history [emphasis in original] that falsification of authorship confounds the search for that elusive quiddity that historians are pleased to call truth, even if with a lower-case and not a capital T.”

I will leave it to individual readers to decide whether MacMaster was acting in his role as a graduate student in history. But to the extent that he was, let’s keep the record clear about the ethical issues. From the American Historical Association’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct: “Although historians disagree with each other about many things, they do know what they trust and respect in each other’s work. All historians believe in honoring the integrity of the historical record. They do not fabricate evidence. Forgery and fraud violate the most basic foundations on which historians construct their interpretations of the past. An undetected counterfeit undermines not just the historical arguments of the forger, but all subsequent scholarship that relies on the forger’s work. Those who invent, alter, remove, or destroy evidence make it difficult for any serious historian ever wholly to trust their work again.”

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