Because every single cultural artifact must now be read, pro or con, through the lens of Donald Trump, dictionary.com asserted its importance by naming “complicit” as the word-of-the-year today. NPR logged some citations that pertained to Harvey Weinstein and the toxic brew of misogyny, power-protection, and sexual abuse, but this is mostly being read as a finger in the eye of the occasionally malaprop-prone Ivanka Trump and the slow, menacing shadow of advancing fascism her father has cast upon the land.
Coincidentally, The New York Times gave us a master class in complicity this weekend in its profile of an Ohio Nazi named Tony Hovater. Hoo-boy, did this one cause an outcry, such that the Times‘ editors felt compelled to respond and the journalist, Richard Fausset, who wrote it kinda sorta denounced his own work.
Where to begin? First, the Times‘ premise stands on solid footing: Nazis aren’t cartoon villains. They’re our co-workers and neighbors and relatives. They don’t have horns or breathe fire and their resting facial expression isn’t necessarily a wide-open scream of hatred. We already knew Nazis went to Home Depot (for their tiki torches) but now we also know they eat Applebee’s (whose Twitter account was conspicuously silent on this point after the NYT story came out, unlike, say Papa John’s). And in Hovater’s case, Nazis even watch Seinfeld.
OK. The tricky part is where to land the whole thing on the normalization scale, which brings us to a sort of corollary of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the metaphorical extrapolation of which says that observing something alters the behavior of that thing. In this case, to observe something is to alter the behavior of both the observed and the observer. Does writing a standard profile of a subject necessarily mean normalizing that subject?
I would argue that it does not. Look at the Atlantic’s recent profile of Andrew Anglin, which manages to be fair, accurate, and anti-Nazi. (The subhead is “How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?” Not subtle.) But apart from running the story more than three months after the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, when it would have had the most impact, the Times made two crucial mistakes. One was that they chose a boring, mild-mannered subject — and by doing so, they essentially did PR for Nazism. The other was that they normalized Hovater passively, and in all the wrong ways.
As to the first error, look on social media for 15 minutes and you will discover a near-infinite panoply of aggressively racist, sexist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic trolls foaming at the mouth. Why pick a quiet one and not a forceful one? Surely one or two of the forceful ones is articulate enough to use complete sentences.
Every reporter has stories they wish they could have back, but a newspaper is a collaborative effort: https://t.co/y9o5in4953
— Charles P. Pierce (@CharlesPPierce) November 27, 2017
That decision was not made in a vacuum. The Times always seems to be more mindful of criticism made in bad faith by non-readers than of its duty toward the actual people who read it to learn about the world. So they’ve sent someone into the Great Beyond to report on How Things Are Over There With the Understanding That They Could Never Happen Here.
This marked almost all those awkward profiles of America’s “white-working class” Trump voters, either before they pulled the lever or today, a year later, when they’re still mysteriously carrying water for their boy Donald in spite of all the broken promises. Critics love to call the NYT elitist — and it certainly is, in many respects. But there’s the elitism of co-branding deals for you affluent readership to buy baubles and there’s the elitism of assuming that Nazis could never scale the walls and come to Manhattan, which basically has no “white working class” apart from young, creative types trapped in the gig economy for now.
On August 20, 1939, the New York Times wrote an article profiling Hitler’s daily life in his mountain chalet, featuring such details as, “Though Hitler is a strict vegetarian and teetotaler, he is not indifferent to meals.”
Twelve days later, Hitler invaded Poland. pic.twitter.com/1dZ8DfTt9v
— J.H. Swanson (@jh_swanson) November 25, 2017
That gap is galling. What’s it going to take to get the whole “duty-to-warn” component of journalism to overtake the innocent, “hey-look-at-this” part? An “it can’t happen here (even though all signs point to its inevitability)” mentality is frustrating. But the way the story normalizes Hovater is the real issue. Let’s look at this paragraph:
In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan.
It might be better written thusly, emphasis ours:
In Ohio, amid the row crops and rolling hills, the Olive Gardens and Steak ’n Shakes, Mr. Hovater’s presence can make hardly a ripple — even though proponents of his belief system killed an innocent woman in Virginia over the summer, then cheered her death on social media. He is the Nazi sympathizer next door, polite and low-key at a time the old boundaries of accepted political activity can seem alarmingly in flux. [Insert easy-to-get quote from actual neighbor horrified by who they’re living next door to.] Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate. But his tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show “Twin Peaks.” He says he prefers to spread the gospel of white nationalism with satire. He is a big “Seinfeld” fan. While Nazis may profess loathing for “normies,” they’re actually eager for mainstream acceptance. This indicates the slippery nature of contemporary Nazism, whose adherents display a remarkable knowledge of and comfort with people and things their forebears would almost certainly destroy. [Lead-in to quote from Hovater on whether or not he would put Jerry Seinfeld in a gas chamber].
