‘Mister Journalist, I Gave You All the Clues’: How White Journos Keep Getting Punked By Nazis

A counter-protester gives a white supremacist the middle finger in Charlottesville, 2017. (Credit: flickr/ Evan Nesterak)
Fascination with white nationalists who evince normal traits comes from fear of being implicated.

The response to The New York Times’ unaccountable profile of an Ohio Nazi was swift and biting; the paper felt compelled to respond to the legions of people who, correctly, accused the paper of writing a puff piece on a white nationalist.

The reporter, Richard Fausset, wrote a follow-up piece for the Times Insider entitled “I Interviewed a White Nationalist and Fascist. What Was I Left With?” which is notable for its conspicuous failure to answer its own question. Fausset instead meanders in a kind of literary agony, wringing his hands and acknowledging that his report provides no answers, while reaching to punk rock to pose a rhetorical question, “what causes a man to start fires?” In a piece of his own, Times national editor Marc Lacey took a broad survey of public comment on Fausset’s report, including quoting this tweet from Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer:

“People mad about this article want to believe that Nazis are monsters we cannot relate to. White supremacists are normal ass white people and it’s been that way in America since 1776. We will continue to be in trouble till we understand that.”

This notion is at the heart of the whole controversy. It sounds smart, even wise, to say this. Are we not deluding ourselves, after all, when we act as if Nazis are these inhuman creatures from another dimension? Does this othering not deny our shared capacity for tremendous evil? Bauer pursues that point for dozens of tweets, even nastily snipping at actor and activist writer Mara Wilson, essentially accusing her of willful ignorance.

What Bauer, and those who make this argument, refuse to see is that the problem with Fausset’s piece wasn’t its assertion of the obvious fact of Nazi humanity; it was that it was about nothing else. It was myopic, and almost obsessive, about the details of an ordinary life to be found in the Nazi’s home; it lingered with fascination over his tattoos, his tastes in television, his shopping at Target.

Bauer insisted that the Times article served to inform, but beyond the banal details of its subject’s life it offers no facts and allows the Nazi to drive the narrative. What’s the Traditionalist Worker’s Party? Fausset quotes their own propaganda and moves on. Did they actually hold Appalachian food drives? No. But Fausset doesn’t challenge his subject on this assertion. Indeed, no fact checking of any Nazi assertion appears to occur. Fausset even left out the non-trivial detail of the man’s name, referring to him throughout as Tony Hovater, a pseudonym he uses for his white nationalist work. His real name is William Anthony Hovater. His wife was also interviewed under a pseudonym, yet this is never once mentioned to readers. So those like Bauer have to be asked: What, exactly, is a person unschooled in these issues meant to learn from an article that allowed Nazis to regurgitate propaganda from behind unmarked pseudonyms?

All context and factual information was shoved aside in favor of drooling fascination over the Nazi’s tastes and suburban lifestyle. And it’s that fascination which constitutes an enormous problem with the modern media — something that Bauer’s own Mother Jones has had issues with as well.

In short, the problem is one of framing and emphasis.

The problem with Fausset’s piece wasn’t its assertion of the obvious fact of Nazi humanity; it was that it was about nothing else.

It’s a fact that some Nazis have good manners and like binge-watching Netflix or eating with chopsticks. The problem is that the media lingers on those facts with an almost pornographic languidness, until they overwhelm every other fact about the person in a story that’s already too personal to begin with. White nationalism and its related forms of right-wing radicalization are a social, structural problem, wired into systems so vast that any narrow focus on one man, by definition, misses what’s most important.

So why the fixation? We can only be blunt here: white, middle class journalists appear to be at once frightened and fascinated by the apparent niceness of some Nazis and white nationalists. Fausset makes this plain with an exasperating question:

“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?”

The implication, of course, is that an intelligible Nazi is one who is stupid, socially awkward, and dirt poor — a notion offensive to all three groups, I should add. But it betrays an unfathomable ignorance of history. The original Nazis, after all, counted aristocrats among their number and their sympathizers, and made quite a few businessmen rich through lavish support for corporations that still dominate the international landscape today (you may even use, ingest, or ride on their products).

