Elinor Langer Book Takes Another Look At SPLC’s Civil Case Against Neo-Nazi Tom Metzger

An Oregon writer exhumes the 1990 civil case against neo-Nazi Tom Metzger, arguing that it was wrong-headed from the start.

A Personal Slant?
Langer's analysis of the crime, like many other arguments in her book, underscores her skewed perceptions of events. All too often, her own facts undermine the conclusion she seeks to present.

Langer's distortions continue when she likens the community effort to track down Seraw's killers to the sentiments of a lynch mob and she condemns the summoning of a grand jury as a dastardly "political intrusion" into the case. She is indignant because Portland, like most of America, has a history of racism and so denunciations of Seraw's death sound hypocritical to her.

But Langer utterly fails to convince the reader that a more muted response was warranted, especially in light of the community-wide violence committed by racist Skinheads that she herself documents in the book.

Langer is frustrated that Mieske, Brewster and Strasser pleaded guilty without a trial and considers their sentences too severe, yet she readily acknowledges that they committed — and confessed to — the crime. And while she is deeply dubious about the evidence showing how Dave Mazzella led members of East Side White Pride to commit violence, she seems all too ready to believe the self-serving statements of other Skinheads.

In addition to criticizing the Law Center for filing the civil suit, she chides SPLC Chief Trial Counsel Morris Dees for "demonizing" Metzger and describing him as "evil" to the jury and the press.

Langer's tone is not strident, but her book is a suppressed tirade nonetheless. She is no fan of Skinheads — in fact, she is a self-described liberal whose previous journalistic work includes a lengthy and critical exposé of the neo-Nazi movement published in the Nation — but Portland is her home and she is far too close to the story and sympathetic to her interview subjects to give readers a fair-minded assessment of the case.

Through lengthy interviews with the voluble Metzger, she chronicles his 30-year journey through the ranks of the radical right, from his support of the conspiracy-obsessed John Birch Society and the 1968 candidacy of George Wallace to his embrace of Holocaust denial, right-wing tax rebellion, anti-immigrant vigilantism and the hate-filled theology of Christian Identity.

Langer recounts Metzger's rise to leadership in David Duke's Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and his founding in the early 1980s (with the help of his teenage son John) of the White Student Union, the Aryan Youth Movement and WAR.

Langer's biography of Metzger is thorough and does contain new information. However, it is in her self-described "moral accounting" of Metzger, as well as her affectionate tone, that Langer's portrait of him unravels.

Though clearly critical of Metzger's racism, she appears smitten by his loyalty to his wife of 25 years, as well as his supposed devotion to his six children. But Langer fails to note the obvious: countless members of the Waffen SS and modern neo-Nazi groups may also have been doting husbands and fathers, but a positive domestic temperament hardly mitigates their essentially reprehensible character.

When Langer is sympathetic to Metzger in this vein. but ignores her own reporting that he regards dragging his children to Klan cross burnings as "good, wholesome family fun," the reader is only further convinced that Langer's own facts offer some of the best evidence against her arguments.

A Hundred Little Hitlers purports to tell the story behind "the emergence of a new strain of American racism that openly associates itself with Nazism," but beyond Langer's political sketch of Metzger, the book is historically thin and offers readers no new analysis. This isn't surprising. Langer is so consumed with the Seraw case that she sees neither the forest nor the trees.

Instead, readers are left with a book whose central thesis turns reality on its head: the victims become more like perpetrators, and the men responsible for a homicidal hate crime are offered partial absolution through Langer's pen.

Here we have racists whose characters are sketched with pathos and nuance and whose troubled upbringings and challenged parents practically lend them an air of innocence, despite their violent criminality and despicable beliefs. Meanwhile, the outrage expressed by the community of Portland is dismissed as hypocritical, and the jury's verdict which bankrupted the Metzgers and war is portrayed as vindictive and unfair.

Langer claims to have unearthed important evidence surrounding the tragedy of Seraw's death, but the fact remains that his killing was a deliberate hate crime partly inspired by the Metzgers' racist words and deeds and the actions of their agent, Dave Mazzella.