The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Just be glad you're not this guy

Michigan? I had two reactions: I keep hoping different candidates win, and the fact that Romney now has two firsts and two seconds under his belt is significant. As Kevin Drum put it last night, may the bloodletting continue.

But the story I wanted to mention has been at the top of the page at Salon all day. When the headline mentioned Lee Siegel, my first thought was "Who?" The word blogofascism brought it all back, though. The douchebaggery, the pompous rants on utterly insignificant aspects of daily life-- in hell, the forces of ultimate darkness might replace observational humor with the tedious sanctimony of Siegel's 'observational outrage.' It's just as hackneyed and unfunny as the stereotypical airline food routine, but it also inspires clinical depression and a profound sense of helplessness.

I think the most unfortunate part of the whole thing is how desperate he is to convince anyone who'll listen that society is being ripped apart by black-hearted fiends who do things like misrepresent themselves in online forums in order to spread disinformation and strife. You know, except when he does it. I'm not sure if it's the fascinating end-is-nigh tone of his goofy diatribes, the incredible he-can't-be-serious spectacle of watching someone caught in flagrante dilecto insisting for literally years that "that whole dressed like a French maid in an alley while trading crack for sex with an underage hooker thing" was a prank. ("What's the matter? Don't you get it?!?")

Or maybe it's just the schadenfreude buzz I get from seeing pomposity and hypocrisy get the ignore-the-man-behind-the-curtain treatment. Go ahead and have a helping. It's delicious.

According to Wikipedia (an institution he despises), Siegel has been book critic for the Nation, art critic for Slate, staff writer for Talk and Harper's magazines, contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, senior editor at the New Republic ... on and on he goes, a culture unto himself, weighing in on all things great and small. He has even managed to have an opinion about baseball caps, which -- I never knew this -- signify "a lazily defiant casualness ... a hopelessness about the possibility of originality ever to fly in the face of hierarchy."

Siegel's Olympian perch began to sag a little in September 2006 when, stung by anonymous reactions to his New Republic culture blog, he decided to pose as a reader himself under the handle "sprezzatura." Slamming all his detractors ("immature, abusive sheep") and dousing the blogmaster with incense ("Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than [Jon] Stewart will ever be ... You couldn't tie Siegel's shoelaces"), author and sock puppet were quickly sniffed out by other readers. Siegel was suspended, and his blog was cast into the ether.

Which brings us to his book on how the Internet is denying us the high-minded genius sprezz... errrr, Lee Siegel.

And to do it in the guise of public service. Those anonymous assassins, it turns out, weren't just hurting Siegel (and, he reminds us, his mother), they were ripping holes in our cultural fabric. The subtitle of Siegel's book is "Being Human in the Age of the Mob," and it's worth noting the Burkean scowl of that "mob." Siegel may have liberal credentials, but he is making, at bottom, a conservative argument: in favor of gatekeepers and cultural elites, against the cacophony of untrammeled opinion.

In the same way that Edmund Burke regarded the guillotine in the Place de la Révolution, Siegel regards Gawker and YouTube. And when he writes that "the Internet is possibly the most radical transformation of private and public life in the history of humankind," he doesn't mean "radical" in a nice way (any more than Burke did). Bad times are a-brewing. The "borders of truth" are eroding. Knowledge is "devalued into information." Americans are producing, not enjoying, their own leisure. Our interior lives are being "packaged like merchandise," and "the sources of critical detachment are drying up, as book supplements disappear from newspapers and what passes for critical thinking in the more intellectually lively magazines gives way to the Internet's emphasis on cuteness, novelty, buzz, and pursuit of the 'viral.'"

See? I told you it was tasty stuff. And if anyone comes across defenses of Siegel's unintentionally silly noodlings that aren't from "conservative intellectuals," please let me know. Seriously, cuteness, novelty, and buzz? Apparently Siegel was never a child and fell to earth in a meteor. Or otherwise missed the Pet Rock, Smurfs, Troll Dolls, Rubik's Cube, Pac-Man, the Slink, Hello Kitty and about a zillion other fads from the last thirty years or so. Or maybe he's just decided that the imminence of the collapse of Western civilization has an inversely proportional relationship to society's respect for Lee Siegel.