Fausset’s question is perhaps the only revealing thing in his Times Insider follow-up, for it shows the horrifying assumptions he made as he embarked on his reporting. Instead of pursuing a structural answer to his questions — by talking to the people most affected by Nazism, say, or doing a wider survey of experts who study and track right wing extremism, or examining the history of white nationalism in the Midwest — he started from the perspective of one man…and stayed there. What remains, then, is just an assemblage of banalities. Look at his cat. Look at his ink. Look at his wedding registry. Oh here’s some books on Holocaust denial. But also look at his Netflix queue.

This perspective — or, really, the lack of one — was satirized by James Hamblin to great effect in the Atlantic.

Whether journalists like Fausset and Bauer want to admit it or not, this fish-eye-lens perspective on Nazi banality, this utter fascination with it, communicates to white readers, “see, a Nazi is just like you, ergo maybe being a Nazi isn’t so bad; you can be a Nazi and be stylish and cool.”

This is a message that the extreme right wants to send, they’ve said as much. Indeed, the Nazi interviewed in the original Times article said as much.

We already went through this with several wretched press cycles of “Newsflash: Richard Spencer Wears Necktie!” The obsession with manners and breeding, unto death, is nauseating, especially when you realize that getting the press to dance to that tune is a deliberate strategy of these Nazis. One tidbit in a news article about Spencer revealed that “[his] office appeared to be begging for respectability. At least five Spencer associates, all male, were hanging around the office, some dressed up. (A copy of Dressing the Man: The Art of Permanent Fashion sat on the coffee table.)” As an aside, this is how you use ordinary detail to tell the truth about these people. The detail of Spencer needing a silly how-to book in order to explain to his cronies how to button a shirt and don a blazer is almost slapstick comedy; by contextualizing it as “begging for respectability,” the journalist, Dana Liebelson, correctly identifies what the banal facts add up to.

It’s a matter of basic ethics. Ask yourself: Does your story coincide with Nazi propaganda? In Fausset’s case, the answer was clearly “yes.” As one historian pointed out, the Nazi interviewed by Fausset used a common bit of Nazi agitprop to explain his disgusting views on the Holocaust, placing blame on Heinrich Himmler for the executions while saying Hitler himself was “a rather chill guy.” Not only is this a common technique for legitimizing Holocaust denial, it’s one that’s advocated by neo-Nazi pseudo-historian and Holocaust denier David Irving, whose books adorn the shelves of Fausset’s subject, one of which appears in a photograph in the story. I can only imagine the Nazi paraphrasing that ridiculous ad campaign for Snowman, “Mister Journalist… I gave you all the clues.”

Ask yourself: Does your story coincide with Nazi propaganda? In Fausset’s case, the answer was clearly ‘yes.’

To be fair, Fausset does recognize that his subject is a Nazi, and even calls him a bigot. But the framing of the story, which emphasizes the man’s ordinariness to the exclusion of almost everything else, including all the context we need to understand racism and white nationalism in America, renders that moot. Contrary to Shane Bauer’s assertions, reporting like this doesn’t enhance understanding, it suffocates it in a confusing haze. What, after all, did we learn? This is not because reporting on the banality of evil is bad; indeed, it’s vital. But there’s a way of doing it well, and to do it well, one need only look to the woman who gave us the immortal phrase in the first place.

Emphasizing the ordinariness of evil can, sometimes, get you into trouble, yes. Ask Hannah Arendt. Her historic report for The New Yorker on the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel earned her the ire and enmity of countless individuals who felt that her “banality of evil” thesis, which held that Eichmann was a miserably ordinary man who nevertheless committed great evil, was morally exculpatory. It was a hard lesson to grapple with, especially with memories of the war and the Holocaust so fresh for so many — including Arendt herself, who spent years in a Nazi internment camp in Gurs, France.

Nevertheless, the report that became Eichmann in Jerusalem was notable for all the ways in which it was nothing like Fausset’s piece. Arendt focused on the manner in which Eichmann carried out his crimes, giving them center stage. She provided an explanation for his conversion to Nazism, explaining the mechanism by which mediocrity can lead to evil. Her contempt for him is transparently scathing. He is a “nobody,” and this seems to actually anger Arendt more than the notion of a towering devil directing those trains.

Emphasizing the ordinariness of evil can, sometimes, get you into trouble.

