Look, It’s Another Nazi
OpinionEditor's Notebook

Look, It’s Another Nazi

The New York Times badly missed the mark with its article on a "normal" middle-class white nationalist.

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

The New York Times must have a pro-Hannah Arendt bias because its recent “Nazi next door” profile, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” is at best a study in the banality of evil.

Through more than 2,200 words, Atlanta-based reporter Richard Fausset takes us inside the life of one white nationalist foot soldier who was part of the ugly August rallies in Charlottesville, Va.: Tony Hovater, 29, of New Carlisle, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton.

Spoiler alert: If you plow all the way to the end, past the opening paragraph about the Target wedding registry with the muffin pan and the pineapple slicer, through the pithy details about Hovater’s “Seinfeld” and “King of the Hill” fandom and his casual Holocaust denial and Hitler support, you learn that he and his new bride, Maria, think about going on a honeymoon, moving with their four cats to a bigger home and having children.

You won’t get a more boring payoff, so, yes, this bad guy defines banality. As The Atlantic’s James Hamblin wrote in a pitch-perfect instant satire of the New York Times piece, “Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They’re Nazis.”

Cartoon by Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune

For supporters of Fausset’s article, that’s the point. We shouldn’t expect the emergent extremists on the right to wear bedsheets or brown shirts to work every day, so beware. That welder with the “Twin Peaks” tattoo at the next Applebee’s booth could be fantasizing about seeing you baked like a cherry pie in an oven.

For most of the far more vocal opponents of the article, that’s also one of the problems. The boring, everyday details of the Hovaters’ lives seem to normalize Nazis as typical Americans, and little is done to challenge Tony Hovater’s offensive and false statements.

It’s telling that when the article was first posted Saturday, Nov. 25, it included just as many links to places to purchase swastika armbands (playfully listed as an accessory for live-action role playing) as to explanations of the 6 million figure for Jewish deaths in the Holocaust (one each).

Still, I’m sticking with my banal position against boycotts: Criticize The New York Times for the execution of this story, but don’t cancel your subscription (unless you plan to use a portion of the money saved to subscribe to the AJT).

Fausset’s follow-up column defending the article reveals that he and his editor recognized his failure to fulfill a crucial part of the assignment: the why.

Why does a middle-class white guy with no specific gripes — no loan foreclosures, no lost college slot or failed job application he can blame on affirmative action, no factory shutdowns or bureaucratic nightmares — slide from left-leaning heavy metal drummer to fascist?

That’s a story I’d like to read. We’re trying to chip away at a similar story: Why are schoolkids increasingly engaging in casual acts of anti-Semitism?

The why is key, but Fausset couldn’t get it. So, having invested his time and the Times’ money, he ran with what he had: a story rich in boring details and bereft of crucial context. You have to read more than 1,400 words just to get the Anti-Defamation League’s view that Hovater’s alt-right party has only a few hundred members.

In fact, people with extremist views, people who look and act just like you and me, who have jobs and pets, have always lived all around us. That’s the way a free society works. People can have repulsive views and still eat turkey sandwiches at Panera.

For the most part, the Times article is harmless. It’s not news that neo-Nazis don’t goosestep through life, but Holocaust denial, racism and anti-Semitism aren’t more attractive served over a plate of homemade pasta.

The danger is the paranoia explored in any number of old episodes of “The Twilight Zone”: If we convince ourselves that anyone can be an enemy, we might find enemies everywhere. If we lack the context that people like Hovater are an incredibly tiny minority, albeit a loud one worthy of cautious observation, we could find ourselves with the far-right equivalent of the 1950s Red Scare, spotting fascists behind every copy of Ayn Rand, Charles Murray and Robert Heinlein.

That’s a new normal we don’t need.

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