Tony Hovater, A Lesson in the Banality of Evil

When the New York Times recently published the profile of white nationalist Tony Hovater linked above, they received more blowback for the piece than they bargained for. Why were readers so upset? Well, you can read the article for yourself, but if you’re too lazy or you’re paywalled I’ve also linked this hilarious satirical response published by the Washington Post:

“The Nazi I met in Ohio was exactly as dapper and winsome as a young man shot by the police would not appear to be in an article of this kind. He was so normal I could not believe my eyes. It goes against everything I have ever seen in movies about Nazis, where the entrance of such a person is always accompanied by a disapproving oboe. […]

He was just a chill dude who had books and posts everywhere saying that groups who were not racially pure should be eliminated, but he didn’t make any personal threats to me. (I am of course not in danger from his ideology, but I was expecting him to maybe cackle a little bit.) He uses an iPhone, not a 1940s typewriter. He has eyebrows. Now that I type this, I don’t know why I expected he wouldn’t. He was not played by Christoph Waltz, even though I kept asking him, just to be sure.”

Context clues alone suggest the joke: the author of the New York Times piece portrays Hovater as relentlessly normal, but beyond that, appears to have expected something besides normal. Some outward sign of the evil nature of the ideas lurking within, perhaps. (He also does go on at length about the guy’s eyebrows, which in my opinion do make Hovater look like some sort of hipster Disney villain).

Here’s what the Times had to say in defense of their story:

“Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article. The point of the story 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.

We described Mr. 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.

We understand that some readers wanted more pushback, and we hear that loud and clear.”

In this same statement regarding the Hovater profile, editor Marc Lacey also published a tweet from Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer:

“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.”

I include the tweet because I believe it was the entire crux of what the Times was going for (though they royally screwed up, and I will explain why).

Some of you who know the history of philosophy may know where I’m headed next, but for those of you who don’t, I want to talk about the extremely misunderstood concept of the banality of evil, a concept I think the Times and Bauer have both taken to heart but oversimplified.

In 1963, Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt published her famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (incidentally, the same year Stanley Milgram published the terrifying findings from his famous psychological experiment on obedience). Eichmann in Jerusalem reported on Adolf Eichmann’s trial and included Arendt’s theories about what led him (and others) to commit such atrocities and war crimes. She said:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Arendt did not find calling Nazis monsters or psychopaths to be useful, and indeed, court proceedings showed Eichmann to be neither in the traditional senses of the words. Many people have incorrectly interpreted Arendt’s concept of “banality” here to mean that anyone could become a Nazi under the right conditions, but she disagreed with her peers who actually thought that at the time. For her, there was always a moral choice, and she was the first to point out that Eichmann acted under no duress.

No, for Arendt, evil is banal by how it comes about– conformism, blind self-interest, unflinching obedience, a turning away from critical thought, an inability to identify with the Other– and Eichmann embodied these characteristics. She thought him a follower to the point of buffoonery. Remarking upon the eye-roll-inducing cliches of his last words before his execution, she said he “taught us the lesson of the fearsome word-and-thought defying banality of evil.”

The banality of evil is fearsome precisely because it is banal. The same buffoon Arendt describes was also instrumental in orchestrating the Holocaust, and these two facts cannot be separated. The New York Times is therefore right to point out that Nazis are, in fact, “normal.” Evil, however, thrives on normalization as Arendt warns us, and Hovater seems to know this in a most overt way. He is far from alone in this. Much of the alt-right is highly cognizant of its image and invested in improving it. Some call the old guard of the alt-right (read: Nazis) White Nationalism (WN) 1.0. The alt-right believes it is entering WN 2.0, leaving behind the fringe politics of yore as it builds a vast social network over the internet, becoming more and more mainstream. Unless the New York Times seeks to help WN 2.0’s cause, they should acknowledge the Hovater profile as a gross example of the normalization of white nationalism, as it lacks any significant criticism let alone condemnation. Writer Bess Kalb, unlike the Times, understands how to gesture towards the banality of evil while also in no uncertain terms denouncing Nazism. She tweeted:

“You know who had nice manners? The Nazi who shaved my uncle Willie’s head before escorting him into a cement chamber where he locked eyes with children as their lungs filled with poison and they suffocated to death in agony. Too much? Exactly. That’s how you write about Nazis.”

Yes. That is exactly how we should write about Nazis. We mustn’t forget that the major point in discussing the banality of evil is to remind everyone that what makes evil banal literally makes us inhuman, according to Arendt– not the other way around. It does nothing to show the normality of Nazism without a discussion of how that banality makes the WN 2.0 “nobodies, that is human beings who refuse to be persons” (Arendt). The New York Times should make this clear next time it publishes a profile on your average Midwestern boy-next-door who just so happens to be a Nazi.

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