Letter-Writing Wednesday: Don’t Normalize Nazis

Letter-Writing Wednesday: Don’t Normalize Nazis November 29, 2017

[A copy of this letter was sent to letters@nytimes.com.]

To the Editor:

I was appalled to read, in the New York Times of all places, a story whose message appears to be that Nazis are ordinary people just like you and me. The piece consists of a soft-focus profile of a white nationalist man in Ohio who’s devoted his life to spreading hate, but who nevertheless gets praised with lines like “his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother”. (Does the Times ever use this kind of language about black men shot by the police?)

We all ought to feel a pressing desire to understand why America has experienced a resurgence of white supremacism in 2017. There’s every reason for serious inquiries into the roots of this murderous ideology. How much responsibility should we assign to the president, who’s nurtured it, and one of our major political parties, who’ve struck a tacit bargain with it? To what extent is it a continuation of America’s historical legacy of racism, versus a mutation into a new form?

But your piece lacked even an attempt at that kind of serious investigative journalism. It made no effort to explain how or why the interview subject came to adopt these repugnant views. Instead, its primary focus was puff-piece gossip about the Nazi’s wedding registry, his favorite chain restaurants, and the pop-culture references in his tattoos. His praise of Adolf Hitler or his cheering for the murder of Heather Heyer are mentioned in throwaway lines, as if they were afterthoughts. If you were trying to make a Nazi seem sympathetic and relatable, this is the way you’d go about it.

What makes this especially galling is that you published this story in full awareness of its flaws. Even the reporter who wrote it concedes that “there is a hole at the heart” of it – that he failed to find the answers he was seeking, that he only got “quotidian details” and was “not even sure what these add up to”. Somehow, that didn’t translate into anyone recognizing that the story was unfit for publication in its present state.

If your intent was to show that Nazis aren’t otherworldly monsters but our relatives and neighbors, that would have been a legitimate aim, but the way you went about it was utterly wrong. The way to do that would be to describe his monstrous views first, show the historical horrors they’ve given rise to, and then get to the outwardly normal trappings of his white-bread suburban life. This Twitter thread shows the way to do it:

As one of our few remaining national news organizations, the Times has a public duty to tell the whole story, and not allow extremists to hide behind a cloak of professed normalcy. With this article, you failed to live up to that obligation.

Adam Lee

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