Friday, September 10, 2010

Elinor Langer, A Hundred Little Hitlers

I brought three books with me on our July vacation to Nebraska, and finished 2.5 of them. Of the two books I finished reading, one of them was intellectually stimulating and introduced me to new concepts that I hope to apply in my professional work (see this).

The second book has been on my list for years, Elinor Langer's A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America (New York, Metropolitan Books, 2003) (link). I found the book riveting and learned much from Langer's content and her approach.

This review from The Village Voice provides an effective synopsis of the book, so I won't attempt that here. There are also many other reviews of this book available online and in academic journals, and the Youtube video above in which Langer talks about the book.

Specific aspects of the book that made an impression on me below the fold.

There were two narratives of the event. One narrative is the history of the killing itself, and the motivations of those involved, which Langer researched 10 years to uncover. The other narrative is the one the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) constructed when they took Tom Metzger to trial. These narratives were not the same. As Langer outlines in her talk linked above, the the SPLC had to frame the death of Mulugeta Seraw in a way that framed his killers as Metzger's agents. Metger's life work and philosophical outlook is reprehensible, but Langer's research did not indicate that Seraw's murder was carried out by Metger's agents. Through this example, Langer makes a great point about how the work of the historian and the work of lawyers at trial are distinctly different in fundamental ways.

This is not to say, from the perspective of my moral and philosophical outlook anyway, that Metzger did not deserve some form of social admonition. His racist ideas are sickening to me, and, from Langer's evidence, he had advocated for the death of people not considered worthy from the neo-Nazi, white supremacist point of view. One might claim that even though he was not directly involved in Seraw's death that his actions and ideas contributed to a karmic debt that was paid, in part, as a result of the trial. I don't necessarily believe in karma myself. However, Metzger's example seems similar to the trial of Al Capone, who was convicted of tax evasion because law enforcement couldn't pin murder charges on him -- a reprehensible character who got some form of retribution, even though he did not end up paying for the full spectrum of his crimes.

This comparison with Capone only goes so far, however. In Metzger's case, all he ever did was advocate for his position, produce racist materials, broadcast news, etc. That is, he exercised his First Amendment right of freedom of speech. Should he be blamed if other people act on such beliefs within a hate-filled context that he only contributed to (but did not create out of whole cloth)? This is a question that the court in Portland answered "yes" to, but it's a slippery slope.

Langer brings up a fascinating dynamic in the state's history by showing how Oregon and Portland have a long history of institutionalized racism, and how white residents of the area are often unconscious of their own and the dominant society's racism. This context helped frame the reaction to Seraw's murder, because Portlanders wanted to use the case to show how far outside the mainstream the skinheads were, and how the larger society would not tolerate such actions; however, by characterizing the murderers as completely outside the mainstream, Porlanders were able to avoid looking deeply at the deep threads of racism that ran (and run) through everyday life in the state.

I've read some reviews that critique Langer's approach in providing deep background on Metzger, the SPLC, and the history of racial relations in Oregon. I, however, found this deep background essential in understanding more completely the motivations of the key people involved in the murder and trial.

In conclusion: Read this book!!



  1. There are three reasons I was ultimately unable to give Ms. Langer's book more than a lukewarm "I've read worse" stamp of recognition:
    1. She seems astonished that the Portland PD didn't agree 100% with the racist skinheads and simply accept their claims that they just accidentally happened to murder a black man because they were very, very, very upset over a separate argument!
    2. She seems shocked that the best lawyers in America didn't agree to fly to Oregon and offer their pro bono services to an admitted racist prick and all-around asshole like Tom Metzger, and doubly shocked that Metzger's stupid decision to represent himself led to his valid (which it was on that point) legal defeat.
    3. She seems convinced that a Nazi like Metzger is a better man than an anti-Nazi like Morris Dees because Dees was divorced several times and Metzger was a steadfast husband to his Nazi wife and a devoted father to his Nazi kids (and that's not an ad hominen argument; Langer's research, the only part of her writing that's excellent, makes it clear they shared old Tom's disgusting beliefs).
    It's nice that Ms. Langer wanted to make excuses for Tom Metzger. She didn't succeed, but on balance, it was a nice little failed try.

  2. Thanks for your analysis, Ben. I disagree with your point #3 but certainly appreciate your perspective.