Six million Jews. Nine million Soviet civilians. Nearly 2 million Poles. Over 500,000 Roma and Yugoslavs. Approximately a half million more religious minorities, homosexuals, political criminals. Up to 10 million Chinese, Indochinese, Indonesians, Koreans, and Filipinos. Millions of soldiers. All told, the conduct of fascist regimes in the mid-20th Century resulted in between 50 and 80 million deaths. These rather elementary historical facts are, apparently, necessary preamble. If you’re going to engage in any rumination on National Socialism, neo-Nazism, or a predisposition toward racial separatism, it’s apparently necessary to tell readers exactly how they should think about those anti-social traits.
That’s the only logical conclusion available to those who have perused the cascade of criticism heaped upon the New York Times for publishing a profile of a self-described white nationalist who might have otherwise been unidentifiable. Indeed, that was the entire point of the piece. “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland” explored the views and lives of Tony Hovater, the “Nazi sympathizer next door,” and the white supremacists with whom he was surrounded as they tried to integrate into an Ohio community.
The profile explored not just Hovater’s views but his tastes, which is what seems to have sent Times readers into a state of manic agitation. The piece and all who were involved in its publication were savaged for “humanizing” a neo-Nazi by noting that he, too, shops at the local supermarket and enjoys “Seinfeld” references.
“It is completely insane that big U.S. media keep printing the anti-Semitic garbage of *actual Nazis* without even bothering to correct them,” wrote Toronto Star correspondent Daniel Dale. He specifically cited Hovater’s Holocaust denialism and the Times’ dispassionate retort, which held that six million dead Jews is a “widely accepted” figure. “Why does the NY Times keep normalizing Nazis?” Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor asked. “This article does more to normalize neo-Nazism than anything I’ve read in a long time,” FiveThirtyEight analyst Nate Silver complained. He theorized that the Times’ editors greenlighted this “deeply sympathetic portrait of a white supremacist” because of their collective sense of guilt over failing to appreciate the issues that animate Donald Trump’s America (a theory that both underestimates Trump’s America and likely overstates the collective self-consciousness at the Times).
The outcry grew so deafening that a Times editor felt compelled to apologize for publishing what the critics saw as a soft-focus human interest story about a man with monstrous views. Among the criticisms of this piece offered by liberals like Quartz editor Indrani Sen and Vox.com’s Ezra Klein was that a gauzy portrayal of a neo-Nazi seemed to be the profile’s only purpose. “[I]t doesn’t add anything to our understanding of modern Nazis,” Klein offered.
But it did.
The article did not begin and end with an exploration of the items on the Hovaters’ wedding registry. It delved into both Hovater and his network’s thinking regarding how they intend to integrate into acceptable society. It was a deeply disturbing portrayal of a racist movement that is beginning to eschew shock tactics in favor of infiltration and the persuasion of what the profile’s subject called “normal people.”
It described Hovater’s social media habits, which are shared by much of the alt-right—a useful detail for those who may be interested in preventing white nationalists from blending into society without a hitch. The profile explored Hovater’s reading, music tastes, and the evolution of his political thinking. It detailed his affinity for Vladimir Putin, his hatred for the press, and his disgust with United States as it is currently constituted. If you’re interested in identifying neo-Nazis in the wild, this is all useful information. The piece also described Hovater’s life at home, where he minced garlic, cooed over his cats, and talked about having children with his future wife. For the Times’ critics, this was unacceptable. “That evil is also banal is not new,” Klein quipped. Not so. Apparently, for those who were scandalized by this profile, it is.
Undergirding the left’s revulsion over the “normalization” of an American Nazi is the idea that some—not them, of course, but the vulgar multitudes—will be tempted to embrace white supremacy because a welder in Ohio enjoys “Twin Peaks.” This is not prudence but pretension. These liberal critics imagine themselves enlightened enough to know evil when they see it in print, but not you.
This is a censorious impulse. It represents the left’s troubling allergy to moral complexity. A man can have cats, buy barbecue sauce, love and be loved like the rest of us, and also be a beast of unspeakable prejudice and cruelty. Likewise, just because an organization calls itself “antifascist” doesn’t render it morally righteous when bands of “antifascists” form marauding bands with the intent of putting anyone who looks like a Trump supporter in the hospital. And so on.
Increasingly and to its detriment, the left in the age of Trump has convinced itself that its adversaries are, or ought to be, one-dimensional monstrosities with a monomaniacal devotion to undermining all that they hold dear. The New York Times should not be catering to children who lash out when their adversaries are depicted as fully formed human beings. The objection here is not to reportorial standards at the Times but to a set of facts the objectors cannot stand.