By Talia Lavin
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One reporter takes an immersive dive into white supremacy's explosive online presence, exploring the undercurrents of propaganda, racism, misogyny, and history that led us to where we are now.Talia Lavin is every skinhead's worst nightmare: a loud and unapologetic Jewish woman, acerbic, smart, and profoundly antiracist, with the investigative chops to expose the tactics and ideologies of online hatemongers.
Culture Warlords is the story of how Lavin, a frequent target of extremist trolls (including those at Fox News), dove into a byzantine online culture of hate and learned the intricacies of how white supremacy proliferates online. Within these pages, she reveals the extremists hiding in plain sight online: Incels. White nationalists. White supremacists. National Socialists. Proud Boys. Christian extremists. In order to showcase them in their natural habitat, Talia assumes a range of identities, going undercover as a blonde Nazi babe, a forlorn incel, and a violent Aryan femme fatale. Along the way, she discovers a whites-only dating site geared toward racists looking for love, a disturbing extremist YouTube channel run by a fourteen-year-old girl with over 800,000 followers, the everyday heroes of the antifascist movement, and much more. By combining compelling stories chock-full of catfishing and gate-crashing with her own in-depth, gut-wrenching research, she also turns the lens of anti-Semitism, racism, and white power back on itself in an attempt to dismantle and decimate the online hate movement from within.
Shocking, humorous, and merciless in equal measure, Culture Warlords explores some of the vilest subcultures on the Web-and shows us how we can fight back.
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They were as one in their grief and in their determination to continue the battle against fascism . . .
There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon that I like: It’s from the early days of the internet, 1993, and it features a pooch sitting in an office chair at a blocky, Mac-looking computer, talking to another dog who’s looking up at him, bemused. The caption: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Well, that may be true. But on the internet nobody knows you’re a Jew, either, unless you announce it. And while writing this book, for the first time in my life, I spent a whole lot of time, a full year, not telling people I was a Jew, and listening to what they said when I didn’t.
In order to look as deeply as I could into the world of white nationalism, I had to leave my own identity behind as often as not. In real life, I’m a schlubby, bisexual Jew, living in Brooklyn, with long brown ratty curls, the matronly figure of a mother in a Philip Roth novel, and brassy personal politics that aren’t particularly sectarian but fall considerably to the left of Medicare for All. Over the course of writing this book, I had to leave my own skin. And sometimes what I found made me want to never return to it.
Here are a few things I did over the course of working on this book.
I fabricated. A lot. Spectacularly. I invented identities from whole cloth purely because I needed to enter communities where my real self—Jewish, a journalist, a well-known fascism-hating Twitter loudmouth—was extremely unwelcome. And so I had to become other people, and invent them as I went along.
I pretended to be a slender, petite blond huntress who’d grown up on a white-nationalist compound in Iowa, looking for suitors on a whites-only dating site.
I pretended to be a down-and-out warehouse worker in Morgantown, West Virginia, who had become suicidal after his wife left him, only to be restored to his full self by becoming part of the white-nationalist movement—and willing to do anything to support his brothers in the cause.
I pretended to be an incel—an “involuntarily celibate” virgin, radicalized into a deep hatred of women by his lack of sexual success.
I infiltrated a Europe-based, neo-Nazi terror propaganda cell, called the Vorherrschaft (Supremacy) Division, by pretending to be a sexy young woman with an interest in saving the white race through violence, with the screen name “Aryan Queen.”
I silently observed as neo-Nazis mused about what raping me would be like.
And, as myself, I went to dark places; I spoke to bad people and good people on the front lines of the battle for America.
As myself, I attended a conference for alt-right YouTubers in Philadelphia and was chased out of a casino.
I spoke to everyday antifascists defending their community in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I was rejected from joining a white-supremacist pagan ritual in the Albany area by the elders of a weight-lifting pagan cult called Operation Werewolf.
I listened to a terrible white-nationalist freestyle-rap diss battle.
I watched neo-Nazis post photos of trans children and Jewish children and black children and talk about killing them.
Every day for nearly a year, I immersed myself in chat groups and websites and forums where photos of lynchings were passed around like funny memes. Where “KILL JEWS” was a slogan and murderers were called “saints.” On the anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I watched them celebrate Robert Bowers, the murderer of eleven Jews at prayer, like a hero and a friend. I listened to strangers talk about killing kikes every day. I listened to strangers incite violence and praise murder and talk about washing the world with blood to make it white and pure. I listened to their podcasts. I watched their videos. I listened to their terrible music and watched them plan to meet and celebrate the racism that was their raison d’être.
