Last month, The New York Times published a profile of white nationalist Tony Hovater that set big swaths of the internet on fire. The piece, which lingered on Hovater's Twin Peaks tattoo, his good manners, and his pasta-cooking techniques, struck many as whitewashing Hovater's views and his role in far-right organizing, criticism the Times' national editor Marc Lacey rejected in a published response. We "need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them," Lacy said.
Though I was one of this particular piece's harshest critics, I agree with Lacy on this point. It's clear that white nationalists and other fringe groups are becoming more visible, not less. And we cannot (and should not) ignore them. Instead, we need to have a serious discussion about what shedding "more light" on these types looks like in practice — and what we are hoping to accomplish when we make the attempt.
The first thing to recognize is that an individual is rarely newsworthy in isolation. What makes any of us deserving of public attention is the impact we have on others. Political extremists, in particular, are interesting because of their role in activist movements — groups of people, sharing a common ideology, joined in common cause.
To effectively write about such individuals, we need to do four things: identify their ideology, describe their work, explain their goals and call them by their name. Let's take those one at a time.
Identifying an extremist's ideology should be the easiest part of writing about them, since it is their ideology that provides the impetus for writing about them in the first place. To do it properly, however, requires an acknowledgment that the face they show a reporter is rarely the one they show to their community. While the Times, for instance, said that Tony Hovater's Traditionalist Worker Party's "stated mission is to 'fight for the interests of White Americans,'" the party's website, festooned with quotes from Hitler and Goebbels, describes the group as "National Socialist." They're neo-Nazis, in other words, and they're not really bothering to hide it. It is a failure (of research, or perhaps of nerve) not to say so.
Even more important than a group's ideology, however, is its work — what do members actually do within the organization and in their interactions with outsiders. Providing the reader with a sense of place and community is crucial to a profile of any subculture — whether it's Scrabble players, stamp collectors, or white supremacists. How do they spend their time? How do they interact with each other? How do they recruit? Do they engage in, or encourage, violence? (Scrabble players typically don't. White supremacists often do.) These people aren't just musing on abstract concepts, they are out in the world, trying to change it. Tell us what they're doing.
And tell us, as well, what they're trying to change it to. This is crucial in illuminating the worldview of self-described white nationalists in particular. To be a white nationalist in America is, generally speaking, to want America to be a white nation. But America isn't a white nation. It's a multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial nation. So what do the white nationalists imagine is going to happen to all the people of color (and Jews, and gays, and trans people, and feminists, etc.)? Ask the question. If the answer doesn't make any sense, ask it again.
After all this work is completed, you'll have the information you need to call your subjects by their name. Are they racists? Say that they're racists. Are they white supremacists? Nazis? Anti-Semites? Say that too. But before you use these terms, you're going to need to define them — for yourself, and for your audience. "Racist," "fascist," "Nazi," and the rest aren't just empty pejoratives, they are words that have meanings. Media organizations, activists and politicians alike need to articulate cogent and unambiguous definitions for these terms. And when they are applied, they need to be justified. Show, and then tell.
If you do all this, and do it well, there should be no fear of "normalization." Nobody will complain that you haven't sufficiently distanced yourself from the Nazi you're interviewing if you make it clear that he's a Nazi, make it clear how you arrived at that conclusion, and make it clear what Nazis actually spend their time doing. And all of this will require research — on social media, face to face, and in the websites and podcasts and message boards that your subject contributes to. You're going to need to read what they read, and you're going to need to reach out to some experts — the more the better.
We're in a weird moment in American history right now, one in which previously obscure ideologies and movements have materialized at the center of the national story. Americans in the media and elsewhere cannot ignore these movements, but they can't treat them haphazardly, either. The stakes are high, and the risk of blowback is intense. But that doesn't mean we should shrink from telling such stories — on the contrary, it's essential that we do so. We just have to do it right.
Angus Johnston is a historian of American student activism. He teaches at Hostos Community College in the City University of New York and can be found on Twitter at @studentactivism.