Lee Siegel -- the TNR editor who wrote that left bloggers are "hard fascism with a Microsoft face", wanted to guillotine people who wear baseball caps, said that conservatives are in power because the left supports pedophilia, and deeply regrets not having slept with Uma Thurman when she was sixteen -- has been sacked for using sock-puppets:
"An Apology to Our Readers
After an investigation, The New Republic has determined that the comments in our Talkback section defending Lee Siegel's articles and blog under the username "sprezzatura" were produced with Siegel's participation. We deeply regret misleading our readers. Lee Siegel's blog will no longer be published by TNR, and he has been suspended from writing for the magazine.
Editor, The New Republic"
(Note: the reason I haven't linked to any of the blog posts I referred to above is that all of them have been replaced by this message.)
At first my reaction was more or less pure schadenfreude. But as I read some of his sock-puppet's comments (e.g., here and here), that changed. It's not that I don't go in for schadenfreude. There are people -- Duke Cunningham leaps to mind -- who I think have more or less waived any claim to normal human sympathy, and when they fall, sometimes I cheer. But the more I read, the more it seemed to me that I was watching some sort of serious mental meltdown play itself out in print.
To judge by his writing, Lee Siegel has never been what you'd call well-adjusted. His 2003 Diary from Slate, for instance, contains not only a pretty tedious collection of imaginary beings -- a cat, a therapist, women, you name it -- but passages like this:
"Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel ... Oh! There you are. This "Diary" creeps up on you in the most unguarded moments. I recently improved my condition from self-intoxication to self-obsession, and I was just doing some lunchtime exercises — I ate lunch around 1:30 today; my cat Maya poached some salmon from Citarella — meant to bring me to the next stage, which is self-absorption. Dr. von Hoffenshtoffen, whom I mentioned yesterday, devised these "identity calisthenics," as he calls them. I think they're helping, but this Diary, with its emphasis on "I," gave me a "soul hernia" (another Hoffenshtoffenian phrase)."
And, more to the point, this:
"I've always had these imaginary creatures populating my life. Drinking and lovemaking don't seem to be enough of an outlet. Shrinks can make of it what they will, but believe me, I've explored all the possibilities. (I've explored them with Dr. von Hoffenshtoffen, my imaginary shrink.) Personas, too, make up part of my existence. I find it hard to get through 24 hours without sending an e-mail to a friend pretending to be someone else or calling a friend up and disguising my voice. When I was married, I'd spend whole days speaking to my wife as Sylvester Cointreau, a visiting professor of anthropology from the University of Nantes; or Teddy Consuego, advertising executive and amateur oboist. Teddy eventually made a play for my wife, which her own imaginary persona found outrageously rude. The next day his ad agency sent him to their new branch in North Korea."
In the Diary, he comes across as narcissistic, pretentious, and a lot less talented than he thinks he is. In his more recent TNR posts, he seemed to be living in a more or less permanent state of anger and disdain. His posts on James Kincaid, in which he basically accuses Kincaid of pedophilia on the basis of what seems to me to be a serious misreading, are more or less unhinged, and also pretty close to libelous. (I suspect, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that TNR was glad to have an excuse to fire him, and that the reason they didn't just close his blog but erased it is that in so doing they removed this string of posts.)
Bizarre though his posts are, though, the Sprezzatura comments make his writings under his own name seem like miracles of maturity and restraint. Samples:
"How angry people get when a powerful critic says he doesn't like their favorite show! Like little babies. Such fragile egos. Siegel accuses Stewart of a "pandering puerility" and he gets an onslaught of puerile responses from the insecure herd of independent minds. I'm well within Stewart's target group, and I think he's about as funny as a wet towel in a locker room. Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep."
"Groupthink from a mob of bullies cowering behind their user-name aliases. Groupthink! Groupthink! Naaa naaa naaa-naaa naaa!"
"Such anger. Such apparent unhappiness. Such inability to withstand a difference in taste without resorting to personal insult. You would think Siegel insulted the Prophet Muhammad in a Muslim magazine with Muslim readers. Toxic thin-skinnedness rising from a fragile sense of self must be a universal condition. I despair..."
"Every young write in NYC has it in for poor Siegel it seems. They all write like middle-aged hacks. He has the fire and guts of a young man (I assume he's middle-aged himself, or somewhere near there.) Who am I? Someone who knows who you are."
"I'm not Lee Siegel, you imbecile. If you knew who I was you and your n + 1 buddies would crap in your pants. Anyway, I really do have two kids. Good luck managing your frustrated ambition."
