Grilli: New York Times’ piece on Tony Hovater

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New York Times reporter Richard Fausset, traveled to Ohio this fall to interview a white nationalist. The resulting piece, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” drew an enormous amount of criticism from the Times readership. It covered the political and biographical history of one mister Tony Hovater, a Nazi sympathizer, conspiracy theorist, and white nationalist. Indeed, the piece drew so much criticism the Times felt it necessary to issue two statements in response to the blow back, one by the author himself and one by a Times editor, Marc Lacey. Criticism came from every corner of social media, including a satirical imitation that ran on The Atlantic’s website entitled, “Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They’re Nazis.” The Times piece itself is deeply disturbing, though, I think, not for the reasons its critics cite. Detractors of Fausset’s reporting claimed that his article “normalized” white nationalists and Nazis. The assertion is understandable enough; Fausset paints Tony Hovater so as to make him quite accessible, even recognizable, to the reader. The only issue is the censorious and often feel morally superior tenor of the critics’ evaluation of the piece have it exactly backwards. The problem is not that the New York Times is attempting to normalize Nazis—do people really believe the most respected and mainstream newspaper in the country are secretly a political faction of crypto Nazis—the problem is, as Marc Lacey rightly points out, just how normal Nazis are.

Despite its strongly critical nature, the title of The Atlantic’s piece is correct even if the conclusions it draws are not. Nazis are indeed just like everyone else except save for the fact that they’re Nazis. When people believe evil things, as Hovater certainly does, it is far too easy to dismiss them as kooks, monsters, demons, or what have you. This dismissal does no one any good in so far as it does not even attempt to diagnose the problem. People who believe evil things were not raised in the woods by wolves, nor did witches call them forth from the depths of hell. Many of them, like Hovater, were and are middle class, normal people. Tony Hovater did not experience want or trauma in his youth, and yet there he is for all to see, a tried and true bigot. The Times did not normalize him; he is normal. That, I think, is the most disturbing part of all.

Fausset’s piece reminds us that we are in a war of ideas. The mainstream wings of the left and right do not want the best for white people or black people; they want what’s best for everyone, but disagree on how to arrive at that conclusion. People like Hovater have different ideas. The difference between someone in the mainstream and someone like Hovater is not background or wealth; it is the ideas floating between their ears. For the country to have a future, the fringe elements outside this mainstream focus of ideas must dwindle to as small a size as possible.

“A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” also puts paid to the deterministic view of evil—call it the “Officer Krupke Principal.” Many people believe, as the Jets once sang to their police officer nemesis in West Side Story, “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived.” This takes the moral agency out of the hands of the agent himself and puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of capital “S” Society. Tony Hovater was not deprived; he wanted for nothing as a child as Fausset’s Times piece covered. Yet deprived he is.

It is understandable that people criticized Fausset and his piece; the reality of it is difficult to deal with. Evil lives within our midst. People like Hovater are not as easy to spot as we would like them to be. They hide in plain sight, making it constantly necessary to stay vigilant. The conclusion that follows is perhaps even more chilling. If evil lives in our midst, it could’ve been any one of us who absorbed these ideas and began to believe them, had our intellectual development taken a different, darker turn. We want to believe that people like Hovater are so far outside the mainstream that we cannot even relate to them on a personal level. Would that it were.

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