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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Cheap shots

Bloggers v the New Republic.

Ezra Klein ran the following.

Coda on Siegel

We all owe Lee Siegel a moment of grateful silence. His blog may be gone, his reputation wrecked -- but "blogofascism" is a term that will endure, bringing great joy and happiness to generations who'll never know the first thing about its originator. Three cheers for you, Lee Siegel. Your site is dead, but your neologism lives on.

In place of Siegel's blog is a letter of apology from TNR's editor, Frank Foer, explaining that an internal investigation revealed Siegel as the force behind a commentor named "Sprezzatura," who'd been entering the threads to expansively defend Siegel's genius. It was a deception, the author donning a mask to gin up support for his own work, and it resulted in the blog's dismantlement and Siegel's suspension.

I had planned to let this go unmarked, unmentioned. I'm too invested. Of all the online interlocutors I've tangled with, Siegel was the only one I'd ever judged beyond the bounds of decency. But "safely" hidden behind the moniker Sprezzatura, Siegel took another shot at me, wrapping it in a flight of egotism so spectacular as to merit widespread quoting. So now, floating around various blogs, is this charming number from "Sprezzatura":

I'm a huge fan of Siegel, been reading him since he started writing for TNR almost ten years ago. (Full disclosure: I'm an editor at a magazine in NYC and he's written for me too.) I watch the goings-on and have to scratch my head. The people who hate him the most are all in their twenties and early thirties. There's this awful suck-up named Ezra Klein--his "writing" is sweaty with panting obsequious ambition--who keeps distorting everything Siegel writes--the only way this no-talent can get him. And I ask myself: why is it the young guys who go after Siegel? Must be because he writes the way young guys should be writing: angry, independent, not afraid of offending powerful people. They on the other hand write like aging careerists: timid, ingratiating, careful not to offend people who are powerful. They hate him because they want to write like him but can't. Maybe if they'd let themselves go and write truthfully, they'd get Leon Wieseltier to notice them too.

If only. It was actually this post that tipped me off to Sprezzatura's identity as Siegel. Blind with hatred for me, Siegel got sloppy. This wasn't the first time, to be sure, that he'd thrown a punch. Back during the Zengerle episode, I'd attacked Jason's speculations but worked to defend TNR the institution, begging folks not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Into this fray strode Siegel, who helpfully mused that blogging was a Mussolini revival fair. "Who gave him the keys to the blog," I wondered, frustrated by his desire to pour gasoline on a flame that threatened to engulf his magazine.

I've never been entirely sure what happened next, why that throwaway line ignited such white hot rage. Plenty of folks were mocking Siegel's inanity, but something about my punch really wounded him. Here's what came the next day:

"One madly ambitious blogger, who has been alternately trying to provoke and fawning over TNR writers in an attempt to break down the door--I'm too polite to mention any names--even asked who it was at TNR who gave me "the keys to a blog." This after his mom sent me a very sweet private email complimenting me on something I'd written and appealing to me to get in touch with her little boy! Tsk tsk. Go to your room."

Awhile back, my mother had followed a link off my site to Siegel's. Unbeknownst to me, she liked what he wrote, and sent him a complimentary e-mail. I wasn't aware of it, nor did the e-mail, which I later saw, seek to set up a meeting or introduction. But distorting and deploying the kind note of a writer's parent -- I can hardly even imagine blogofascists sinking so low!

There's a reason I never mentioned this till now. E-mails with that excerpt were piled in my inbox, but by the time I saw any of them, TNR brass had forced the graf's removal and apologized to me. That was, I thought, the honorable thing, and I decided to hold fire, not wanting the magazine to suffer more damage than it already was. The paragraph was amended to only contain the nonsensical accusation that I was seeking new employment by attacking eminent TNR author Lee Siegel and senior editor Jason Zengerle while defending reporter-research Eve Fairbanks.

And that was it with Siegel, at least till the emergence of Sprezzatura, who oddly mentioned me -- and only me -- by name, taking up the precise smear favored by Siegel, against the precise target who he'd ostensibly never named. Coincidental, no?

As it turns out, it wasn't. And that's really all I'll say on that. In the end, I don't want to drive the knife in on Lee, I take no pleasure in his downfall. I imagine him, tonight, pacing in his New York apartment, face hot every time he thinks of his suspension, sleep elusive as the recent weeks replay through his mind. It's not a pretty picture, and I've no wish to make it worse.

I've been a blogger for three-and-a-half years now, and I well know the business end of an angry readership with instant feedback mechanisms. The temptation to create a new persona and rally support for yourself in comments can be almost overwhelming. Almost. But for most of us, we resist the urge, take the lashing and move on. The next day, our skin is a little thicker, our tone a little harder, our arguments a little tighter. I remember being back on Pandagon, watching eighty or ninety assaults pile-up, my face blanching before the unanimity of the rejection. Now, such days barely bother me. But I can hardly hold it against those who falter, who make that first pseudonymous comment, and then rely on the mask for support. I've particular sympathy for those like Lee, who matured as writers when readers could scarcely speak, but by virtue of their institutional affiliation, are thrust into the blogospheric spotlight before acclimating to the mores, dangers, and temptations of the medium.

That, I think, is what so infuriated him about me. When I wrote, I did so with the American Prospect's logo standing sentry above my name. That some young 'un could be both better esteemed in this emergent medium and employed at a respected magazine was, I think, too serious a threat to Siegel. That I could then toss off an insult against a respected vet like him made it all the worse. He came at me as powerfully, as personally, as viciously as he could, and then was muzzled for his troubles -- a double humiliation. So when Sprezzatura freed his hand, it reflexively took another slap. It shouldn't have.

I don't think change is easy. I don't imagine that watching the influence of the sector you spent your whole life competing in be eclipsed by some virtual Wild West doesn't rankle, or even enrage. Some in the older generations adapt seamlessly, others refuse to enter the new demimonde at all. That latter group includes some of my favorite writers and thinkers -- figures I'm honored to know and learn from, and who I sometimes want to shake until they agree to use this new megaphone so a new generation can hear their voice. But then there's a third group, whose entrance into the online world is fueled by resentment, who feel entitled to respect and preeminence and are stunned to learn they must build their reputations again. Some of them settle down and work at it, others take shortcuts, or simply attack, becoming ever more bitter as they futilely attempt to reject the very arena they're competing in. Siegel was one of these, and he fell between the cracks of the contradiction. You can't be a blogger who hates the blogosphere, nor a contrarian who craves adulation.

But at least he gave us "blogofascism."

I'm old, crusty and was trained in newspapers. If someone had attacked me over a comment from my mother, I would have been quite vexed. Extremely vexed.

I have to commend Ezra for not turning this into a pig fight, by accepting Frank Foer's apology gracefully. Because I and I think a lot of other people would have handled this differently. As late as tonight, Ezra didn't want to make this a public issue. He had no desire to make things worse for TNR.

Me, well, once you lie about me, I'm not a forgive and forget kinda person. More like remember and repay. In spades. And not only did they lie about me, their apology was churlish.

But Mr. Klein wanted to be fair.

And he was, fairer than Siegel deserved. A man who blithely accused a respected academic of child rape without pause doesn't deserve that level of courtesy.

What I think he needs to understand is this: Siegel wanted to ruin his career. It wasn't just a moment of pique, it was an attack on his character and maturity. He was trying not only to put Ezra in his place, but turn him into a joke. Blogofascism isn't sloppy writing, it was a purposeful attack, to put us beyond the pale of grants and foundation money, to isolate us. TNR is playing for keeps, they just aren't very good at it.

posted by Steve @ 1:46:00 AM

1:46:00 AM

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