It's pretty amazing.
And then there's the part about Ezra Klein. 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."
That's a vicious comment. Here's Ezra's response, which I think is gracious and magnanimous. I agree with Steve Gilliard and Robert Farley at LGM that Siegel probably meant not just to insult Ezra, but to do him real harm. (I don't agree with Steve that the blogofascism post was similarly motivated.) And I'd like to say two things about this.
The first is this: I don't know Ezra at all, but I did meet him once, at a party for Kevin Drum in DC. There were a lot of younger bloggers there -- Matt Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman, half the staff of the American Prospect -- and a lot of them were slightly competitive in conversation, especially with one another. I don't mean anything negative by this; it was like watching a group of people who are, and know that they are, very talented athletes playing a game of pick-up basketball. No sharp elbows, no fouls, a genuine love of the game, but for all that, an element of completely understandable competition. But Ezra was strikingly different in this respect. As far as I could tell, there was nothing competitive about his conversations at all, and as a result he tended to listen and to quietly observe in a way that some of the others did not. I remember thinking to myself: there is a whole category of pitfalls that this guy seems to have successfully spotted and avoided; and that impressed me. For that reason, if I were playing a game of blogger jeopardy and the clue was "sweaty with panting obsequious ambition", "What is Ezra Klein" would have been just about the last answer I would have come up with.
The second concerns Ezra's response. A few of the commenters at Steve Gilliard's blog think his magnanimity is for show; one of them says it's because he wants a job at TNR. I have precisely no information about Ezra's professional ambitions, but I don't think there would be anything wrong with his wanting a job at TNR. However, I very much doubt that anything like that is the main driver behind his response, for two reasons. For one thing, it takes a particular sort of person not just to see that the best response is a magnanimous one, but to be able to produce sustained magnanimity, including, for instance, a real and (I think) largely successful attempt to see things from Siegel's point of view. Putting yourself in the shoes of someone who has just attacked you is hard to do successfully, and I don't think it's something one would be likely to be able to pull off for careerist reasons.
For another, I think that the people who wrote these responses probably hadn't thought enough about what it feels like to be the object of someone's sheer viciousness. As it happens, I don't have to stretch my imagination at all to see what this might be like, since I too was once the object of a somewhat unhinged narcissist's campaign attempts at character assassination. What seems to have set Siegel off was Ezra's having written: "Who gave him the keys to the blog?"; what I did to "provoke" the person who went after me was, if anything, even more innocuous. Likewise, in both cases the responses were completely disproportionate, really vicious, and involved saying, to a lot of people, things that were both deeply insulting and flatly false. (Not that there aren't a lot of true bad things that someone might say about me, but the things this person said were not among them.)
To understand what this is like, you need to understand the shock of realizing that someone out there genuinely hates you. In my case, there are a lot of people who dislike me in more or less the usual ways, and this doesn't particularly bother me unless their dislike is well-founded. (Even then, it's not the dislike that's the problem.) But real hatred is a different matter, and it's deeply disturbing. In my case, it felt as though I had been punched really hard when I first learned about it -- and this despite the fact that I had known for years that this person did this sort of thing, and had assumed he would eventually do it to me.
Moreover, it's really hard to know that vicious attacks against you are out there and to do nothing about them. In my case, the person had said what he said in private, but he had said it to a lot of people, including people whose good opinion I valued a lot, and who were very influential in my profession. The only thing I could think of to counter what he said would have been to call the people I knew he had talked to and say: look, I know X said Y to you; it's not true. That seemed both pathetic and unlikely to work; and that meant that I was stuck thinking: all I have to rely on is whether or not people trust me enough to think that I would never do what he says I did. I cannot actually do anything to counter this. I knew that was the right thing to do, but it was incredibly hard to leave what he said unanswered. If blogs had existed, I would probably have used one to defend myself.
The point of all this is: when someone goes after you in a completely vicious way, trashes your good name in public, and in Ezra's case even drags his mother into it, it's not at all like your standard blog flame, which is easy to ignore. It's very personal and very disturbing. Moreover, it's very hard not to say anything at all; nor can I see any reason why anyone should let a serious and hate-filled attack stand unanswered. The most obvious response is to fight back: to attempt a withering destruction of your attacker, or the sort of counterpunch from which no recovery is possible. I completely understand why someone in this sort of situation would respond in that way. But I have a lot more respect for those who have the character and the self-restraint to make the choice Ezra did: to explain how they see things clearly but without malice, and to treat their attacker more fairly than he would ever dream of treating them.