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September 02, 2006

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.

I take that as a pretty vicious smear, and as Siegel's destruction has put the quote on the front page of everyone from Kos to Gilliard, I think it merits some response and explanation. It was actually this post that tipped me off to Sprezzatura's identity as Siegel. 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 most of us 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 my readership's rejection. It hurt. 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.

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."

Update: To clarify, I didn't use the similarity attacks to tip anybody off. As I said, I left this alone. Siegel left a number of hooks that would make anyone paying attention rapidly suspicious and I have no idea which one, or which combination, spurred TNR's conclusion. But Siegel was very, very sloppy with this.

September 2, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

These kinds of posts really show that Ezra Klein is angry, independent, and not afraid of offending powerful people. For shame!

Posted by: Not Lee Siegel | Sep 2, 2006 1:42:12 AM

Are you saying that you started the ball rolling by pointing out to Foer the similarities between Siegel's deleted paragraph and "Sprezzatura"?

Posted by: Brad DeLong | Sep 2, 2006 2:02:41 AM

I am not a psychologist by trade, but why Siegel could not have some maturity, some sense of humor about things... I don't get it.

Maybe Siegel wanted to be unemployed, or hated writing. Who knows. Did the guy once have some countervailing virtues?

Posted by: Bruce | Sep 2, 2006 2:43:53 AM

No, it's not your writing, your esteem or the imprimatur of a well regarded political magazine that made you a unique target for Lee Siege.


It was because you wore your baseball cap that one time.

Posted by: ItAintEazy | Sep 2, 2006 3:06:22 AM

"Are you saying that you started the ball rolling by pointing out to Foer the similarities between Siegel's deleted paragraph and "Sprezzatura"?"

I believe that is the implication.

-----

What a wonderful tale this has all been. Lee Siegel would make a great fictional character if he weren't real.

Posted by: Petey | Sep 2, 2006 3:34:27 AM

the reaction you express in your comments shows charitability and compassion toward mr. siegel, and i commend you for that.
what a sadness for his personal life and his career.
truth often is stranger than fiction.

Posted by: jacqueline | Sep 2, 2006 3:38:29 AM

Well, this guy jhschwartz seems to have figured it out too:

"Googling "sprezzatura" and TNR yields really interesting results. sprezzatura appears only to weigh in on TNR forums to admonish and taunt posters who dislike Lee Siegel and to praise in lavish terms the piece under discussion, in all but one case, written by Lee Siegel...

...I would say with 99% confidence that "sprezzatura" is a Siegel alias."

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Sep 2, 2006 3:38:42 AM

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: using sockpuppets.

Posted by: Petey | Sep 2, 2006 3:44:58 AM

The meaning of sprezzatura. Dude may be more than a bit of an idiot, but he chose his sockpuppet name quite well.

Posted by: Petey | Sep 2, 2006 3:50:19 AM

Nope, not saying that at all. It just tipped me off, that and a search showing that Sprezzatura was a word from Castiglione's book of the Courtier, and Siegel had mentioned the Rennaissance era work in tnr's pages.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 2, 2006 5:34:03 AM

Neil gets it, by the way. Jhschwartz pulled this together first, to my knowledge, and I only knew because he e-mailed me (after Sprezzatura attacked me in the thread). This post is about adding context to a pretty low attack that's now being quoted on various blogs, not about making me seem a prime mover in his downfall. I wasn't.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 2, 2006 5:46:36 AM

"But Siegel was very, very sloppy with this."

And that sloppiness was the opposite of sprezzatura, of course...

Posted by: Petey | Sep 2, 2006 6:06:43 AM

I had thought that sprezzatura was the one of the two substances that when mixed gives rise to santorum.

But I am a barbarian.

Posted by: Ba'al | Sep 2, 2006 8:20:36 AM

Hey Klein,
Keep up the good work. It's because of you pervert lovin,baby killin,Godless,no clue fools that were in power. "Grow a brain"
RDMartin

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1. Starting an invasion of a country based upon lies and that did not attack ours.

