Talia Lavin, a self-professed agoraphobe who collects swords, spent about a year embedded deep in the online world of white supremacy. She was baffled by the fervor with which far-right trolls have targeted her over the past few years. Who or what merits this kind of hate? In Lavin’s case, being a proud Jewish “loudmouth” on Twitter and writing about far-right activities in The New Yorker, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and Huff Post was enough. “To be publicly Jewish and female, and engaged in antifascist rhetoric—even in the form of caustic tweets—rendered me a vivid character in the imagination of extremists,” she writes in her book, Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, out October 13.
Her own tipping point—the reason she chose to immerse herself in the world of her tormentors—was Charlottesville. The chants of “Jews will not replace us” shook her out of her previous “quiescence,” she says. Instead of turning away, she felt compelled to investigate how deep the rot went. The answer: “None of this was new, none of this started with Trump, none of this will end with him,” she says.
Culture Warlords by Talia Lavin
Previously a fact-checker at The New Yorker, Lavin maps in Culture Warlords a blueprint of all the online places where white supremacists, white nationalists, Christian extremists, and incels thrive and multiply. She researches and carefully formulates identities vivid enough to thrill any white extremist. And then she infiltrates. She’s Ashlynn, an Aryan princess wielding guns and deer blood who asks for love letters from her would-be Nazi suitors on the dating website WhiteDate.net. “The results were like a car crash between Nicholas Sparks and Mein Kampf,” she writes. She’s also Tom, a short, depressed incel angry at feminist bitches, his cystic acne and weak wrists showcased on Incels.co, where membership requires listing your reasons for being an incel. In an American and European chat room hell-bent on a race war (Vorherrschaft Division), she’s a seductive Nazi darling coaxing information out of a Ukrainian Nazi (screen name: Der Stürmer)—a great admirer of Hitler and the Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant.
Was it worth it? “My mother’s parents were refugees, I lost an aunt during the Holocaust, and so the forces of history seem closer to me than perhaps someone without that family history. When I think about, What was I doing during the rise of fascism in the United States? And if the answer is, Doing my best at great personal cost to ensure that the gravity and the depravity of this movement was exposed, then, yes, I think it was worth it. In retrospect and even now,” she says. She endured personal trauma to expose the pervasiveness of the white supremacist movement—not in dank basements but a mere degree removed from our lives. She’s preparing for a “bloody month” in November, currently investigating QAnon and militias, and finding hope in camaraderie with others doing similar work.
Vanity Fair: Do you worry about the reaction to your book?
Talia Lavin: You mean am I worried I’m going to be murdered?
I think anyone who engages with the far right journalistically or as an activist worries about being murdered. But I worked on an operating principle of not letting these people steal my right to speak out of fear, and that’s how I’m continuing to operate. On the balance of things I’d prefer not to be murdered, but if I have to go somehow, I guess standing up against Nazis in 2020 America isn’t the worst reason.
What was the hardest part of the reporting process?
It was a psychologically taxing experience. When I opened up the chat room I was monitoring, in absentia, I found an active discussion about whether I was too ugly to rape and whether they would rape me with a handgun. There was a cumulative corrosive effect of being overwhelmed with vitriol, day in, day out, for months after months after months. Makes you feel shakier in your body and in your spirit.
How much do you think the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the current election cycle has done for white supremacy?
I think people forget that the [deadliest deliberate attack] between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh. And that is often misconstrued as a lone wolf event. It was not. It was directly an outgrowth of his involvement in the white-power movement, which aided and abetted the terrorism. And I think when people say all this started with Trump, what they’re saying is, “I became aware of it when I started paying attention.”
The 2016 election was a major shot in the arm for white nationalist groups. It was a huge locus of recruitment, it was a moment when they felt political triumph. White nationalists online, who are like the meme army of Trump, accelerated his victory or aided in it.
What did you think of Trump telling the Proud Boys to “stand by” during the debate?
I’ve been watching the Proud Boy channels on Telegram, watching their triumph unfold. But it’s not just them—there are tons of militia groups, paramilitary, violent neo-Nazi groups, that have taken this as a call to arms, as a sort of endorsement of their potential to influence the election, to influence American politics. Which is what it was.
I have serious worries, and I think I have reason to. Elections are sites of great civic passion, and they are also occasions for accelerationists. Accelerationism is a very popular mindset on the far right with a goal to facilitate civilizational collapse in the United States in order to subsequently usher in their ethnically cleansed white ethnostate. So when you have an election that’s as contested as this one, when you have a moment when democracy is faced with real precarity, that moment can seem like a ripe opportunity for accelerationists.
