When Evil Has Nice Manners

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

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 in prison cells or crime-ridden parts of town. 

 

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.

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