Columns, Opinion

Max vs. Media: The problem with humanizing white nationalists

How do you profile a white nationalist? A loaded question indeed —  so much so that it could be listed as an example of one in the dictionary. Before we even get to an answer, many will criticize the foundation of the question. They would argue that profiling a white nationalist is abhorrent in and of itself. Should we give these extremists of society a platform to express their beliefs? Critics argue that profiling these people will normalize their behavior, encouraging others to enter the darkest depths of society — but they are wrong on all fronts.

The New York Times published an article Sunday profiling Tony Hovater, a 29-year-old white nationalist. The article plainly humanizes him. I cannot argue with that point. The author does not solely focus on his radical ideas, but also on characteristics that make him seem normal. While he positively comments on Hitler, he is also a big fan of Seinfeld. He isn’t a white supremacist exactly — he’s a white nationalist. The difference is that he believes races should be separate, but that whites aren’t inherently superior. This is how he identifies, yet I have a hard time believing him. Either way, despite his love for Seinfeld, he is an anti-Semite. As quoted in The New York Times:

“I don’t even think those things should be ‘edgy,’” he says, while defending his assertion that Jews run the worlds of finance and media, and “appear to be working more in line with their own interests than everybody else’s.”

However, this profile is not a judgement of Hovater. It is not meant to be, nor does it claim to be critical. The author, Richard Fausset, at one point writes how Hovater believes the federal government is too big, yet in the next, advocated for fascism, the epitome of so-called “big government.” He claims to want a collective society, where people join together to fight their problems, yet that is anathema to his white nationalist ideology.

The only substantial criticism I have of Fausset is his assessment of Hovater’s intelligence. In a follow-up article titled “I interviewed a White Nationalist and Fascist. What was I left with?,” he worsens his original piece with the following few paragraphs:

“There is a hole at the heart of my story about Tony Hovater, the white nationalist and Nazi sympathizer.

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?”

It is right to question why people join extremist groups, but it is impossible to know from an interview. These are fascists, followers in an ideology responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. To believe they are honest is insane. Hovater is neither intelligent nor socially adroit. I’ve clearly never met him, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he isn’t the brightest bulb. As pointed out before, his two seemingly core ideas — white nationalism and collectivism — are mutually exclusive and completely paradoxical.

However, I don’t believe his original piece humanized him. It was a realist portrait, not a surrealist painting. Yet this did not stop thousands of outcries over the original article. Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox, made the most coherent argument against the article. Last Saturday, Klein tweeted: “The problem with this article isn’t that it’s about a Nazi but that it doesn’t add anything to our understanding of modern Nazis. Of course racists shop at supermarkets and play in bands and enjoy Seinfeld and own cats. That evil is also banal is not new.”

Klein argues we didn’t learn anything from this profile — that we already knew the normal side of white nationalists. But did we? Did we ever care to consider the normality we share in order to prevent future extremism? Or should we just be quiet about this horrific part of society; shut them out completely while they march along the streets carrying tiki torches? This article didn’t let Hovater control the dialogue. Even from just skimming the article, one can tell that Hovater is a downtrodden white guy who is upset that he wasn’t guaranteed a good life. It’s no longer the 1950s where, so long as you were a white protestant male, life was guaranteed to be decent. I don’t see anything in the article that gave him a platform to promote white nationalism. I just saw a sad man who sought out a hideous ideology that made him feel important — his own sort of “safe space.”

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