I first clicked through to Janet Maslin's NYT review of Lee Siegel's new book because I read this delightful quote, and wanted to see whether it could possibly be real:
"Who is it that “rewrote history, made anonymous accusations, hired and elevated hacks and phonies, ruined reputations at will, and airbrushed suddenly unwanted associates out of documents and photographs”? Mr. Siegel’s immediate answer is Stalin. But he alleges that the new power players of the blogosphere have appropriated similar powers."
I suppose I shouldn't even notice, now that Jonah Goldberg has informed us that the answer to the question: which of the following is a fascist: Mussolini or "a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore"? is: the female grade school teacher. I mean, in such a topsy-turvy world, why shouldn't my little blog posts be the equivalent of sending millions off to die in the Gulag? (I mean: it's not as though Lee Siegel hasn't already informed us that bloggers are fascists, that seeing people in baseball caps make him want to bring back the guillotine, and so forth. If he can play Robespierre, why shouldn't I suddenly find myself cast as Stalin?)
Still, I wanted to see this evidence of my Unsuspected Dictatorial Powerz for myself, and so I clicked through, and found something that bothered me a lot more, namely:
"In “Against the Machine,” the swaggeringly abrasive cultural critic Lee Siegel pays a visit to Starbucks. He sits down. He looks around. And he finds himself surrounded by Internet zombies, laptop-addicted creatures who have so grievously lost their capacity for human interaction “that social space has been contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness.” How long until they wake up and smell the coffee?
Mr. Siegel’s field trip illustrates several things, not least that Starbucks is today’s most hackneyed reportorial setting. His outing captures a vision of connectivity that is the precise opposite of what it appears to be. For him the semblance of a shared Starbucks experience masks endemic computer-generated isolation, a condition that has prompted psychic and ethical breakdowns that go well beyond the collapse of community. (...)
Mr. Siegel has done something in which Ms. Kael once specialized: nailing an inchoate malaise that we already experience but cannot easily explain. He asks, in brief, why we are living so gullibly through what would have been the plot of a science-fiction movie 15 years ago. Why does the freedom promised by the Internet feel so regimented and constricting? Why do its forms of democracy have their totalitarian side? What happens to popular culture when its sole emphasis is on popularity? How have we gone “from ‘I love that thing he does!’ to ‘Look at all those page views!’ in just a few years”?"
Whenever I read someone going on about what "we" feel, or how "we" have gone from X to Y, I always find myself snarling: Speak for yourself, or thinking of Tonto's reply to the Lone Ranger: What do you mean, 'we', paleface? But I have rarely felt that as strongly as I did when reading this passage.
This community has gone through a tough couple of weeks. Speaking for myself, almost everything about it has been dreadful. But all that pain has come from something whose possibility Lee Siegel, at least as interpreted by Janet Maslin, seems not to recognize, namely: making very close friends with someone over the internet.
Without the internet, I would never have gotten to know Andy. He lived in Colorado; I live in Baltimore. He was a career Army officer; I teach philosophy. I cannot imagine how our paths would have crossed without the internet. And if they had not, it would have been my great loss. Knowing Andy enriched my life immeasurably, and it was an honor to be his friend.
Moreover: this blog is a real community, and a strong one, as all of you have shown during the past two weeks. We have gotten countless offers of help and support since Andy was killed, both in public and in private. Gary has waged a silent war against the letter A: searching for blogs and press accounts that misspell Olmsted, and getting it corrected. I know this because whenever I go out searching for links, I always find that Gary has been there first, leaving tactful comments about the correct spelling of Andy's name. People have offered all sorts of help, both to us and, more importantly, to Andy's and CPT Casey's families. Everyone has been really wonderful, above and beyond the call of duty, in any number of unanticipated ways. For that, and for the friendships in which Lee Siegel seems not to believe, I thank you all.
Besides that, there are all the people whose lives Andy touched with his last post. As I wrote on TiO a few days ago, I checked the stats on this site and Andy's, and as of Jan. 15 he had had 325,000 visitors during the month of January, while we had around 350,000. Even allowing for overlap, that's still a lot of people, people who read what he wrote, and were moved by it, and maybe came to understand soldiers a little better. That is no small thing. I only wish Andy could be here to see it.
I wonder whether Lee Siegel actually talked to any of the people he observed in his Starbucks: whether he bothered to ask them what they were reading, and why, and what it meant to them, or just leapt to the conclusion that they were "contracted into isolated points of wanting, all locked into separate phases of inwardness." For all I know, those people could have been reading Andy's final post, and crying, and resolving to hold their lovers or their spouses or their children extra tight when they left the Starbucks and went home. They could have been you. They could have been me.
If they were any of us, then Lee Siegel was wrong. He might be contracted into an isolated point of wanting. He might be so unimaginative or narcissistic that he cannot imagine the possibility of anything better. We are, after all, talking about someone whose diary reads 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."
I just don't see any reason to think that he's right about the rest of us.
The internet is just a tool. When people who are trying to get from self-intoxication to mere self-absorption use it, they will probably find themselves "locked into separate phases of inwardness." After all, they are already sealed up tight in their own minds, unable to grasp the reality of anything or anyone outside themselves; why would we expect the internet to break through their narcissism, when the real world has already failed to do so? But if decent people who are genuinely interested in engaging with others, and in listening to what they have to say, get online, the internet can help us all to get to know people we would never otherwise have encountered, and to create communities composed of people who have never met, but who nonetheless care about one another, and give one another strength and support when times get tough.
Without it, I would never have met Andy, or most of the rest of you. I would never have learned everything I've learned during the years I've been blogging. I would have missed out on some wonderful friendships, online and off. My life would have been immeasurably poorer.
Shorter me: speak for yourself, Lee Siegel.
Even shorter me: Thanks.