The New York Times recently ran a profile on a neo-Nazi white nationalist from Ohio, described as “a voice of hate in America’s heartland.” It is one of those rather predictable culture pieces, the kind of article that takes a controversial person or subject and juxtaposes it with the anodyne banality of American arcana: the guy who yearns for a “white ethno-state” and who sneers at the idea of mixed-race couples also cooks pasta and sautés garlic and plays the Wii. Ho-hum: who cares?
As is often the case with these things, a little Internet snit kind of exploded around this piece. It is interesting to step back and see the patterns that emerge from these kinds of controversies, as if everyone is getting their talking points from the same pamphlet or instructional YouTube video. Nate Silver claimed the article “does more to normalize neo-Nazism than anything I’ve read in a long time.” Washington Post writer Karen Attiah wrote that “the NYT is doing its damndest to normalize white supremacists and Nazis.” HuffPo reporter Jennifer Bendery said: “Way to normalize Nazis, NYT.” Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale wrote derisively of “these Humanizing Profiles of Nazis” (which is funny—I mean, they are human!). In a tone of drearily predictable sarcasm, Jamelle Bouie wrote: “It is definitely responsible to profile a Nazi as if he’s just an odd curiosity and not part of a violent and dangerous movement.”
None of this is really necessary. The Times‘s profile of Nazi Tony Hovater, while at a few points interesting and informative, is little more than stale and uninspiring journalism; there is exceptionally little risk that anyone will feel, after reading it, that Nazism or white nationalism are “normal” in any meaningful or dangerous way. Normal, after all, refers to one’s being in alignment with widely-held norms and values—and Nazism and white supremacism, the fevered insistences of numerous liberal commentators notwithstanding, thankfully does not qualify for that designation in 21st century America. The one element about this that could be considered “normal” is that neo-Nazis themselves do normal things, e.g. they play Wii and cook Italian food. But this isn’t an earth-shattering revelation; really it’s hardly even worth an article in the Times, much less the outrage surrounding it.
But I think it is difficult for progressives to engage with this subject material in a rational manner. Over the past year, the Left has become convinced that a new white supremacist vanguard is rising from the slime of the American fringe to become a part of the American mainstream. This is essentially a lie, one spurred by an obsessive and overexcited media that covers these things entirely out of proportion to their value. Last year a convention of white supremacists generated extensive, breathless coverage from major media outlets; the convention itself, meanwhile, drew 150 people from across the country. If the media is going to perform wall-to-wall reporting on an irrelevant, minuscule gathering of paranoid idiots, then of course people are going to become convinced that it’s a bigger and more pressing problem than it actually is. But that doesn’t make it true.
What is particularly instructive is this: in recent months the Times, or at least its op-ed page, really has seemed determined to normalize another brutal and monstrous ideology. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution this fall, the Times ran numerous opinion pieces celebrating the brighter parts of Communism (e.g. “women had better sex under socialism,” which was all well and good unless you were one of the millions of women who had been murdered by the state due to communist ideology). “For all its flaws,” one writer claimed, “the Communist revolution taught Chinese women to dream big.” That’s a funny thing to say: under China’s Communist regime, Chinese women have been forced into abortions in order to conform to the nation’s one-child policy—a policy passed (you guessed it) by the nation’s Communist government. I guess the normalization of forced infanticide isn’t all that big of a deal when it’s in service to daffy and genocidal left-wing ideology.
In response to the backlash, the Times yesterday released a rather sheepish and evasive mea culpa that tried to quell the rage without admitting any actual wrongdoing. One can understand the impulse. In a frankly astonishing Twitter rant, writer Bess Kalb lambasted the Times‘s “Nazi normalizing barf journalism,” condemned the Times‘s photographer for not “throwing the camera at [the] Nazi’s head and laughing,” blamed the Nazi’s political beliefs on “White Male Inferiority Complex,” and wrote: “fuck this Nazi…[and f]uck the Nazi’s house and fuck the Nazi’s name and fuck the Nazi’s faux intellectual books.” This is the kind of cognitive and emotional meltdown that occurs when you’ve utterly lost the ability to rationally grapple with difficult and unpleasant politics. Yes, stipulated: nobody (nobody worth taking seriously, anyway) wants to make white supremacy an acceptable political opinion to hold. But that’s not what happened here: plainly it is not, in fact it is so obvious that you have to question the capabilities of the people who are peeing their pants over it. A New York Times writer wrote a mildly interesting but largely boring piece about a racist man and his racist wife going grocery shopping and cooking pasta. If this causes you to freak out, you honestly need to deeply re-assess how you assess these things.