The last five years, exemplified by both Donald Trump and the proliferation of social media, have taught us a lot about the worst of America. Among other things, we've seen the rise of an ugly, tangled web of hate groups and extremist ideological movements, online and off. Now, in her new book Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, journalist Talia Lavin shares her firsthand journey to infiltrate and expose these groups.
Sure, forces like this have always existed in America. But for many years, they were in the shadows. Until recently, they didn't get shout-outs in presidential debates, or party with the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police immediately following a visit from the US Vice President. When the original Borat premiered in 2006, random Americans spouting racist and anti-Semitic invective was shocking. In the 2020 sequel released last month, that wasn’t nearly as shocking, because we’re so used to it.
The work and the toll
How can we confront noxious outfits like the Proud Boys, militiamen, Identity Europa, full-on neo-Nazis, and others? There's no easy answer to that question, though many tactics have been tried, from ignoring them to involving law enforcement to full-on street brawling, or “punching Nazis.”
Lavin details her own methods to confront white supremacy in her illuminating and entertaining book—and the considerable toll that doing so took on her.
For the last several years, Lavin has risen as a strong, unique voice in media. In publications like The New Republic, The Huffington Post, and The New Yorker, as well as on her Twitter feed (@chick_in_kiev), Lavin explores politics, Internet culture, Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, feminism, and more.
Lavin is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and describes herself as "a schlubby, bisexual Jew, living in Brooklyn, with long brown ratty curls, the matronly figure of a woman in a Philip Roth novel, and brassy personal politics that aren't particularly sectarian but considerably to the left of Medicare For All." Twitter being what it is, Lavin has come in for a noxious amount of anti-Semitic vitriol over the last few years.
In her own voice
There's certainly a book to be written, providing a lengthy, complex, dispassionate overview of all white supremacist movements, how they rose, and what can be done to cut them down. But Culture Warlords is something different, written firmly in Lavin's authorial voice, and detailing her experiences going up against these people and groups.
The book does offer some history and analysis of these groups and their subtle ideological differences, connecting them to America’s history of domestic neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic ideologies. Lavin also shares the stranger-than-fiction tale of rival Christian and Pagan racist groups, making plans for an elaborate fundraiser/rumble.
But beyond that, Lavin shares her stories of infiltrating far-right message boards, subreddits and Telegram channels, disguising herself first as a frustrated incel, and later as right-wing blond woman who flirts with a known Nazi in order to get him to incriminate himself. Lavin also recalls eavesdropping on Nazis’ conversations about herself.
An outstanding book
But it’s not all online work. In one chapter, the author shows up to (and gets chased out of) a conference for far-right video creators, which was held at, of all places, the Philadelphia venue then known as SugarHouse Casino.
Lavin is refreshingly honest about the toll such work has taken on her mental health, and the shocking amount of harassment she's faced while reporting on these people. Throughout it all, Lavin shows herself a gifted and witty prose stylist, one who’s written an outstanding book that she went through hell to complete.
Image description: The cover of the book Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, by Talia Lavin. It has a bright red background and bold white text. The “A” in “Warlords” is a solid white triangle with two black plus signs in it.
What, When, Where
Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. By Talia Lavin. Hachette Books, October 13, 2020. 288 pages, hardcover, $27. Get it here.