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Oh, Willis Carto, We Hardly Knew Ye

The Holocaust denier and publisher of anti-Semitic drivel has died. We should have known the all-American better.

Mark Oppenheimer
November 02, 2015

I had an odd reaction to reading The New York Times obituary of Willis Carto, the tediously loathsome elder statesman of the American anti-Semitic right. He died last Monday at his home in Virginia, leaving behind a putrid little trail of defunct newsletters and failed Holocaust denial magazines, but when he was at full-strength, in the 1970s and 1980s, his literature was read not only by wackadoo Hitler worshippers but also by their far more respectable, and careful, fellow travelers, like former presidential candidate Ron Paul. And my reaction to his death was: Why haven’t I had the pleasure of reading more about this guy?

You see, there is an unspoken journalistic consensus in this country that one does not write about the craziest of the crazies, unless they seem to have access to explosives or a plausible connection to Islamic extremism. When they are plain old Caucasian crazy—like Carto, or racist Northwestern University engineer Arthur Butz, or alien enthusiast David Icke—the thinking seems to be: ignore them. Icke, for example, sells out huge lecture halls to followers eager to hear theories about the reptile people, the English royal family, and the Rothschilds, that would make even the most committed Scientologists say, “That seems a bit off.” Yet you won’t find much written about him, not in the United States at least, although he’s more of a figure in England, where he’s from.

Editors aren’t deliberately quashing stories about these gents. But I know, from personal experience, that many editors, and indeed journalists and readers, believe that it’s irresponsible to give too much space to mad men and their ideas. There are exceptions. In 2009, Tablet ran my four-part series on Holocaust revisionists Bradley Smith and Mark Weber. (They were great fun. Smith, a garrulous, cowboyish figure who now lives in Mexico, had a longtime Jewish lover; and Weber, who runs the Institute for Historical Review, the publishing house, now more of an e-mail list, that Carto founded in 1978, has a sister who converted to Judaism.) But in general, the sense is that it’s more prudent to ignore such men, to starve their ideas of oxygen.

I disagree. They matter, and we need to know them. “At his peak in the 1980s,” the Times obituary reads, Carto “headed an organization, Liberty Lobby, with a mailing list of 400,000; and published a newspaper, The Spotlight, with a circulation said to exceed 300,000.” And the racists and anti-Semites intersect with our electoral politics more often than we’d like to admit (cf. Ron Paul, David Duke, Trent Lott). The slippery eels of our bigoted id swim below the surface, but they occasionally surface. Carto, who was allergic to personal publicity, would have been a tough profile to write, but I wish someone had tried. I wish I had.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.