And something snapped in me.
I admit it: I started this book angry at the racist right. I set out with the idea of writing a profane but intellectual, impassioned but clear book to spell out just exactly who these people are and what they want to do. Before I started writing, I was already the top Google search result for “greasy fat kike,” thanks to neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. A hate group called Patriot Front had already sent my parents a postcard with the Nazi-era slogan “Blood and Soil.” I had already had my relatives’ names published on Gab, a white-supremacist-friendly social media site used by alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers. I thought I was ready for what researching this book would do to me.
As I write this now, I feel myself incandescent with the kind of anger that doesn’t just last an evening. It’s an old cliché that lovers shouldn’t go to bed angry; well, for the past year I have gone to bed with my anger and woken up with my anger and gone about my day with my anger hot and wet like blood in my mouth.
It’s not that I discovered that members of the racist far right are inhuman, or monsters beyond comprehension. They’re not some entirely new species of being that requires forensic analysis and the dispassionate gaze of the scientist. They’re not uniquely stupid or uniquely mired in poverty or uniquely beset by social problems or even members of any specific socioeconomic class. They’re not monsters. They’re people. Just people, mostly men and some women, all over this country and this world, who have chosen to hate, to base the meaning of their lives on hate, to base their communities of solidarity on hate, to cultivate their hate with tender, daily attention. They are just people, people with an entire alternate curriculum of history, who operate within an insular world of propaganda, built to stoke rage and incite killings and for no other purpose at all. There are rich men and poor men, tradesmen and office workers, teenagers and men cresting middle age. They eat and sleep and sometimes drink too much and sometimes are sober. They’re lonely, some of them; horny, some of them; sometimes depressed and sometimes confused and sometimes joyful. They’re people, just like you and me. They could work in the next cubicle over and you might not know it; sit one seat over in class from you and you might not know it; live in your neighborhood, play on your sports team, and you would never know that deep in the night they trade photos of lynchings like baseball cards, and laugh.
But I know them now, these men and women. I’ve seen what they write and how they talk and what they read and even how they sing. (Poorly.) It is precisely their humanity that angers me so much: The hate they promulgate and the violence they desire are the culmination of dozens or hundreds of small human choices.
They choose, every day and every day more of them, to create alternate identities that embrace the swastika and the skull mask and the Totenkopf, the worst of history and the worst of the present melding seamlessly. They choose to dream not of peace or of equality or of anything better than the sorry ragged world as it is, but of a worse world, riven by terror, awash in the blood of those they consider subhuman. Which means anyone not white; which means anybody Jewish; which means anyone who fights back against their putrid cancer of an ideology. Their dialogue is unremittingly puerile and violent. Everything about them goes back again and again to violence, as a hummingbird to nectar; it is what they crave, it fills them with a fleeting sense of virility and meaning. The fear they can instill makes them feel powerful; the murderers they celebrate are their brothers in arms. And I admit that as I researched this book and wrote it, the anger I felt calcified into a parallel hatred—one based not on skin color but on the sheer accumulation of vitriol I consumed and the way people I’d never met spoke about killing people who look just like my nieces and nephews, my cousins and aunts, my lovers, my friends, me. In a sense, I began to enjoy deceiving them, taking an acrid pleasure in my own duplicity.
But anger at these bigots was only part of what I felt. Some of my rage became directed at the people who oppose strong action against neo-Nazi organizing. I raged against white moderates—the people who don’t believe in de-platforming Nazis from every perch they get, or facing down their marches, depriving them of audience and influence and a safe pedestal from which to spread their bile. The people who say: Ignore them! Let them march! Let them tweet, let them speak on campus, let them have their say and they will be defeated in the marketplace of ideas. The people who bill themselves as reasonable, who say: Let them air out their arguments. But the effect of these ideas when they are aired out is much like Zyklon B. Studying them as deeply as I have has made me realize no amount of such rhetoric is acceptable in the country’s discourse, just as there is no acceptable amount of poisonous gas to let seep into a room.
