New York Times and Reaction to It Help Us See Where Nazis Come From

“Imagine being so bad at drumming that you become a Nazi,” someone tweeted in response to the recent and scandalous New York Times’ article about an Ohio Nazi. “Or at painting,” I replied.

That part of the explanation of where Nazis come from is not new.

What’s newest about the article is the reaction to it: a flood of outrage filling my social media and email, including demands that Nazis not be “humanized” or “normalized,” and insistence that they be simply condemned, ignored, cursed at, or violently attacked.

There’s a new level here of willful ignorance, of required demonizing, of advocacy for cartoonish views of the world. Across our culture from left to right, people have been taught that those who do horrible things were born and will die horrible monsters. For some, these horrible monsters include Iraqis or North Koreans or Muslims. For others they include child molesters or sexual harassers or racists. For some they include Jews, Blacks, or liberals. With everyone a self-identified public relations expert, many insist, if not on holding such childishly stupid views themselves, on trying to ensure that others hold them.

By default, human beings identified by any other word as being in any way different from oneself are considered to be in need of “humanizing.” This process is one that people believe should be performed selectively as desired. Victims of discrimination or maybe even of bombing should be humanized. Hateful fascists should not be. The CEO of the Anti-Defamation League says the New York Times has “humanized the inhumane.”

Here’s a tweet from @bessbell: “Get ready to read a fucking sentence. It’s a sentence about a Nazi. Are you ready? Lay the fuck down. Here goes. Quick reminder: It’s about a fucking Nazi. A Nazi. Nazi. It’s a sentence about a Nazi. ‘In person, his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother.'”

Let’s try that sentence with one word changed: “Get ready to read a fucking sentence. It’s a sentence about a Jew. Are you ready? Lay the fuck down. Here goes. Quick reminder: It’s about a fucking Jew. A Jew. Jew. It’s a sentence about a Jew. ‘In person, his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother.'”

The comparison, I wish it were unnecessary to say, is not between a Nazi and a Jew, between support for genocide and just belonging to some group of people. The comparison is between insisting that someone’s pleasing Midwestern manners go unmentioned and insisting that someone’s pleasing Midwestern manners go unmentioned. Unmentioned, unthought, and unbelieved in. Thou shalt not believe that a Nazi can have nice manners — or at least thou shalt not believe that other people can learn about the Nazi’s nice manners without becoming Nazis.

Bill Maher was not being the bigot he sometimes has been when he was fired for saying that flying an airplane into a building is not cowardly. That was not a comment on the evil of the act, only on the question of cowardice. But the simple fact that suicide or “sacrificing one’s life” for a cause is often treated as the opposite of cowardice was inadmissible information. Not to be thought.

Many in high dudgeon over the New York Times reporting that a Nazi has a name and likes particular television shows and so forth insist that of course they already knew that such things could be reported, they just didn’t want them to be. But how much have they thought about the fact that these Nazis hold their Nazi beliefs simultaneously with a typical package of U.S. pop-cultural tastes and preferences and a U.S. military childhood, that their taste in racist books runs to the respectable U.S. mainstream, or that they make excuses for and distort the history of Hitler in order to make him a hero exactly as others do for their chosen heroes. How many have considered exactly how close a lot of these Nazis have been to not becoming Nazis, or to ceasing to be Nazis? Isn’t that why it matters so much that someone like Donald Trump encourages them, because the result is more Nazis, not just emboldened Nazis? Don’t we want to know how they think and what they want, including whether they want to deny genocide or whether they want to commit it?

That many U.S. Nazis offer very similar arguments for their beliefs ought to be of great interest to anyone who wants to reduce and eliminate Nazism. When someone claims to have gone extreme because there’s no room to be moderate, they may not be describing the world we see, but they certainly are indicating a belief that nobody has listened to what they have to say. When someone opposes affirmative action and “malice directed toward white people” in popular media, they may lack historical understanding, empathy, and perspicacity, but they certainly are answering the “why do they hate us” question as clearly as they know how. Choosing not to hear, opting to feign bewilderment or to dismiss Nazism as the result of “there being bad people in the world” is a victory for the cause of idiocy shared with the Nazis.

While I’d prefer on balance that the New York Times cease to exist, I’m on the side of publishing any information that could be helpful in the cause of understanding and improving the world.

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