Earlier this month, Decca Aitkenhead published a profile of British Vogue’s outgoing editor Alexandra Schulman in The Guardian. Her piece is an object lesson in letting one’s subject dig her own grave. Aitkenhead presses Schulman amiably over her feeble record of featuring black women on her cover. Then she quotes Schulman’s own garbled responses, without editing and without commentary. “I’m just getting more coffee because it’s so stressful, that whole thing about models—black—the whole thing,” Schulman says. What Aitkenhead doesn’t write is as loud as what she does. Aitkenhead knows exactly how Schulman’s answers will sound in the reader’s head, and gives enough space for her self-incrimination to ring out. She builds a cave; she introduces the voice.
Profiles come in a few different classical forms. Aitkenhead’s “let them hang themselves” style is only one. There’s the anecdotal style, in which the journalist describes nutshells of gesture and speech and behavior that capture the subject. In the famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese describes how “the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability.” The psychosomatic nasal drip turns Sinatra into a kind of virus himself, even though the cold virus is an incidental guest in his body.
Then there’s the analytical style, in which the journalist conducts an interview and weaves the subject’s words into a broader context. This is usually just called reporting.
When The New York Times sent journalist Richard Fausset to profile a “normal” white supremacist in a now widely derided piece, he chose the wrong form. Fausset chose the “hang themselves” style, letting Tony Hovator express his fascist views in his own words so that they could echo. The details that Fausset added were of the domestic type, describing Hovator’s wedding registry and his cat. As thousands of readers agreed, the effect of Fausset’s stylistic choices was the rhetorical equivalent of pointing the gun the wrong way around. Fausset normalized Hovator’s life, and quoted his bigoted words without analyzing them, thus suggesting that the words were normal also. He brought the voice out, but built the wrong cave.
Fausset’s intention, it seems, was to let Hovator’s extraordinary views form a contrast to his ordinary lifestyle, thus demonstrating the old lesson about the banality of evil in a new context: contemporary America. But the outcome was to bleed the two together. It was not clear what was meant to be ordinary, the pet cat or the fascist views.
One reason for this confusion is the abnormal state of political discourse in America today. Up is down, left is right, and we are governed by a villain who persistently says the unsayable. The line between the normal and the abnormal in public life is not sufficiently clear for a Nazi to condemn himself simply by being a Nazi. “Most Americans would be disgusted and baffled by his casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy, and belief that the races are better off separate,” Fausset writes of Hovator. Would they?
Fausset continues: “[H]is tattoos are innocuous pop-culture references: a slice of cherry pie adorns one arm, a homage to the TV show Twin Peaks.” Those two sentences together do not form a contrast. They harmonize.
In a response published in the Times on Monday, the paper’s national editor Mark Lacey defended his writer by pointing out that, “We described Mr. Hovater as a bigot, a Nazi sympathizer who posted images on Facebook of a Nazi-like America full of happy white people and swastikas everywhere.” That is true. But Fausset failed to mention that being a bigot is wrong, and so left space for the idea of a “good bigot.” He failed to recognize that fascism operates on the level of rhetoric.
The “hang themselves” form of profile-writing requires that the reader and the writer have a one-to-one agreement on what is and is not damning. The technique is only effective when the content of the subject’s words are very clearly ludicrous for the intended audience, as in the bond between the liberal Guardian readership and the disdainful Aitkenhead. Without that connection, the un-analyzed quotation will not ring out correctly, but instead clang with the confusing implication of endorsement.
“Our reporter and his editors agonized over the tone and content of the article,” Lacey wrote. “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.” This sentence recalls that line from the horror movie Deep Blue Sea, just after the scientists have confessed to genetically engineering the sharks’ brains to be enormous: “As a side effect, the sharks got smarter.” In describing Nazism as normal, in observing that evil is banal, the Times managed to make those things normal and banal.
When Hannah Arendt coined that phrase in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she did it in the last of the three profile-writing styles, the analytical. “‘I think he was a guy who really believed in his cause,” Hovator says of Hitler in Fausset’s piece. “He really believed he was fighting for his people and doing what he thought was right.’” Fausset says nothing more. When Arendt writes about the murder of millions in the Congo Free State by colonizers in the late nineteenth century, she quotes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to describe their thinking. The solution comes to them as “a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’” But Arendt then goes on to report the repercussion of that insane thinking, which is not only mass death, but also the normalization of mass death. The Belgian actions in the Congo Free State resulted in “20 to 40 million reduced to 8 million people; and finally, perhaps worst of all, it resulted in the triumphant introduction of such means of pacification into ordinary, respectable foreign policies.”
Fascism is made out of lies. The more lies that fascists tell, Arendt teaches us, the more that the reader’s conception of the damning and the not-damning is blurred. As a result of that loss of perspective, writers who simply represent (rather than report on) extremists leave rhetorical spaces open for Nazi ideology to flood in. You cannot let a Nazi hang himself, because he is the one left holding the rhetorical rope.
“In order not to overestimate the importance of the propaganda lies,” Arendt further writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “one should recall the much more numerous instances in which Hitler was completely sincere and brutally unequivocal in the definition of the movement’s true aims, but they were simply not acknowledged by a public unprepared for such consistency.” In a society vulnerable to fascist ideology—the country we live in, right this very moment—political reporting must be prepared for this terrible consistency.
Part of Arendt’s point is that Hitler’s lies became impossible to counter with truth, because the truth was deleted as a useful category in the citizen’s mind. Again, this was a rhetorical trick of fascism, played out in the medium of mass communication. Written arguments are the very ground on which that battle is fought. To preserve the value of truthfulness in public discourse, newspapers need to be much, much smarter about the way rhetoric is deployed. The normal—which in America is composed of the post-war meanings of the words “true,” “just,” “lawful”—is under very serious assault. Truth cannot play a liar’s game; it can only describe it from the outside.