To assert otherwise is an argument born of self-congratulation, the argument that being tolerant of violent racism is just another form of tolerance, and not a capitulation to the far right’s own view of their legitimacy.
There are different strains of racist far-right ideas that I will discuss in the book—the milquetoast-seeming intellectual pablum of “identitarianism,” which hides hate in tweedy language and makes a po-faced argument for the need for separate ethnostates for all, as if that constituted equality.
There’s the straightforward violence of far-right accelerationism, which dictates the need for more and more terror attacks until American society devolves into a racial civil war. There is racism bound up in religious ideas, racism bound up in pseudoscience. And all of it is poison; and to allow any of it to be aired, particularly under the mealy-mouthed argument for “tolerance,” is to give way to a movement that seeks absolute power and the total destruction of its enemies, who are its enemies by virtue of the immutable characteristics of their birth.
The more I grew to know this movement, the less patience I had for it; and still less for those who tolerate it. Studying the far right taught me what it means to have an enemy to whom one must give no quarter, because any ground given allows them to accrue power; and any increment of power they receive they will use toward violent ends. Over the course of the research that I did for this book and the gonzo journalism-cum-activism it entailed, I became radicalized. The violent far right has the sole goal of destruction, and allowing them to amass any power at all is to accede to that goal. To make peace with white supremacy, to give it room, to tender it mercy, is to assert that protecting black and brown and Muslim and gay and trans and Jewish people from violence isn’t all that important or necessary. The marketplace of ideas breaks down when poison is sold in pretty packages, when hate is pressed into eager hands. Studying the far right taught me what hatred looks like, and taught me how to hate.
Hatred makes me itch inside; it’s like wearing a too-small wool sweater over my soul. It doesn’t come naturally to me, although anger does. It is painful to have your face pressed up for so long against the intellectual equivalent of aqua regia. I can feel my soul deformed, distended. It will hurt for a long time. But I know why I’ve done this, and it’s hardly for money or fame; there are easier routes to both. It’s for those children they want to kill, for my baby relatives, my cousins and aunts, my lovers, my friends, and me.
The poet Ilya Kaminsky describes the responsibility of being an author in his poem Author’s Prayer:
I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man
who runs through rooms without
touching the furniture.
For a year, to write this book, I lived on the very edge of myself and beyond it. I became unrecognizable to myself. I lived in the world of hate and only from time to time emerged into a world that had love in it, and good cheese and olives, and my apartment in Brooklyn and the novels of Terry Pratchett and everything worth living for.
My mind spun hellward for months, but I did these things to describe these people—white supremacists—and their culture and their motivations. To do so is to deprive them of the power to organize in total darkness, to operate as the terrifying bogeymen they would so like to be. It is to drag them by their hair into the light and let them scream. This is not a comprehensive accounting of the far-right and its history, nor even a full picture of the far-right’s contemporary presence online. There are many areas I was not able to penetrate fully, from far-right women’s groups, who are more elusive than their male counterparts, to the sprawling antigovernment militia movement that organizes primarily on Facebook, which overlaps significantly, though not perfectly, with white supremacist groups. This is an accounting of a sliver of a movement at a moment in time, a world I moved through as though it were a room whose walls were made of burning glass. I learned a lot, though there is always more to learn, and I learned what I cannot forgive. I will never forgive them for hating me and everyone I love as much as they do; I have friends neo-Nazis have publicly fantasized about raping and flaying and murdering and leaving for dead, and I will never forget that. I will never forgive them for making me hate them as much as I do, for folding a red loathing into my soul. So let Culture Warlords, such as it is, be part revenge, part explainer, and partly the story of what hate does to those who observe it and those who manufacture it. Let it be a manual that leads you to fight—for a better world for you, for me, for all the black kids and Muslim kids and Jewish kids and trans kids and brown kids, who deserve a world free of the verminous miasma of hatred. Let us hold it to the light—this wet, rotting, malodorous thing—and let it dry up and crumble into dust and be gone.
In mid-June 2019, I opened a far-right chat room I had been monitoring for a few weeks on the messaging app Telegram. The chat room was called “The Bunkhouse”—I’d been informed by a source that it was filled with particularly violent rhetoric. And at four o’clock in the morning, hazy and sleepless, I found a discussion in the chat room about whether I was too ugly to rape.
