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Depicting Nazis as ordinary gives them power

Tensions High As Alt-Right Activist Richard Spencer Visits U. Florida Campus Brian Blanco/Getty Images

A New York Times profile of a cat-loving Nazi and his wife has awoken the anger of the internet. It’s not that this is difficult to do, and the danger of responding to problematic viral articles is that it’s easy to pick apart what’s wrong with such pieces, and often much harder to assess the context in which the idea came about in the first place. There’s been some effort at this in the Twitter conversation, especially with a focus on the lack of racial diversity in newsrooms.

Aspects of the news business certainly have something to do with misfires like fluff profiles of violent racists — at the very least, they create an environment where this kind of thing is possible. But the news media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. How to deal with the presence of terrible and destructive ideas in a modern and open society is an ongoing question, and it’s an especially pressing one right now.

The place to start with this dilemma is how we think about free speech and the marketplace of ideas — necessities for a free society that pose a real dilemma when it comes to dealing with anti-democratic ideas. People often learn to understand the broad scope of free speech in the US through examples like Larry Flynt, the notorious editor of Hustler magazine, or Nazis marching through Skokie, Illinois, defended in court by the American Civil Liberties Union. These cases, especially when paired with everyone’s favorite decontextualized Voltaire quote, suggest that freedom of speech is primarily about offense and tolerance.

But when we think of it primarily in terms of unpopular groups — Nazis, atheists, communists — and in terms of the offense it might cause people, we remove speech, expression, and the associated freedoms protected by the First Amendment from their historical context. Freedom of expression is not just about pushing the boundaries of social acceptability. It is about the ability to challenge power — most literally, to criticize the government without fear of legal consequences.

Obviously, ideas about free expression — including the right to hold and express hideous views — have evolved a great deal. These ideas were developed in a world in which political speech was costly. In the United States, we now practice them in a world in which political speech is cheap.

This state of affairs makes it easy to obscure the power dynamics involved in some forms of offensive or challenging speech. Our highly limited discourse on the topic means that Nazis and white supremacists are put in the same category with sacrilegious art exhibits and provocateurs like Flynt. Using this framework limits how we can think about what to do with ideas like white supremacy and white nationalism.

Thinking about these ideas as merely offensive and marginal ignores a simple and uncomfortable truth. One of the reasons we draw bright boundaries around racist thinking is not because it’s odious and beyond the pale, but because it’s odious and has proven over again to be incredibly potent in the right circumstances. In the US, a history of overt discrimination is still built into many of our institutions. People who fought actual Nazis in Europe are still alive.

While Americans mostly use social sanctioning and norms, some societies have responded to these kinds of threats by enacting legal bans on certain types of speech. (Like many Americans, I would oppose legal measures. But I support your right to favor them.)

The offending Times profile comes out of a few related developments. The marginalization of violent racism may have become a victim of its own success; as with other surprising political developments of the past few years, it tends to be treated as fundamentally unserious, an approach whose lack of viability is immediately obvious. This makes extremists like the ones profiled in the Times piece seem like curiosities, like people who have weird hobbies. Such thinking no longer makes sense. We now know that the belief in such natural boundaries is a delusion.

At the same time, American society seems to be experiencing a moment in which there is a serious debate about who does and does not have power. An entire genre of books and articles about the white working class chronicles its powerlessness in a culture that (at least superficially) prizes education and diversity. The election of the first black president unsettled centuries of racial hierarchy. In other words, there’s a potent and omnipresent cultural narrative of — for lack of a less blunt phrase — white victimhood.

When we take complaints about “PC culture” or “identity politics” at face value, we open up space for grievances about “white interests,” whether we want to or not. For years, fringe groups have embraced these victimhood ideas, and now those ideas are part of the mainstream discourse — despite the many documented disadvantages experienced by women and racial minorities.

At the intersection of novelty and victimhood, we find stories of Nazis going to Panera, their ideas largely stripped of history and context. Much has been said about the “normalization” of such ideas — that by portraying Nazis as average, even sympathetic, people, journalists run the risk of helping to integrate violent ideologies into the mainstream. The thing is that violent, racist ideologies have spent lots of time in the mainstream. They’ve proven very destructive. The imperative of the moment is not just to debate about how to keep them at the margins, but to remember out loud why they belong there.

The danger, then, in an everyday portrait of the white supremacist next door isn’t in the normalization but in the populist ideology that’s buried deep in the narrative. Depictions of ordinary, small, powerless American life have proven an immensely useful political tool at times. These depictions have provided a packaging for executive power, a way to delegitimize war protests, and, of course, a justification for racism. Reducing a white supremacist to the features of his harmless life obscures the horror his ideas can unleash.

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