Another spasm of internet outrage flopped across the web this weekend, when the New York Times published a profile of avowed Nazi sympathizer and white nationalist Tony Hovater, an Ohio guy who was present at the Charlottesville protests. The story describes Hovater as an everyman who has honed his bigotry and swastika fandom into a fairly vocal stance. He is, by all accounts, hateful. Then: “He’s a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan,” the reporter writes.
The backlash was swift and widespread. For a time, it was all you could find on Twitter: Harsh criticism of the paper for even thinking about running this piece — tweets often framed as though Sulzberger himself had draped 620 Eighth Ave. in a tumbling white sheet.
Readers’ word of choice was “normalize” this weekend, with many people insisting that this sort of “normalization” cannot be tolerated. “As Trump trashes journalists domestically and internationally, you choose to normalize Nazi hatred. WWII soldiers are barely cold in their graves and I see history repeating itself. Disgusting,” according to “Meg.”
It’s not, like, a great piece, but it can’t honestly be argued that the New York Times is “normalizing” Nazi viewpoints and culture.
The NYT national editor rightfully points to reporter Shane Bauer’s tweet, in which he wrote: “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.”
Indeed,the New York Times didn’t “normalize” anything here; Nazis and white supremacists were “normalized” as a subculture of American society long ago. It’s baked into the country’s popular mass media channels; it’s tolerated in untold moments throughout every American’s day, in fleeting conversations that dance around the reality of white privilege; it’s a fundamental part of our moral fabric’s stitching.
“The point of the story,” Marc Lacey writes, “was not to normalize anything but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.”
It would be a real delight to see readers responding en masse with solutions to this cultural cancer, with opportunities for intelligent social criticism and political development and public accountability. The newspaper aired a hateful man’s words — and that hateful man might as well be your next-door neighbor, spouting vicious beliefs without reproach. The newspaper showed you what’s happening in America.
Now what of it?