A recent article in the New York Times caused outrage due to its supposed ‘normalising’ of white nationalist views. In it, a young man named Tony Hovater, present at the Charlottesville protest where a woman was killed by a car driven into the crowds, is profiled and questioned as to what led him to hold these views. Many of us, including the journalist I suspect, expect people with extreme views to be that way ‘for a reason’. Something must have happened to them to make them this way. Maybe they were conditioned or abused by a parent, traumatised in some way. Perhaps they have some kind of mental issues making them vulnerable, more easily influenced. As Shane Bauer, a writer at the magazine Mother Jones puts it:
“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.”
Nazis, neo-Nazis, fascists or whatever you call them are not as easy to spot as you might think. They don’t all go around covered in swastikas, yelling abuse at black, Jewish or gay people. It could be the guy sat next to in the library or that lady who says ‘hi’ when you pass her on your street. For all the beliefs you might fundamentally disagree with from the very core of your being, you might have things in common with them too. You might find them funny, they might offer to do nice things for you. Actual nice things like helping you put up a fence, not things they think are nice like offering to lend you a book about Hitler. It’s confusing. It’s also scary because you might find yourself associating with these people, liking them, without knowing it.
Confusion on these issues is nothing new. For decades there has been a debate surrounding the composer Wagner. His music is still banned in Israel due to Hitler’s fondness and use of it at his rallies, plus the general opinion that Wagner himself was anti-semitic. On the one hand, you can see why it is banned but some feel that the art itself should remain unaffected. One thing that is largely agreed on is that Wagner was a pretty horrible person and simultaneously a musical genius. However unfair and uncomfortable it may be, those two can co-exist in one person. I don’t know whether I should listen to Wagner.
What is also confusing and surprising is that Hovater is not entirely what you might expect, attitude-wise, from a ‘fascist’. He insists he not racist and clearly states that he is a white nationalist, not a supremacist. The difference to most of us is blurry and maybe it doesn’t matter hugely because either way, it’s not great! So far as I can tell nationalist simply want to promote the rights of white people and ensure they are not ‘overtaken’ by other races. Supremacists believe whites are superior. It’s all very strange.
Hovater says he had no issue with non-white people attending his wedding and gives no impression of wishing harm on those of ‘other’ races. He just thinks we are better off segregated and that, jews, for instance, should run the finance and media sectors and “appear to be working more in line with their own interests than everybody else’s.” He doesn’t want to prevent them from doing this so that whites can take over as many might assume. I would have. It’s very confusing when people are not racist in the way you were expecting. But I’m not sure that it matters a huge amount because it’s all different levels and permutations of racism.
The trouble with an opinion piece is that I am still not completely sure what my opinion is. Unusual for me. On one hand, I feel that a lot of the political arguments, particularly the extreme one, could be somewhat avoided if less credence was given to them. The moment you vehemently loudly disagree or describe a view as a dangerous one that should not be tolerated, you are acknowledging its threat by taking it seriously. But what’s the alternative? Someone says something disgusting about black people or Muslims and you just let them?
One thing I do feel sure of is that the ‘normalising’ and certainly the ‘sympathising’ the New York Times were accused of were pretty unfounded. I can see why people felt that but at no point did I think that was their angle. They use the words ‘bigot’ and ‘fascist’ not in a judgemental or attacking way because they are top journalists who have to remain as objective as humanly possible. It’s simply an accurate description. At no point do they align themselves or suggest any desire to let this man ‘have his say’. They are trying to educate. To show things the way they are not the way most of us wish or like to think it is.
If I 100% felt that these people shouldn’t be given any kind of platform even if it’s to heighten the awareness of the danger they pose then I wouldn’t be able to write this as I am basically just repeating what has been said on all sides. Therefore, I suppose I have decided that knowledge and education are more useful tools than denial and refusal. I said before that not giving credence to a view can help devalue it but at the same time that’s dangerous because there is no guarantee that will be the case. If these people aren’t known about, if they aren’t monitored then they can just quietly carry on. And who knows what might happen then? The NYT said it best in their response to the negative feedback:
‘’We regret the degree to which the piece offended so many readers. We recognize that people can disagree on how best to tell a disagreeable story. What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them. That’s what the story, however imperfectly, tried to do.’’