Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Lee Siegel Puts Them Uppity Bloggers in their Place

The New Republic’s Lee Siegel has posted two ludicrous pieces deriding bloggers as angry, infantile fascists (6/22/06’s “Blog This” and 6/23/06’s “The Origins of Blogofascism”). It’s pointless for me to skewer his overall arguments (such as they are) since James Wolcott and Digby have done such a thorough and entertaining job of it already (hat-tip to guest poster Watertiger at Firedoglake for the Wolcott link and many other great ones in the same post).

Instead, I wanted to highlight a shocking failure of logic perpetrated by Siegel in his second post, “The Origins of Blogofascism.” In it, he quotes at length from a short profile of Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, better known as “Kos,” that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on 1/15/04. In it, Moulitsas explains:

"I believe in government. I was in El Salvador in the late '70s during the civil war and I saw government as a life-and-death situation," he said. "There was no one to root for. The government was a corrupt plutocracy and the rebels were Maoists. The concept of government is important."

He remembers bullets flying in the marketplace and watching on television as government soldiers executed guerrillas. He also remembers watching footage of the Solidarity movement in Poland.

He was 9, and he asked his father what that was all about. His father, a furniture salesman, said, "It's just politics."

The future blogger said, "Tell me all about it."

Siegel's interpretation immediately follows:

So he loves government, but hates politics. There's something chilling about that. I wonder, does Zuniga consider the Solidarity movement disgusting, compromising, venal politics, too? And was there really no one to root for during the Salvadoran civil war? It's hard to believe the usually inflexibly partisan Zuniga actually said that. The rebels may have been "Maoist"--whatever that meant to them in Central America at the time--but their goal of overthrowing a brutal, rapacious regime might well be something that a passionate political idealist and reformer like Zuniga, looking back at it in 2004, would sympathize with. Or so you would think.

Siegel’s interpretation defies common sense. How can one possibly take that passage and conclude that Moulitsas (incorrectly referred to as Zuniga by Siegel) “loves government, but hates politics?”

Let’s leave aside the ludicrous assumption that a nine-year old should form a nuanced understanding of the Polish Solidarity movement and the Salvadoran civil war, and in the case of Solidarity, to do so upon first encounter. The author of the Chronicle piece does not print anything to indicate what Moulitsas thinks of these movements now, if indeed he even asked him. While Moulitsas starts speaking about the past in the present tense, the bulk of the passage is about his perceptions when he was nine years old. For Siegel to extrapolate Moulitsas’ present views on these matters from such a scant passage is intellectually dishonest, poor reasoning or sloppy journalism. I view it as a deliberate misrepresentation, creating a straw man (or “chilling” snow man, in this case).

But more to the point, the actual passage describes a nine-year old whose father dismisses or minimizes the complexity of the Solidarity movement, for whatever reason (perhaps he thought it too complex or upsetting for his son, or he himself was not that interested, who knows? The article does not say). To which the boy responds, “Tell me all about it.” The boy, young Moulitsas, presses his father to explain to him about politics (and some rather complex politics at that!). How does this passage possibly indicate that Moulitsas “hates politics?”

Of course, it doesn’t. It shows exactly the opposite. The anecdote is used in the original Chronicle piece to indicate how Moulitsas became interested and engaged in politics at a young age. Considering his is the most popular political site on the web, and the fact that he worked for Howard Dean, to say that Moulitsas “loves government, but hates politics” is laughable.

"There's something chilling about that," opines Siegel. It's utterly craven to misrepresent Moulitsas' beliefs and then express shock and horror over them! Furthermore, where does Moulitsas use the terms "disgusting, compromising, venal" that Siegel attributes to him? It's not in the Chronicle piece. It's not in any linked post. Where's the research, where's the evidence? Did Siegel just make this up as well, as he telepathically divines Moulitsas' true intent?

I suspect Siegel was trying to paint Moulitsas as an idealist who loves the ideal of good government but cannot grasp the complexity of political realities. I’m probably being overly generous, since every mention of Moulitsas or bloggers is pejorative. At best Siegel’s being dense, but I feel he’s being disingenuous. My take is that he set out to slam Moulitsas, and then tried to gather his stones without doing a very good job. He earlier states that “Two other traits of fascism are its hatred of the processes of politics, and the knockabout origins of its adherents.” In order to paint Moulitsas as a representative “blogofacist,” which is the entire point of the piece, he needs to somehow establish that Moulitsas “hates politics” and that he’s ruthless or “knockabout” (New Republic writer Zengerle’s much-dissected posts about Moulitsas cover his supposed ruthless, dictatorial nature). Considering that in the paragraph immediately after Siegel slams Moulitsas for 'hating politics,' he slams three bloggers for using aliases when all three have their real names publicly displayed on their sites, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Siegel is just plain sloppy.

While I don’t want to pick too much on Siegel — and he’d no doubt be amused that a lowly blogger is parsing his, um, superior prose — two points remain inescapable. 1) His thesis is ludicrous. 2) He can’t support it (not surprising, given #1). In fact, one of his key pieces of evidence proves the opposite point! There's something unseemly about a man with a national platform decrying bloggers for not being able to tolerate Siegel when he doth "conscientiously criticize, in the form of a real argument" when he apparently cannot form a valid or sound argument himself.

(As a point of minor interest, Siegel slams bloggers but only features a single link in his five most recent posts, and that’s to another New Republic writer’s post, Zengerle's. Perhaps Siegel lacks the know-how to link the articles he cites, or he chooses not to because that would sully his status as a real writer.)

As reader "jfabermit" observes in the comments for “The Origins of Blogofascism”:

Honestly, the discussion threads here and elsewhere were much more reasonable than either post of his. If you want to see some actual intelligent commentary on the blogosphere, try the comment thread to the previous post, and ignore this drivel.

Well said.

(I should point out that I am not a regular DailyKos reader, and have left less than 6 comments on that site to date. DailyKos seems to have some very intelligent posters, great links, and makes great finds. It won Best Commenter (Georgia10) and Best Community last year from the 2005 Koufax Awards . However, I find that there’s a large amount of “venting” such as “Bush sucks” etc. and more conspiracy-minded material to wade through in the comments at both DailyKos and Atrios’ site Eschaton. I find the comments at Crooks & Liars, Glenn Greenwald’s Unclaimed Territory, and TPM Cafe to be more thoughtful on the whole. My point is that I am not a “Kossack,” but regardless of my feelings about the site or Moulitsas, both deserve to be criticized on their merits.)

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