DANIEL VAUGHAN: Stop Arguing About the Normalization of Evil

“There’s a Nazi Next Door,” should be the actual headline of The New York Times‘ latest foray into middle America which they named, “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland.” The Times received volumes of hate mail for publishing the piece because, according to critics, the piece “normalized” Nazism and racism. But what the piece reveals is that evil is never a cartoon Disney villain — it comes in a banal package that’s utterly at home in the American suburbs, and that frightens the modern mind.

The article builds itself around Tony Hovater, a self-declared white nationalist who declares Adolph Hiter a personal hero and craves full-scale fascism to infiltrate America. In other words, there’s little doubt Hovater is a neo-Nazi living in America and embraces all the evil those labels entails.

The New York Times was criticized for “normalizing” Tony and Maria Hovater by showing their daily lives, and providing a glimpse into their world that isn’t that much different from any other middle-American household. In fact, the Times received so much push-back for this piece that their national editor had to issue an apology to readers.

I see two broad criticisms here that need addressing. First, the Times was criticized by some for giving a platform to evil neo-Nazi ideas that wouldn’t have a voice, but for Times coverage. And second, even if not granting a platform, the Times normalized evil ideas into broader society.

On the first point, it would make sense to criticize The New York Times for providing a platform to neo-Nazism in the pre-internet age. When newspapers and magazines were the only mainstream outlets for ideas, top editors could freeze out any ideas they didn’t like, and they were gatekeepers to information. But in the internet age, any idea can be accessed from anywhere. And in follow-ups to Hovater’s profile, other journalists noted the impact the internet has had on spreading white nationalist and neo-Nazi beliefs.

One can’t say the Times is providing a platform for anything; they’re merely reporting on a phenomenon that already has an established base and platform. In the internet age, the gatekeepers are dead — we have killed them, and now information is available to anyone.

The second question is more difficult: is the Times normalizing neo-Nazism into the mainstream consciousness? Critics would rather have the paper either attack neo-Nazism or censor it altogether from its pages.

On the first point, in the Times‘ own words, they describe Hovater as: “[A] bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere.” What more push-back do critics want?

On the censorship and normalization criticism: when ideas are already known, have a platform, and are being acted upon by people in violent marches, it’s impossible to keep these ideas from the public consciousness. Neo-Nazism isn’t going to suddenly disappear just because The New York Times doesn’t talk about it. Evil never vanishes, whether acknowledged or ignored.

On a consistency check, it is educational to note the people fretting about normalizing evil ideas didn’t say a word when the Times was running fluff pieces on communism. The “Red Century” was responsible for multiple violent coups, ethnic-cleansing, and dictatorships; yet, nothing from the normalization crowd.

What the Times piece reveals is a far more disturbing truth, one German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt called, “the banality of evil.” Arendt watched and reported on the trial of Nazi Adolph Eichmann. She observed that his evil nature wasn’t because of any sociopathic tendency or characteristic, but instead, he was a person merely self-rationalizing his behavior. Like Eichmann, Hovater engages in simple human behavior and enjoys leisure activities familiar to any man.

Those complaining about normalization are revealing a more profound fear: people like Hovater aren’t easy to spot like a Disney villain complete with a thin, curled mustache. They’re ordinary Americans, complete with common interests and regular habits. There is, like Eichmann, a banality to their evil. But it’s not just that evil could be present in a neighbor that’s terrifying.

Michel de Montaigne, a French Renaissance writer and inventor of the essay, famously observed, “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.” Each person contains the fullness of the human condition, which means they can act entirely on any of those impulses. The same banality of Eichmann and Hovater is present within our human nature as well.

The cries against normalization are a terrifying realization that this depth of evil, though rare when acted out, is present in every person. It’s not just the Nazi next door — it’s the fear normalization could bring out evil within. The normalization crowd wants to be blissfully unaware that great evil could lurk as close as themselves or a neighbor.

They’re always shocked to learn that evil people exist in America, whether they’re in the form of white nationalist neo-Nazis like Hovator, young Americans joining ISIS, or pro-communists participating in Antifa. The progressive view is one of history marching forever forward. Neo-Nazis, communists, and other evils returning destroy that mindset. Anti-normalization is the last refuge of those trying to believe evil could not possibly happen in their lifetimes. And even if it did exist, it couldn’t possibly live in such a familiar form with someone like Hovater.

Back in reality, evil does exist, man’s nature is fallen, and there’s no progressive arc to history that will magically defeat a great evil. Instead of worrying about normalizing already well-known ideas, it makes more sense to study how our ancestors defeated them. Only then can we see past the banality and find the truth.

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