Eichmann was the archetypal bureaucrat “just following orders,” who oversaw the dispatching of trains across Europe that ferried millions to torturous deaths. Arendt, responding to more hand-wringing explanations for this kind of evil, calls the idea that “the Nazis had simply been lacking in human kindness” the “understatement of the century.”

Her closing words, spoken in the register of what she wished the judges had said, leave no doubt about her views on Eichmann: “We are concerned here only with what you did, and not with the possible noncriminal nature of your inner life.” Still speaking as a judge, she concludes without mercy, “We find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”

For Arendt, while she emphasized that Eichmann was a nobody, and an archetypal bigoted little mediocrity, this was merely explanation, not absolution. Obedience to the law and support for it are functionally identical, she argues, and each must meet the same judgement. She was at pains to emphasize this point.

The Times’ Fausset, meanwhile, finds profundity in emptiness. “What causes a man to start fires?” he asks, quoting his punk song. “Who can say?” he seems to add, as if there is not an exhaustive, decades-old body of literature on fascism and the extreme right, as if the SPLC or Erich Fromm or Exit Deutschland or Hannah Arendt or the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies never existed.

Who can say? We can; we’ve said it many times over; we’ve said it for decades.

As much as men like Bauer want to defend limpid un-reporting like this as somehow vital, all it does is reveal a cavernous ignorance and an unwillingness to fill it. Perhaps because the answers are too scary to contemplate.

In a widely shared essay for the Atlantic, editor Adam Serwer tackles the related phenomenon of the mainstream press’ obsession with understanding the “white working class” who voted for Trump, while simultaneously trying to find redemptive humanity in them. Again, such stories state the obvious, but the emphasis and repetition is notable. In a damning paragraph, he lists how various white, putatively liberal/left journalists, leapt to condemn Hillary Clinton for her now infamous “basket of deplorables” remark:

Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson, in a since-deleted tweet, observed, “Clinton is talking about trump supporters the way trump talks about mexicans,” whom Trump derided as rapists and criminals. Bloomberg’s John Heilemann said, “This comment kind of gets very close to the dictionary definition of bigoted.” The leftist writer Barbara Ehrenreich wrote on Facebook that Clinton was “an elitist snob who writes off about a quarter of the American electorate as pond scum.” As New York magazine’s Jesse Singal put it, “Not to be too cute but I have racist relatives. I’d like to think they aren’t ‘deplorable’ humans.”

As Serwer notes, balefully, the reason for this is obvious. For these people to have said anything else would’ve been to implicate themselves, and their loved ones. It would have, in short, implicated whiteness.

The fascination — and I must use that word to describe the phenomenon — with white nationalists who evince normal traits comes from fear of being implicated. Fear that, perhaps, good education and good manners are no defense against belief in the vilest forms of bigotry. Fear that they have the same potential in themselves, and that all white people are therefore — by dint of the drift of power and history in our society — vulnerable to this. They express shock, and that shock is worthy of entire articles themed around nothing but surprise at the fact that a Nazi knows how to tie a Windsor knot, because that sort of thing is supposed to be beyond racists. Perhaps, they fear, we could be racist too, and knowing how to use chopsticks won’t make it otherwise.

Perhaps, they fear, we could be racist too.

Fixation on the mundane both expresses that fear and suggests that there’s something redemptive in their shared (white) humanity. Stories about white nationalists who love “normal” superficial nonsense —Twin Peaks, blazers, XBox, wedding registries, a pet dog — suggest that one’s bourgeois norms are not actually a defense against fascism. As white journalists see, in terror, that these guys look like them, they don’t want to face up to what that means — so instead, they obsessively individualize the story.

In rereading some of Eichmann in Jerusalem for this essay I was struck by how Arendt’s tone would be considered verboten in this day and age. Her scalding observations left nowhere for Eichmann or his enablers to hide. She said he deserved death, even. All this after exhaustive reporting of facts from the trial that she assembled into a terrifying big picture. That so few journalists have the courage to write such analysis for our own time is dispiriting, to say the least. I can only close with another observation from Arendt:

“How troubled men of our time are by this question of judgement… What has come to light is neither nihilism nor cynicism, as one might have expected, but a quite extraordinary confusion over elementary questions of morality — as if an instinct in such matters were truly the last thing to be taken for granted in our time.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 28, 2017, to reflect new information from this Splinter article.

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