Humanizing white supremacists increases hate

In the wake of events like the “Unite the Right” Charlottesville, VA rally and last month’s “White Lives Matter” rally in Shelbyville, TN, many people are left wondering how we got to this point. How did the culture of hate in United States politics get so intense that Americans are waving Nazi flags despite the fact that their grandparents and great-grandparents actively fought to defeat Hitler’s Germany in World War II? How did we get to a point where the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), a group that our government should be in direct opposition with, felt like they could actively support our current president?

Have we always been here, but only recently noticed as more and more white nationalist groups have come out of the woodwork? Or are these new converts to the white rights movement frustrated by their government and seeking any way to make their voices heard? These are important questions to ask as these voices get louder and louder. In order to expand and protect equality for all races, religions, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and nationalities, we need to understand what is turning people away from that cause.

This is what The New York Times reporter Richard Fausset attempted to do last week with his article “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland.” The article describes the daily life of white nationalist Tony Hovater, the “Nazi sympathizer next door” who enjoys watching Seinfeld and spending time with his wife and his four cats when he’s not working as a welder or advocating for the Traditional Worker Party, the extreme right-wing group that he co-founded. Fausset talks to Hovater about his frustrations with the government and references his gradual change in political stance, “from vaguely leftist rock musician to ardent libertarian to fascist activist.”

The article, however, drew significant criticism, with many people questioning why the story exists, since it doesn’t truly address the question of how Mr. Hovater made this transition in his political views. Fausset admitted to as much in his companion article to his story, “I Interviewed a White Nationalist and Facist. What Was I Left With?” “What, of any of this, explained Mr. Hovater’s radical turn?” asks Fausset. “What prompted him to take his ideas beyond his living room… and on to Charlottesville?” This is the question that is left unanswered, and Fausset decided that “the unfilled hole would have to serve as both feature and defect.”

This hole is the issue that many have struggled with in regards to the article, and The New York Times has since released a statement in apology. “We recognize that people can disagree on how to best 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.”

However, with a hole like that, the article is meaningless. We know that white nationalists and people that support their causes are also human. They probably also watch sitcoms like Seinfeld and enjoy spending time with their families and their pets. Maybe they are also musicians, like Hovater, or artists, like Hitler. To talk about these similar human aspects without talking about the differences as well, without talking about why Hovater is a white nationalist in comparison to others in his demographic who are not white nationalists is to normalize his behavior. In a country where it seems that these hateful views are becoming more and more normal both in society and in our government, the last thing that we need to do is to fuel that normalization.

The question is not “Who are these white nationalists?” but rather, “Why did these people choose to be white nationalists?” That is the information we need to know in order to push back against the tide of hateful speech and action. It’s what we need to know in order to prevent the alt-right from gaining more support in mainstream culture. Without that information, it is useless to profile a Nazi sympathizer, for that is just giving more visibility to groups that should remain on the fringes of our political system.

Have we always had this white nationalist support, or is this a new uprising? How did we get to this point in our society? These are the questions we need to answer, and these are the stories we need to be telling.