You write that the proximity Jews might have to whiteness is what makes them the biggest threat, i.e. the immediate targets of the far right.
Anti-Blackness in the United States is our original sin and our continuing sin. And anti-Semitism has a couple of different functions in the overall white supremacist zeitgeist. It often serves as an intellectual lynchpin. It serves as the sine qua non of the white supremacist worldview. Because there’s a very rich millenia-long history of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism among white Christians that is easy to draw on as historical pretext for white supremacists. The function the Jew serves for the white supremacist is an all-powerful enemy, an enemy that has unlimited resources, that has unlimited access to the levers of power, and thus allows the white supremacist to posit himself as being a white man, someone structurally disadvantaged, structurally oppressed, and thus the sort of oppressed and righteous fighter of a strong enemy.
However, in the particular case of neo-Nazis, Jewish assimilation into whiteness is a plot. It’s a plot to dilute whiteness from within. It’s our proximity, our membership in this very exclusive club, that enables us to try to dismantle it from within. And that’s most gleefully been expressed in the Great Replacement theory, which was the direct motivation for the Christchurch shooting and the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. The theory that Jews are systematically promoting immigration, mass migration, with the goal of diluting the white race and, if you fall down too deep a couple of rabbit holes, with the ultimate goal of creating mixed-race super citizens. And because the white supremacist is not only anti-Semitic but deeply racist, and views people of color as inherently stupider and more savage than their white counterparts, such a standardized mixed-race citizen would be more malleable for the Jewish purpose of world control. And whites are the only people with the courage and the clarity of mind to stand up to the evil Jew.
The money-making stereotype has always baffled me because capitalism and white supremacy seem to be cousins; it’s a stereotype that doesn’t seem to make sense.
Jews can be anything you want. The Jew is the cultural Marxist who is poisoning your children with critical race theory and the Bolshevik idea that all races are equal. The Jew is also the capitalist who is keeping you poor and miserable. We are both at once. We can be everywhere. We are demons and fakes in that sense. There’s a lot of magical thinking that goes into this. Younger white supremacists take advantage of the popular denigration of capitalism to say, well, capitalism equals Jews and that’s who you should direct your ire at. Not individual Jews, but the Jewish race writ large. And they draw on older proof texts, which I say in the book. In the “International Jew” in the 1920s, you had Henry Ford saying, even the best, smartest white man could never make as much money as the Jew because the Jew has this inherent racial cunning and this unbelievable solidarity with other Jews, so Jews are just at an inherent advantage over any gentile when it comes to moneymaking. My bank account disagrees, but that’s the theory.
It’s wild that anti-Semitism was a transatlantic export between Ford and Hitler and the Jim Crow South—that Ford was writing all of this in Detroit and Hitler was reading it.
Yeah, and Ford got the Order of the German Eagle. And the systematic racial discrimination against Jews was directly inspired by the Jim Crow laws. It’s a real fuck, isn’t it? America’s done a really good snow job concealing its own complicity in this stuff. To me it’s not a coincidence that the slogan of the people in the 1930s who didn’t want to go fight against Hitler was “America First.” Does that sound familiar to you?
Is it right to say white supremacy is rooted in Christianity?
You’re going to get me in trouble. I will say that Christianity in the United States has long been entangled with upholding white supremacy, that theocracy and white supremacy are by no means mutually exclusive. There were slave owners that used the bible as justification. And that hasn’t necessarily changed. There is a big, fat white supremacist streak right down the center of white American Christianity. That is seen as especially difficult to dislodge. It doesn’t mean those people aren’t Christian. A lot of people are tempted to put Christian in quotation marks or say, these people aren’t really Christian because they morally disagree with them, but you and I both as religious minorities know that is a convenience that is not afforded to members of religious minorities. I don’t get to disavow Jeffrey Epstein as not really a Jew, or Alan Dershowitz, or anyone else I disagree with. And what that posits is that Christianity is a front of all moral good and the true interpretation of Christianity is whatever you consider to be personally most moral, and I find that awfully convenient and awfully privileged for people to say.
Does moderate Christianity leave the door open for extremism?