For the previous hour or so, members of the Bunkhouse had been casually discussing sex with Jewish women. “I condone and endorse consensual relations with yentas,” one wrote. (Yenta is a Yiddish word for “busybody” that has been coopted by some white supremacists as a slur for Jewish women writ large.) “But not BREEDING,” wrote another. One minute later, a user asked: “Would anyone rape Talia Lavin?”
“I’d rape her with my double barrel,” responded a user who went by the moniker “James Mason,” an homage to an American neo-Nazi and child pornographer most famous for Siege, a book in which he advocates racist terrorism.
Most users found me too ugly to rape—“Talia Lavin’s appearance makes me viscerally ill,” “I can smell her through the monitor,” “Talia Levin [sic] would make me wanna throw up my intestines.” The conversation ended with an oblique expression of a desire to kill me. “No need to go into detail here,” wrote one user about threats of violence. “Like anyone is ever going to think gee im glad we kept Talia lavin with us,” responded another.
That night I nursed too much vodka and thought about how strange it was that a complete stranger had expressed the desire to rape me with a double-barreled shotgun. It’s not like they knew I was lurking and reading that particular chat; I was a topic of discussion in absentia. I bemoaned the paucity of my own body of work, wishing that I was a worthier opponent—someone who truly merited this kind of vitriol. I’d written a feature for the New Yorker and another for the New Republic on far-right shenanigans, along with a few columns and op-eds for the Washington Post and HuffPost. While I’d done my best with the pieces, they hardly amounted to a substantive blow against a rising American fascist movement. I was mostly just a loudmouth on Twitter: Why was I taking up real estate in their heads? A member of the chat room started messaging me on Twitter, sharing sexually explicit fantasies about me having sex with dogs, and sharing the screenshots with the Bunkhouse, not knowing that I was watching.
The source who had initially recommended the group for my research had noted that it was full of “Siegeheads”—people who closely followed the work of neo-Nazi James Mason. Mason advocated terrorism to topple the American social order. The Bunkhouse was a group comfortable with discussing violence; actively militating for a race war; and prone to obsessive harassment and vendettas. Several members were part of the “Bowlcast,” a podcast named for the bowl haircut sported by Dylann Roof, the young man who entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 and murdered nine parishioners. Over and over again, members of the chat shared photos of Roof, often with a bandanna photoshopped onto his head that read KILL JEWS. On June 17, 2019, they celebrated the anniversary of “Saint Roof’s” murders, and punctuated it with a kind of prayer litany of white-supremacist murder:
Heil Bowers [Robert Bowers, who allegedly murdered eleven Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018].
Heil Breivik [Anders Breivik, a Norwegian neo-Nazi who murdered seventy-seven in a massive terror attack in 2011].
Heil McVeigh [Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber].
There was no one to de-escalate these men; it was a private group, one that existed for them to egg one another on, to venerate mass murderers and perhaps one day to emulate them. And over and over again, they posted my selfies, a photo of my feet, an old Google result about my dismal performance on the game show Jeopardy! They speculated about what my feet smelled like, how disgusting my body was. They didn’t know I was lurking in their chat room; I was fair game regardless.
Feeling distressed, I texted Kelly Weill, a friend who works as a reporter on extremism for the Daily Beast, telling her my doubts about my own worthiness as an opponent to white supremacists. But Weill’s response indicated just how small the cadre of journalists and activists who engage with the American far right is—and how such work or speech can attract obsessive attention from extremists. “These people see us as antagonists in the big character drama of their lives,” she wrote to me.
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 imaginations of extremists. It placed me at the end of a hypothetical gun barrel, wielded by a stranger; thrust me deep into the thicket of racialized, anti-Semitic, and misogynist violence that made up the dark garden of their imaginations. Whatever extra humiliations I encountered were the price I paid for looking where others didn’t care to, and it mirrored everything I’d resolved to fight against: the deep hatred of Jews and of women; the casual disregard for human life; the endless stream of incitement toward violence, gun lust, and the humiliation of their enemies.
* * *
The first time I experienced anti-Semitism, it was on the internet.
