Monday, November 27, 2017

The Nice Nazi Next Door

The Gray Lady, New York Times, had one of those close-up-and-personal (remember Olympics coverage?) articles about, Tony Hovater,  a white supremacist  and Nazi sympathizer,  who is ultimately just your average kind of guy.  He used to play in heavy metal bands!  He just got married!  He and his wife eat pasta!  And

On a recent weekday evening, Mr. Hovater was at home, sautéing minced garlic with chili flakes and waiting for his pasta to boil. The cats were wandering in and out of their tidy little rental house. Books about Mussolini and Hitler shared shelf space with a stack of Nintendo Wii games.

Guess what?  Hitler, in Mein Kampf,  praised his self-sacrificing mother who stayed at home caring for her children.  Hitler was a vegetarian (though not for ethical reasons) and he loved dogs.  None of that makes him any less of a monster.

The  NYT article created a lot of outrage.  The Times has been accused of trying to normalize* Nazism by implying that Nazis or white supremacists are just ordinary people, people who have families and pets, people who eat turkey sandwiches and so on.  Given that we have a president who has tiptoed in the same direction, the danger of such normalization is real.

So what did the writer of the article, Richard Fausset, and the Times try to accomplish with it?  Fausset writes in another explanatory piece:

There is a hole at the heart of my story about Tony Hovater, the white nationalist and Nazi sympathizer.
Why did this man — intelligent, socially adroit and raised middle class amid the relatively well-integrated environments of United States military bases — gravitate toward the furthest extremes of American political discourse?
 Fausset thought that delving into the minutiae of Hovater's life would produce an explanation, that a sinister demon would suddenly look at him from a doorway or from Hovater's eyes or suddenly materialize from the fascist books in Hovater's library.  But, alas and alack, Fausset found nothing, and concluded:

Mr. Hovater was exceedingly candid with me — often shockingly so — but it seems as though his worldview was largely formed by the same recombinant stuff that influences our mainstream politics.

So why write or publish the original article at all, if it didn't contribute anything to our understanding about the reasons for Hovater's extremism?

The Times responded to its readers' criticisms of the piece as follows:

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.
We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear.

Bolds are mine.

The trouble I have with the bolded sentence is that describing Hovater's private life does not tell us one single thing about how "normal" hate and extremism are in American life**.  To show us that, we need numbers of the people who hold Hovater's views, not information about his musical taste or his recent wedding.

No.  The more likely reason for the publication of the piece is that showing how a white supremacist really is "normal" in some areas of his life would be shocking enough to get a lot of readers, a lot of advertising revenue, a lot of attention and debate.  All publicity is preferable to no publicity.

Finally, I'd like to return to the reasons why someone like Hovater turned into an extremist.  Fausset may not have my experiences of spending time on various online hate sites***, and that could be why he believes that Hovater was baked into his current form by the same forces which operate in mainstream politics, despite writing this:

It was midday at a Panera Bread, and Mr. Hovater was describing his political awakening over a turkey sandwich. He mentioned books by Charles Murray and Pat Buchanan. He talked about his presence on 4chan, the online message board and alt-right breeding ground (“That’s where the scary memes come from,” he deadpanned). 

The emphasis is mine.

Anyone who has spent an hour or more on 4chan and similar hate sites can tell you that Hovater's most extreme beliefs would be supported and validated there by others, that his beliefs would become much more extreme there, that he would learn about the planned marches and other events there, and that there he would be offered the kind of literature which would further strengthen his fascist tendencies.   That, my friends, is where his beliefs were "normalized."


*  The term "normalizing" is tricky and must be interpreted carefully in this context.

It can mean "average," as in the most common type in some population, or it can mean something more normative (heh), such as in medical literature where normal ranges in test findings mean that the diagnosed patient does not suffer from certain medical conditions.

And it can mean "mainstreaming," which is the meaning I use here:  The idea that if Nazis are just average folks (which they are, in some ways), then their beliefs are also somehow acceptable (which they are not).

**   Unless one believes that people with vile values can easily be distinguished by just looking at them, because they have red pupils in their eyes, because they drink blood for breakfast, because they dismember flies for entertainment and so on.

*** I have had similar experiences with misogynistic sites and various ISIS sites.  I have immersed myself in all sorts of hate sites (send money for mental care), and though they didn't drown me they made me understand how others can easily drown in that bogmire and never surface back into whatever we regard as decent normalcy.