Every time I talk about this book, there is a pathologically persistent desire to paint every member of the white supremacist movement as toothless Cletus in his mother’s basement masturbating frenetically, some incel, no job, someone who is poorer than me, someone who is more ignorant than me, and that is not the case. I can tell you as someone embedding with these groups, observing these groups, they are making audiobooks for each other, they are trading tactics in every field, whether it’s software programming, whether it’s the military, whether it’s office middle managers. There is no socioeconomic stratum, there is no level of educational attainment, there is no geographical placement that makes people immune to being part of the organized white supremacist movement.
What that results in is functionally self-absolution. Nobody I admire or no one I respect, no one I work with, no one I live near could think this way or perform this kind of violence. And that’s not true. The guy in the cubicle next to you, back when we had cubicles, could be the one trading photos of lynchings like baseball cards and laughing about it. There is no single type or form of person that is immune to white supremacy. And I would encourage people who consider themselves opponents, even soft opponents to the rise of organized white power, to take stock of their own communities and the people they know. Because they are not immune. There is no immunity in this country.
I was talking to somebody on Tinder who asked me what I was reading, and I said your book about incels and Proud Boys and neo-Nazis. He responded with such a charitable view of, “I feel so bad for them, they must have gone through some really bad trauma.” He had to assign some sort of weird childhood trauma to them to understand their existence.
I have trauma. I’ve been sexually assaulted. I have a mental illness. And I don’t go out and harass people every day and tell them, “die you kike cunt.” There’s no excuse for it. The charitable impulse is whiteness protecting itself.
Muslims are constantly asked to disavow radical Muslims. Why do you think the same lens is not applied in the case of white nationalists?
That’s privilege. Our press corps operates from a privileged white male perspective, so there’s just no sense in which there’s a consideration of, oh, I could be part of this problem, or my community has given birth to this problem. White people, Christian white people, are afforded the luxury of individuality that is denied for religious and ethnic minorities. Each white person gets to be considered on their own terms, and every other group must answer as a whole for the crimes of the one or the few.
I understand why white women become part of the patriarchy or even the white supremacist movement: proximity to power gives you some amount of power, or at least the illusion of power. But I still get stuck on the fact that some women are white supremacists when men in the movement are so vocal about believing women are breeders. Why do you think that’s the case?
One of the great regrets of my book is that I wasn’t able to penetrate the female white supremacist experience as much as the male experience; I think the women’s white supremacist groups are a lot cagier about who they admit. There was an interesting testimony from a woman who had left the white supremacist movement—this woman who had a white supremacist boyfriend and wound up joining the movement was like, “He treated me like shit; I was earning all the money and they weren’t doing any work but expected me to drive them around hand and foot and treated me very poorly.” And that’s why she left at the end of the day.
On the other hand I think there are a lot of Christian wives who embrace that sort of submissiveness where the man is the head of the family and you obey because the flip side of the coin or the bargain you supposedly make is you are protected and cherished. You’re both a rationale for violence but also theoretically protected from violence because you are this cherished vessel of the noble white future.
How did these groups manage to co-opt the concept of free speech?
There’s a sense that for the white moderate to say, “let the Nazi speak,” is a point of pride. “Look how noble I am.” And as I write in the book, that sense of self-congratulation is more valuable to them than the lives of the Black, Jewish, Muslim, trans, gay people that are affected by the speech of Nazis. And it is a lie. It’s a big, giant fucking lie because the goal of white supremacists is to use their free speech to talk and talk and talk and talk until no one else can talk anymore. Their goal is to kill, their goal is to engage in ethnic cleansing, their goal is to purge. And if the self-congratulatory naivete of free speech liberals is a tool they can use, they will use it. But they don’t care about free speech for anyone but themselves, and they don’t want anybody else to speak.
This is a big question, but is there anything that can be done? Can these ideologies be rolled back, can they be contained, can they be stamped out?
I wish I had a bouquet of solutions to present to you. If every person tried to purge themselves of the idea that white supremacists and members of the hate movement are other and inferior to them, cannot be in their community, cannot be anyone they know, and then took it upon themselves to stand up against hate in their communities and to route it out when they see it, and to seek it out in order to route it out, I think that would cast a blow.
We owe it to this country, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our communities, we owe it to people under threat to take on risks and call racism out without apology. To make organized racists pariahs. Unemployable pariahs. We owe it to ourselves to be as ruthless as they are. That is what this time demands of us, that is what history demands of us. We need a great deal more anti-fascists in this country who are not afraid to be called anti-fascists and who together, with a cacophony of voices, with a diversity of tactics, can fight back.
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