It’s not that I don’t look like a Jew. I absolutely do: My Ashkenazi heritage and anxious epigenetics are written all over me. I have long, brown, untamable curls I keep up in a bun most of the time so they don’t blind me in an errant wind, and the matronly hips and bosom of a Jewess caricature, or a Venus of Willendorf. I have a nose that could be charitably called “aquiline” and more realistically just “big.” I speak rapidly and gesticulate often, my voice expressing a hectoring, New York urgency, as if I have to get all the syllables out before I’m interrupted by someone else with an equally strong opinion. This is a fair bet in my family, in any case. During my travels as a young woman, through Iceland, Ukraine, and Russia, the attitudes of strangers toward my Jewishness were at worst a kind of “othering”—touching my hair, asking me if I was a Jew, playing “Hava Nagila” when I entered a room. I never felt any danger, just a perennial reminder that I was a Jew, and different.
I grew up like a Jew, too, in a fairly extreme way: in a Modern Orthodox enclave, in the town of Teaneck, New Jersey, where my neighborhood was dubbed “Hebrew Hills.” I went to Orthodox Jewish schools, ate at kosher restaurants, went to Jewish summer camps. I watched Red Lobster ads on TV and thought it was an accurate reflection of the temptations of the vast world of non-kosher cuisine. Outside my kosher life, fat white shrimps tumbled endlessly into pools of glistening sauce, shot through a soft lens warmed to awaken desire. I knew about Christmas because to live in America in wintertime is to be immersed in an ambient, omnipresent Christmas, from which I was always excluded, pressing my nose against the windowpane, the glowing trees shimmering within. I knew that the president was Christian—that every president had been Christian. But within the sheltered confines of home and school and extracurricular activities, I lived a quietly separatist life in suburban New Jersey, one in which every meaningful personal relationship I had was with a Jew.
Every element of my upbringing was steeped not just in biblical and Talmudic precepts but in the lessons of Jewish history. Such lessons were slanted through a school system whose project was to raise and sustain devout Orthodox Jews by evoking the tragedies of our history. Every Holocaust Remembrance Day, I sat through slideshows of emaciated bodies, set to maudlin ballads of Jewish loss. I learned about pogroms; I played Golde in a school production of Fiddler on the Roof; I learned in excruciating detail how the long and complex and illustrious history of the Jews in Europe had dissolved in blood and gas and human ash. It wasn’t just in school, either: The Holocaust had shaped not just Jewry more broadly, but my own family. My whole life was shaped by anti-Semitism, at a generation’s remove.
My maternal grandparents, Esther and Israel Leiter, were born at the turn of the twentieth century in Galicia, a region that was then Poland but today is part of Ukraine. I was the child of a youngest child—my mother had been a surprise in my grandmother’s forties—and I never heard the story of their Holocaust survival from their own lips. What I heard were suggestive snatches of what had already become family legend: that they had survived in the woods; that they had joined with the partisans; that members of their party had been apprehended and killed by Nazi searchers. My grandmother had given birth during the war and the baby died. A girl they traveled with was caught by Nazis between the trees and shot. They foraged for potatoes in frozen ground. My grandmother’s shoes broke and she went barefoot in winter. My grandfather judged the calendar by the moon and shaped matzahs from mud when he thought it was Passover.
From what I knew—a story that took shape as my mother told me, piecemeal—the war had never left them entirely. My grandfather’s brilliant brothers had been rabbis, as he was, and he never stopped mourning their loss. During my mother’s childhood he was plagued by night terrors every night, and once or even twice a week, he would cry out, “Polizei!”—the German word for “police”—and herd his daughters out into the Brooklyn night. When they left the cramped apartment in Borough Park where my mother was raised, no longer capable of living on their own, my relatives discovered a cache of checks and bonds hidden under the floorboards of their bedroom. They had always been ready to run. The fear of slaughter because they were Jews never left them.
*** A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW Editor's Choice/Staff Pick *** TIME MAGAZINE, "100 Must-Read Books of 2020" ***
Kirkus, "Best of 2020 (Nonfiction)"
NY TIMES, "11 New Books We Recommend This Week"
USA TODAY, "20 new books to read this fall" and "5 books not to miss!"
Bitch Media, "11 Books Feminists Should Read in October"
ColorLines, "30 Books to Get You Through Fall"
Ms. Magazine, "Book Recommendations"
Kobo, "Top Nonfiction Titles of 2020"
—Carolyn Kellogg for The New York Times
—Tara Isabella Burton, author, most recently of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, Wall Street Journal
- On Sale
- Oct 13, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Legacy Lit