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NY Times Nazi Article Highlights 'Banality of Evil'

NY Times Nazi Article Highlights 'Banality of Evil'

Nazi sympathizing NYT article

One of the takeaways from the controversial Nazi profile is how easy it is for regular people to slide into lives of hate and ignorance. 

By now everyone who pays attention to these things has heard about the disastrous New York Times article, in which an attempt to profile a nondescript Midwestern American Nazi ended up as a failure to present anything more than a generic American who just happened to be horrifyingly bigoted.

The public reaction was swift and heavy, with arguments both useless and useful against the article. Of course it was parodied to much amusement by the masses and embarrassment to the writer; some even have called for him to be terminated. Some have argued that we shouldn't even be writing about Nazis and racists as that empowers them, while some have argued we should, but better. The best argument and the one I agree the most with is that these articles are necessary and they should challenge the subject on why they think and view the world this way. Why? Because it informs us not just about the racists and bigots profiled, but ourselves if the article is written right and we have the capacity for self-reflection.

The largest criticism of the article was that it made the subject seem so banal, which is a wholly appropriate word in this case because it's important. Many of you have probably become or were familiar with the phrase coined by German-American political theorist and writer Hannah Arendt, "the banality of evil." The phrase was coined to describe one of the worst Nazis, Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was one of the key architects of the Holocaust, and when World War II ended, he escaped to South America, where he was captured by the Israelis 20 years later and placed on trial for his crimes.

As Eichmann sat in the dock, being forced to watch footage of the Holocaust, listen to the survivors, and answer for his crimes, Arendt noted how...unremarkable a man he was. He was not highly educated; he was no great criminal mastermind. There was no eloquence to his speech, no great insight. Eichmann was a small, balding man with thin lips and Coke-bottle glasses, more bookkeeper than beast. She noted in her book on his trial, "The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a 'completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.'"

That's what is so important here when it comes to studying, speaking to, and trying to understand who these neo-Nazis are: their normalcy. Arendt noted in her final work, "The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."

That's what we have to do when we look upon these people, see that their prejudices and hatreds are completely rational in their minds. Most of them had no different experiences than you or I. They sat through the same classes in school, watched the same TV shows, read the same books as most of us. It's easy to think that their beliefs were passed down from their parents or they're mentally ill or perhaps it's some sort of genetic flaw, but that's an easy escape and explains only a handful of these people. Where you and I might have read something like To Kill a Mockingbird and seen it as the tale of a man standing against the prejudice of a small town in the Deep South, something somewhere made them see the book in a far more nefarious light. Same book, different takeaway. Most of us view bad actions as individual acts, not indictments of an entire race, like some of these people have.

For them, there is no one moment that made them say "Black people are inferior" or "The Jews control the money" or "Gay and trans people are sexual predators." A series of events, situations, and interpretations of boring, unremarkable events we all experience or witness built them into this mind-set. Or perhaps, even more frighteningly, it's just the environment and opportunities that came their way. Perhaps it was a job they didn't get, a girlfriend they lost, a time they got beaten up in the fourth grade. Maybe it was just constant media saturation. Some of them, perhaps, just "fell into it."

That's the most frightening concept of all. When the Allies went to dismantle the Nazi state after the war, they broke people down into five categories, from the worst offenders like the Nazi leadership to those who were completely innocent. There was one group called Mitlaufer, which roughly translates as "fellow traveler." The opportunity to be on the winning side, to be empowered, to feel like you belong. That's who these people were. Many of the worst Nazi offenders started off this way: just people looking for a place to belong and feel valued or to exercise a little power and control.

I know your mind might be reeling at the thought you might be like that. That you could ever be like that. May I remind you how many racist or sexist or transphobic gay people you have met along the way? Victims of discrimination discriminating against someone else. Doesn't make sense, does it, but that bit of hate is empowering psychologically, giving an order and control to their lives. Again, there was no one great moment that made them that way, and they didn't make some decision board to come to these ideas. They just turned out this way, and it's terrifyingly easy to get this way. If you start getting into the darker areas of psychology and sociology you start finding things like the Milgram experiment or the Stanford Prison Experiment, where people did horrible things with frightening ease.

But what does this have to do with us? Why do we need to examine this stuff, and why does it matter to us? We're not the bigots. We don't hate and want to destroy, so what does it tell us about ourselves? It challenges us to reflect on the events in our lives, the choices we made, and how fragile the image we have of ourselves is. Just one or two events going slightly different, be it a parent's advice, a job, or just a book that was read brought us here.

This is not an attempt to appeal to empathy for these Nazis. No, this is an opportunity to reflect on how fragile our morality and values are, how based on circumstances they are. How if just a few things were different, we might be that boring basic bitch Nazi eating at Applebee's and shopping at Old Navy. It serves as a caution to reflect on how easily we can be swayed into darkness while thinking it's still morally justified and reasonable. And maybe, just perhaps, if the writer is doing it right, he can share those similar experiences and challenge these people to reflect on why they think the way they do.

AMANDA KERRI is a writer and comedian based in Oklahoma City, and a regular contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_kerri.

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