And instead of this:
It was midday at a Panera Bread, and Mr. Hovater was describing his political awakening over a turkey sandwich. He mentioned books by Charles Murray and Pat Buchanan. He talked about his presence on 4chan, the online message board and alt-right breeding ground (“That’s where the scary memes come from,” he deadpanned). He spoke dispassionately about the injustice of affirmative action, about the “malice directed toward white people” in popular media, about how the cartoon comedy “King of the Hill” was the last TV show to portray “a straight white male patriarch” in a positive light.
He declared the widely accepted estimate that six million Jews died in the Holocaust “overblown.” He said that while the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler wanted to exterminate groups like Slavs and homosexuals, Hitler “was a lot more kind of chill on those subjects.”
It should read closer to this:
It was midday at a Panera Bread, and Mr. Hovater was describing his political awakening over a turkey sandwich. He mentioned books by Charles Murray, a widely debunked scholar whose book The Bell Curve falsely ties IQ to race, and Pat Buchanan, a sort of proto-Trump who ran for president in 1992 as an out-and-out culture warrior. He talked about his presence on 4chan, the online message board and alt-right breeding ground (“That’s where the scary memes come from,” he noted with (dis)approval). He spoke dispassionately about the injustice of affirmative action, about the “malice directed toward white people” in popular media, about how the cartoon comedy “King of the Hill” was the last TV show to portray “a straight white male patriarch” in a positive light, laying bare the yearning many alt-right figures harbor for a cultural safe space free from mockery.
He declared the widely accepted estimate that six million Jews died in the Holocaust “overblown,” even though that figure is almost universally regarded as accurate. He said that while the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler wanted to exterminate groups like Slavs and homosexuals, Hitler “was a lot more kind of chill on those subjects,” once again revealing a profoundly ill-informed and breezily terrifying worldview rooted in the wholesale rewriting of history.
That’s how you profile Nazis: Hang them with their own words, which are going to be horrible, because being horrible is a precondition of being a Nazi. In order to do that, you gotta get the words. In sitting down with a muddled, almost circumspect Nazi, Fausset failed miserably in this regard. He let his taciturn subject slip through his fingers and inadvertently gave this strain of aw-shucks Nazism the imprimatur of the Newspaper of Record. Hovater is a self-professed Nazi, but he’s also a fan of anarcho-capitalist writers, and he seems to think fascism involves some kind of check on government power, but really he’s about maintaining white supremacy so that there is “no competing demographics for government power or for resources.”
I learned ten times as much about Hovater and Heimbach from listening to two episodes of their stupid podcast than I did from reading the Times profile. That’s a scandal.
— Angus Johnston (@studentactivism) November 27, 2017
Hunh? Culturally monolithic nations are free from power struggles? Really? And how exactly would a future “Weimarica” purify itself — ugh — to get rid of all the non-white, non-Christian people without tens of millions of deaths and deportations? Hovater’s beliefs are an incoherent pile of mush that gloss over the insane amount of violence required to implement them, and it reads as though Fausset was reluctant to push too hard for fear of looking like the Times was hunting easy prey for intellectual sport.
In which case, why write the story at all? Moreover, there’s a big missing piece here: Maria Hovater. Unlike Lot’s Wife, who turned into a pillar of salt for looking at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, we actually do learn Hovater’s spouse’s name. But we barely get even one complete sentence from her. Why not? I don’t know what’s more troubling, the possibility that Maria Hovater might be a savvier, more assertive Nazi sympathizer than her husband or that she’s just passively going along with this. But in keeping with the word of the year, it’s the overall complicity that’s the most troubling, for reasons this Greatest Tweet of All Time put so succinctly some months ago.
You don’t get to be both a Nazi and a proud American. We literally had a war about this. The whole world was involved. pic.twitter.com/LhJ7FmLvhw
— Millennial Politics (@MillenPolitics) June 11, 2017
And lastly, Hovater eats at Applebee’s. As if we needed one fewer reason to go there.