When Evil Has Nice Manners

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In November, The New York Times ran a story called “The Nazi Sympathizer Next Door.”

Veteran reporter Richard Faussett interviewed a white nationalist from Ohio named Tony Hovater, one of the “foot soldiers” in the resurgence of white supremacy, a man who speaks highly of Hitler and shares images on Facebook imagining what life would be like had Germany won the Second World War. The profile offered a personal look at Hovater, from his “cherry pie tattoo” and “midwestern manners” to his enjoyment of Seinfeld. We see him cooking; we hear about his pets. Tony seems so normal, even though “books about Mussolini and Hitler share shelf space with a stack of Nintendo Wii games.”

The backlash against the profile landed like a bomb. The writer and editors were blasted for “normalizing hate” and for offering too sympathetic a portrayal of a Nazi sympathizer. Instead of demonizing the man, they’d humanized him. They hadn’t been clear enough in their condemnation of his nationalist and anti-Semitic views.

In response to the outcry, the story’s headline changed to “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland.” Then the Times’s national editor defended the story as an exploration into the people who came to the Charlottesville protest.

“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.”

I understand the visceral reaction that many had to the story. It was disturbing. It’s true that portraying a virulent racist as normal in any way may lessen the horror of a reader who encounters a hateful worldview, or may open the door for racism to no longer seem “beyond the pale.”

Still, some of the backlash was misguided. Many of the critics of the original article made it sound like the categories of “good” and “evil” are so tightly defined that we can (and should) build a wall of separation between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” The assumption is that evil people do exist, but that they are monsters, of a completely different class of humanity than those of us who are enlightened and good.

The reality is, evil often appears normal. Evil beliefs and actions often show up alongside “midwestern manners” with a slice of “cherry pie.”

  • Consider the fusion of Southern hospitality and Southern slavery, or the parasitical nature of evil in many of Christianity’s great heroes.
  • Look at the pictures of young men and women in Austria smiling and dancing after a long day of hard work . . . as officials in a concentration camp.
  • Watch the video of a Planned Parenthood executive munching on salad and drinking her wine while she casually discusses how she adapts the abortion procedure (“I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above . . .) in order to salvage the body parts of unborn babies for sale.

We deceive ourselves if we think evil is relegated to “monsters,” or that evil beliefs take root in people who belong to a different class of humanity than ourselves. The disturbing thing about evil is that it’s everywhere, and most of the time, is not extreme.

In a recent article on this topic, Jared Wilson mentioned Hannah Arendt, who at the close of her famous book on the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, reiterated “the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

Eichmann was “the faceless bureaucrat of death.” She claimed that “he personified neither hatred or madness nor an insatiable thirst for blood, but something far worse, the faceless nature of Nazi evil itself . . .”

At the time, many faulted Arendt for humanizing the war criminal. Even today, some contend that Eichmann faked his self-presentation as a mindless bureaucrat, a mere shuffler of papers. How else can we make sense of the way normality and bottomless cruelty coexist?

But history shows that evil and normalcy coexist in ways that boggle the mind. Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts documents how German bystanders refused to intervene when foreigners or Jews were assaulted in broad daylight for failing to offer the Nazi salute. When Milton Mayer interviewed ordinary Germans after the war, he documented the slow progression of small acts of evil or cowardice that led eventually to evil on a massive scale.

“The one great shocking occasion, when tens of hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course, this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, a book I chose as one of my favorite reads of the year, features oral testimonies of people who lived through the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union. The book leaves you with the harrowing discovery that “normal people” (your friends and neighbors and coworkers) could suddenly become indifferent to atrocities committed against you because of your ethnicity. Or worse, your friends could be the ones to turn and betray you.

When Roy Moore addressed a crowd last week, someone shouted, “Does that look like the face of a molester?” Whether or not Moore is guilty or innocent of the charges against him, that question proves my point: we assume that evil is obvious and visible, that it must mark someone out as somehow different from the rest of us. But who would have assumed Matt Lauer was a serial harasser with a “lock from inside” button on his door? Who would have expected so many priests and bishops or Christian leaders to abuse children or hide those who do?

After having endured the Gulag, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, did not come away with the idea that evil is “out there” to be quarantined and set aside in jails and prisons. No, he realized that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”

To be sure, it is unsettling to think that the kind kid down the street could become an ISIS radical, or that the boy who sits behind you in church could be visiting neo-Nazi websites, or that the talkative woman you talk to on the subway aids and abets a man in power who preys on others. Of course, it’s unsettling that your next-door neighbor may love Seinfeld, eat cherry pie, and feel fondness for Hitler!

But this is the world we live in. The shadows are not contained to prison cells or crime-ridden parts of town. The shadows show up in our own hearts, and we do not realize the insidious power of evil until we see that any of us could fall prey to evil choices given the right circumstances and the wrong heart.

More concerning than the normalizing of evil is the normalcy of evil. That’s the deeper lesson from the Times controversy.

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