Nazis in the New York Times: too normal, or scary as hell?

Photo: George Etheredge, New York Times

This weekend the New York Times published an article about a foot solider in the white nationalist movement. Critics say the article normalizes Nazis. My reaction was the opposite: I found the descriptions of a “normal” midwesterner with these beliefs terrifying.

A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” by Richard Fausset, is a profile of Tony Hovater, a white nationalists in Huber Heights, Ohio. It’s not breathless and lacks vivid descriptions of violence. The tone is neutral.

That’s why it scared the crap out of me.

A lot of us are wondering right now where these people who march in places like Charlottesville came from. Who are these people? How did they get these views? Are their lives filled with rage? And how did Donald Trump’s election contribute to their cracking open the door into mainstream discourse?

Fausset’s article doesn’t answer a lot of these questions directly, as it is a profile of just one person. But the very normality of its subject is what woke me up. Here are few of the blandly terrifying passages in the piece:

There are times when it can feel toxic to openly identify as a far-right extremist in the Ohio of 2017. But not always. He said the election of President Trump helped open a space for people like him, demonstrating that it is not the end of the world to be attacked as the bigot he surely is: “You can just say, ‘Yeah, so?’ And move on.”

He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate.

If the Charlottesville rally came as a shock, with hundreds of white Americans marching in support of ideologies many have long considered too vile, dangerous or stupid to enter the political mainstream, it obscured the fact that some in the small, loosely defined alt-right movement are hoping to make those ideas seem less than shocking for the “normies,” or normal people, that its sympathizers have tended to mock online.

He added: “The fact that we’re seeing more and more normal people come is because things have gotten so bad. And if they keep getting worse, we’ll keep getting more, just, normal people.”

“I don’t want you to think I’m some ‘edgy’ Republican,” he says, while flatly denouncing the concept of democracy. “I don’t even think those things should be ‘edgy,’” he says, while defending his assertion that Jews run the worlds of finance and the media, and “appear to be working more in line with their own interests than everybody else’s.”

Ask him how he moved so far right, and he declares that public discourse has become “so toxic that there’s no way to effectively lobby for interests that involve white people.”

He is adamant that the races are probably better off separated, but he insists he is not racist. He is a white nationalist, he says, not a white supremacist.

On Facebook, Mr. Hovater posted a picture purporting to show what life would have looked like if Germany had won World War II: a streetscape full of happy white people, a bustling American-style diner and swastikas everywhere. “What part is supposed to look unappealing?” he wrote.

After he attended the Charlottesville rally, in which a white nationalist plowed his car into a group of left-wing protesters, killing one of them, Mr. Hovater wrote that he was proud of the comrades who joined him there: “We made history. Hail victory.” In German, “Hail victory” is “Sieg heil.”

He declared the widely accepted estimate that six million Jews died in the Holocaust “overblown.” He said that while the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler wanted to exterminate groups like Slavs and homosexuals, Hitler “was a lot more kind of chill on those subjects.” “I think he was a guy who really believed in his cause,” he said of Hitler. “He really believed he was fighting for his people and doing what he thought was right.”

His fascist ideal, he said, would resemble the early days in the United States, when power was reserved for landowners “and, you know, normies didn’t really have a whole hell of a lot to say.”

These passages are interspersed with a lot of descriptions of normal family activities, like weddings and playing in a rock band. Other than his extreme views, Hovater comes across as a pretty normal guy.

Liberal critics found the article offensive

From the reaction to this article, you’d think the Times was contributing to the alt-right movement itself. Critics think it’s just too easy on its subject.

Media critics Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both of whom I admire, found the piece shallow.

Dan Kennedy’s Media Nation blog is a little harsher:

The New York Times’ profile of an Ohio Nazi is generating an enormous amount of outrage on Twitter among critics who think the paper is normalizing a dangerous hate-monger. I largely agree, though I would disagree with anyone who thinks it never should have seen the light of day in any form.

The problem is in the execution — in the course of showing how well Tony Hovater blends in (a useful insight), reporter Richard Fausset makes it appear that he believes Hovater is normal in some way.

In Quartz, Indrani Sen writes:

What’s problematic about the story, ultimately, is not that it humanizes a man with repugnant views—he is, of course, a human. It’s the lack of any explanation to the reader of why exactly this story exists, and what the writer expects the reader to glean from it. Without that we have, essentially, a puff piece about a Nazi sympathizer.

There’s harsher criticism, of course, from anyone who’s a confirmed liberal. For these critics, anything that doesn’t portray Nazis as evil monsters is insufficient.

The Times Responds

Times national editor Marc Lacey responded on the Times site in a piece called “Readers Accuse of Normalizing a Nazi Sympathizer; We Respond“:

[A] lot of readers found the story offensive, with many seizing on the idea we were normalizing neo-Nazi views and behavior. “How to normalize Nazis 101!” one reader wrote on Twitter. “I’m both shocked and disgusted by this article,” wrote another. “Attempting to ‘normalize’ white supremacist groups – should Never have been printed!”

Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article. The point of the story was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.

We described Mr. Hovater as a bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere. . . .

Others urged us to focus our journalism less on those pushing hate and more on those on the receiving end of that hate. “Instead of long, glowing profiles of Nazis/White nationalists, why don’t we profile the victims of their ideologies?” asked Karen Attiah, an editor at The Washington Post. “Why not a piece about the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed in Charlottesville? Follow-ups on those who were injured? Or how PoC are coping?”

We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.

I have no interest in the reporter’s and editor’s agonizing — only the result matters.

The banality of evil and the intelligence of readers are at the center of this disagreement

Hannah Arendt wrote about the trial of Adolf Eichmann in a 1963 book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since then, the phrase “banality of evil” has entered the lexicon, following on Arendt’s description of how Eichmann portrayed himself as petty bureaucrat who was just following orders.

The scariest thing about Tony Hovater is not that he is a monster, it is that he is not. The alt-right movement is made up of a few firebrands and a lot of “normies” like Hovater. We understand and can defend against the rhetoric and the violence of the firebrands. It’s the Hovaters that we don’t know what to do with.

I agree with the critique that the Times failed to get at what made Hovater who he is. I don’t think the reporter knows the answer. I don’t think any of us do, but it’s well worth discussing.

The Times presumes that you, the reader, understand that references to Nazi armbands, separation of the races, reverence for Hitler, and Holocaust denial indicate that we’re dealing with a toxic ideology. They’re shocking enough, if you know the context. That’s what scared me, but it assumes that the people reading understand the context as well.

Too much of the discourse in American politics now consists of shouting how we are right and the other guys are wrong. Until we soberly examine the Tony Hovaters of the world and the forces that led to their existence, we cannot get anywhere. I think the Times has contributed to this examination. I want to see more like this, much more.

One response to “Nazis in the New York Times: too normal, or scary as hell?

  1. It’s terrifying to read these criticisms and letters. It’s as if they don’t want to anyone to know that “normies” exist, ordinary people with vile and extremist beliefs.

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