2. Wiretapping of people within the United States without obtaining warrants for such wiretaps.

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If you do consent to the call for resignation of George W Bush and Richard B Cheney based
upon the two charges listed above


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Posted by: www.dmocrats.org | Sep 2, 2006 8:38:07 AM

Mr. Klein,

Weighing the possibility that the nom de plume "Sprezzatura" is, in fact, your brilliant creation, I salute you sir.

The overwhelming amount of complex issues the inquisitive mind now faces leads one to desire the
spongey comfort afforded by the abject surrender to these little online soap operas.

Who shot JR?
Who killed Jon Benet?
Who killed Sprezzatura?

A slncere thank you for the diversion.
Be well,

Posted by: Marty | Sep 2, 2006 8:51:15 AM

[Petey: The meaning of sprezzatura. Dude may be more than a bit of an idiot, but he chose his sockpuppet name quite well.]

Good link. But chosen well?? Read the definition 3 or 4 times. The two levels, concealing. Sprezzatura is almost shouting out that he is the graceless Mr Hyde to Siegel's Dr Jekyll.

Posted by: Fast Pete | Sep 2, 2006 9:58:57 AM

Huh? Et tu Red Lobster?

Posted by: Fast Pete | Sep 2, 2006 10:01:32 AM

I'm bad at Italian, so I pronounce it "spritzaterra."

As in, pontificating about your support of Rethuglicans to your date, then taking a big chug of Pellegrino, then involuntarily splurting it all over said date as you read a text message saying "You've been fired by TNR."

Posted by: Hudson | Sep 2, 2006 10:15:52 AM

Siegal took himself down with his own arrogance.

Posted by: Silver Owl | Sep 2, 2006 10:17:04 AM

Siegel's a dick. I'm glad he's gone. Much more than that seems a little sweaty.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Sep 2, 2006 10:23:33 AM

Ezra,

I don't know what Siegel thought Sprezzatura meant, but I think I can translate "sweaty with panting obsequious ambition."

It means "graceful, generous, open-minded, self-effacing, determinedly reasonable writing by a dilligent young professional working hard at learning his trade who will someday way too soon for my vanity and ego have my job and deserve it."

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Sep 2, 2006 10:48:32 AM

PS to Lee Siegel who is no doubt lurking in the shadows and alleyways of cyberspace, stalking Ezra like a neurotic villain out of a gothic novel: I am a real person, the comment above was written by me, and I am not a sock puppet for Ezra Klein. Ezra is man enough to come to his own defense out in the open.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Sep 2, 2006 10:51:39 AM

My favorite part of this is his pathetic middle aged jealousy at younger, more talented writers, particularly you, Ezra. That's just sad. He should have taken a viagra and called it a day.

Being a pathetic middle aged blogger myself, the thing I like the most about the virtual world is the fact that the words stand alone. I don't care if you're 16 or 60, if it's good, it's good and and it finds its way to an audience. And it's all about today, not yesterday and not tomorrow. This is a very threatening thing to certain people, particularly to certain privileged men who've become accustomed to being held in high esteem for things they did long ago.

And, of course, let's not forget that Siegel was long overdue for a fall. He was the object of ridicule among his own "peers" from the day he wrote that amazing series about himself in Slate in which he reported that he gazed into the mirror and repeated his name "Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel, Lee Siegel" like a mantra. It was only a matter of time.

Posted by: digby | Sep 2, 2006 11:08:30 AM

It means "graceful, generous, open-minded, self-effacing, determinedly reasonable writing by a dilligent young professional working hard at learning his trade who will someday way too soon for my vanity and ego have my job and deserve it."

Give me a break. The meaning of, "sweaty with panting obsequious ambition," is pretty clear, particularly in light of Siegel's monomaniacal focus on Ezra ("who oddly mentioned me -- and only me -- by name"): it means that Siegel "likes" likes Ezra. Right now, Siegel's probably consoling himself with an imaginary threesome that includes Ezra and Uma.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Sep 2, 2006 11:08:53 AM

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