On blogging and “fascism”   Leave a comment

A few days ago, I had the privilege to speak at the First Amendment Institute in Nashville on “new media and its implications for the First Amendment.”

One of the first things I said was that the beauty of the Internet and the resulting development of “new media” was that it expanded the reach of the First Amendment to all sorts of people who never really had the platform previously. The next words out of my mouth were that the real problem with “new media” was that it expanded the reach of the First Amendment to all sorts of people who never really had the platform previously.

Which brings me to the utterly ill-informed petulance of Lee Siegel, who writes a blog called “Lee Siegel on Culture” for the New Republic web site.

Siegel writes:

It’s a bizarre phenomenon, the blogosphere. It radiates democracy’s dream of full participation but practices democracy’s nightmare of populist crudity, character-assassination, and emotional stupefaction. It’s hard fascism with a Microsoft face. It puts some people, like me, in the equally bizarre position of wanting desperately for Joe Lieberman to lose the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont so that true liberal values might, maybe, possibly prevail, yet at the same time wanting Lamont, the hero of the blogosphere, to lose so that the fascistic forces ranged against Lieberman might be defeated. (Every critical event in democracy is symbolic of the problem with democracy.)

Even beyond the thuggishness, what I despise about so many blogurus, is the frivolity of their “readers.” DailyKos might have hundreds of responses to his posts, but after five or six of them the interminable thread meanders into trivial subjects that have nothing to do with the subject that briefly provoked it. The blogosphere’s lack of concentration is even more dangerous than all its rage. In the Middle East, they struggle with belief. In the United States, we struggle with attention. The blogosphere’s fanaticism is, in many ways, the triumph of a lack of focus.

Fascism and fanaticism are apparently the fueling force of the “blogosphere,” according to Siegel. In a later post – after he elicits the requisite howls of protestation from bloggers – Siegel explains his argument more.

All these abusive attempts to autocratically or dictatorially control criticism came about because I said that the blogosphere had the quality of fascism, which my dictionary defines as “any tendency toward or actual exercise of severe autocratic or dictatorial control.” The proof, you might say, is in the puddingheads.

I am overwhelmed by the intolerance and rage in the blogosphere. Conscientiously criticize, in the form of a real argument, blogospheric favorites like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and the response isn’t similar criticism, done conscientiously and in the form of an argument, but insults, personal attacks, and even threats. This truly is the stuff of thuggery and fascism.

Two other traits of fascism are its hatred of the processes of politics, and the knockabout origins of its adherents. Communism was hatched by elites. Fascism was born along the drifting paths of rootless men, often ex-soldiers who had fought in the First World War and been demobilized. They turned European politics into a madhouse of deracinated ambition.

Siegel makes a number of logical errors in his writings. He practices the fine art of hasty generalization, equating all of the “blogosphere” with a few of its most-read members, which is akin to equating the entire Democratic Party with Dennis Kucinich or the entirety of Christianity with Fred Phelps (or all practitioners of Islam with Osama bin Laden, for that matter).

Political Scientist Steven Taylor gets this right:

The thing that strikes me is that as with so many who seek to analyze the phenomenon of blogging, Siegel is missing a rather fundamental point: a blog is a delivery device for information and blogging does not inherently contain any particular kind of information, nor is it written in a particular style with a set attitude, or with a specific ideology.

As such, Siegel’s assault on “the blogosphere” and its “fanaticism” is like attacking all of radio because Michael Savage and any number of other talk radio hosts are loud-mouthed twits, or attacking newspapers editorial pages because Ted Rall has some obvious anger issues that he has yet to resolve.

He goes further to equate commentary (even rude, uncivilized commentary) with fascism, even bringing out the dictionary to prove his point. As Taylor notes, the dictionary is hardly the place to proof text your arguments about complex political theories.

Siegel then tries to link fascism and the blogosphere by an even more tenuous strand of reasoning, presenting an inductive fallacy:

Fascism was born along the drifting paths of rootless men, often ex-soldiers who had fought in the First World War and been demobilized. They turned European politics into a madhouse of deracinated ambition.

In the next few paragraphs, Siegel recounts how Markos Zuniga Moulitsas served in the military. The conclusion is meant to be somewhat obvious:

  • Fascism was born among ex-soldiers
  • Moulitsas (aka Daily Kos) is an ex-soldier
  • Therefore Moulitsas (and by extension the “blogosphere”) is engaging in fascism.

Keep in mind, as well, that Siegel is talking about someone who writes and organizes grassroots Democratic/liberal political efforts for a living.

Siegel is perhaps at his most ignorant as he dissects the “blogosphere” with glee all the while ignoring the immense diversity of the blogging populace and the myriad topics which they cover. He mentions that the “blogosphere” lacks focus (“The blogosphere’s lack of concentration is even more dangerous than all its rage.”). Perhaps he has not heard of the “net neutrality” movement, to give but just one instance of sustained focus (albeit outside the “political” area of the blogosphere).

In fact, it seems that Siegel mistakes lack of organization with lack of focus. With over 30 million blogs out there authored by at least 30 million unique individuals, one could hardly expect a laser-like focus on anything. I follow weblogs related to politics, religion, marketing, web design, journalism, and technology. Please explain to me how all these members of the “blogosphere” are supposed to coordinate their focus? And while you’re at it, explain how that coordination wouldn’t, in itself, be a step toward some form of “blogofascism”?

In some sense, Siegel is right in noting that the ill-defined virtual geography that we crudely dub the “blogosphere” is filled with crudity, ill-informed opinions, rants and name-calling. But so is life. So does freedom of expression bring forth both the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Larry Flynt. The aural pleasures of Jeff Buckley and the crude misogyny of 2 Live Crew. The political thought of both Ann Coulter and Maureen Dowd, Martin Luther King and George Wallace. This is not something new or unique to blogs.

If this is the pattern of “reasoned discourse” that Siegel wishes would emerge from the blogosphere, then perhaps he should lead by a better example.

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Posted June 27, 2006 by Bryan Murley in New Media, News and politics

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