Talia Lavin, who is Jewish, found herself a target of white nationalist, neo-Nazi, alt-right types when an admittedly mistaken—and soon erased—Tweet of hers went viral.
In the ensuing firestorm, she resigned her gig as a New Yorker fact-checker and decided to put her particular skill set as a multi-lingual researcher, writer, journalist, and Internet native to work infiltrating the very hordes of hate who were suddenly attacking her.
She spent the next year slipping between multiple false identities, digging deeper and deeper into the darkest corners of the web. Along the way, she’s talked to incels, lurked on whites-only dating sites, flirted with people who openly trade images of lynchings, fantasize about raping her, and idolize mass-murdering terrorists such as Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik. It’s enough evil to drive anyone crazy.
But Lavin has persevered, taking what she’s found and compiling it in her new book, Culture Warlords, an entertaining, disturbing and often darkly funny activism adventure with the most disgusting aspects of humanity. Hoping to deliver a wake-up call for those unaware of the severity and spread of these hate groups, Lavin nimbly dips in and out of character, slipping through the cracks into corners of humanity’s basement that are sure to make the reader’s skin crawl. We caught up with her to ask how things have been going since the book’s release (the New York Times just gave her a rave), how to push back against extremism, and just what she thinks the ultimate conclusion to this culture war could be.
How has the response to your book been? I bet the online hate has really ramped up.
It really kind of comes with the territory. As always, it’s hyper-focused on me being a Jew. But overall, I’m really gratified at the response. Releasing a book in a pandemic feels a little bit like farting in a tornado. And this election season… I do think the spectre of white power violence and neo-Nazis has some relevance to this election, so I’ve been grateful at the level of coverage and more so just ordinary people telling me, ‘I’m reading it, I read it, I’m into it.’ It’s fucking wild to me that people are listening to me—I narrated the audiobook and people are listening to my voice for eight hours.
Of all the people that you spoke, are there any that you still have a relationship with now that they know who you are?
No. I have no interest in befriending neo-Nazis.
That’s fair. I was trying to think about the psychology of these people, and I didn’t know if there was something in them that would feel seen or vulnerable at being outed and want to continue the relationship. On some level, I feel like what brings them to this hate is a desire to be accepted.
Nope, it’s mostly been rape and death threats.
Is there a through-line to the type of people you’ve encountered? Is there a character type that’s particularly vulnerable to this stupidity?
I don’t believe bigotry is stupidity. I know that’s just shorthand, but it’s an important point to make that the people I talked to weren’t stupider than your average bear or more ignorant or less educated or poorer. The common thread I saw was anger, maybe some juvenility. Definitely a desire to belong to something larger; a certain loneliness or lostness in their lives. But that’s something that’s pretty universal, and the reason these movements are so dangerous is they prey on universal human emotions. Even if you have on paper a pretty successful life, a wife, a job, whatever… Who amongst us hasn’t felt ‘what’s my life all about, where am I going?’
The response of the white power movement to that is, ‘well, you could be a warrior for the white race! We’re in danger, and you could be our salvation.’ That’s a very powerful pitch.
There seems to be a naivety because they’re buying into what seems to be so much easily debunkable propaganda. Why are people so willing to believe things that are clearly not true?
There’s a pretty robust world of propaganda propping up white nationalism. Slickly produced YouTube videos that push you towards a racist worldview and claim to offer facts and proof. Once you delve into more extremist places they’re regularly trading phrenology and eugenics texts from the 19th century, what they see as historical proof such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s true that these have been debunked but I think that a conspiracy isn’t made popular by how debunkable it is, it’s how it makes you feel. What white nationalism does is it allows you to blame whatever you perceive as your problems in life on others. On the Jews, on Black people, on immigrants, and that’s a pretty powerful allure for a lot of people.
Why do you think this sort of behaviour is on the rise, or at least more overt now?
It’s hard not to look toward the White House as a big reason. The social cost of open bigotry has eroded. The constant climate of alarm and conspiracies really sets the example for people. The American presidency is vested in so much power not just over the lives of millions of people but over the culture of the country. You have this really oozing conspiracy and racial grievance factory at the very highest levels of power. Trump’s campaign and victory were sites of recruitment for white nationalist groups. I think the tenor of where we are the collectively, being dragged into the gutter and the way Trump’s rallies inspire such ugliness and bring out members of hate groups and members of conspiracy cults like QAnon, I think that’s the simplest explanation—with the strong caveat that none of this started with Trump, and none of it will end with him.
Of course. And that’s my next question: where does this end? Even if Trump is out of office, this doesn’t get swept under the rug. I live in a small New England village and I’ve seen white nationalist stickers on street signs. These provocateurs have been mainstreamed, and even people like Joe Rogan, who has the world’s largest podcast, normalizes this stuff on some level. Where does it go from here?
Well, I think if you look at who the people drawn to the Republican Party are now, the Trump era young Republicans, post-Charlottesville young Republicans… You see there are so many incidents of young Republican groups inviting extremists to speak on campus, overlaps between young Republican groups, extremists, and white nationalists. There was a very insightful article by Alex Pareene after Charlottesville that this is the future of the Republican Party, and I agree. The young people drawn to the party at this moment are people who have grown up and had their formative years in a media environment absolutely saturated in the tenets of white nationalism. They’ve (Republicans) currently mainstreamed so many extremists, I think that we’ll see more and more of that in terms of candidates for office, in terms of local GOP parties, particularly in blue states where it’s easier to take over the party apparatus.
The other part is the genie is out of the bottle. Recruitment has gone through the roof. You have extremist groups stickering not just in your town but all over. It may seem not that serious to post a sticker on a synagogue or wherever, but that’s a concrete example of someone performing an illegal act for the purpose of expanding white nationalist propaganda. So where does that go? It can only go in one direction, and that’s more violence. I’m still embedded in some of these chat rooms under different personas and looking into this stuff on a daily basis, and you’re seeing a lot of talk about preparation for civil war and preparation for race war. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Boogaloo movement?
Civil War Two, Electric Boogaloo. And, specifically, a race war. A war of ethnic cleansing. It’s a bastion of accelerationism. The idea that war will bring a white utopia to pass by ushering in civilizational collapse, and they do that through acts of violence, mass casualty events, and sowing chaos. It’s already quite a chaotic and difficult moment in the United States, and it’s a moment that Accelerationists perceive as ripe with promise.
A tipping point.
Yeah. I’m very concerned when I think about the next few weeks and months, and what that looks like when you have these people who hang out all day in what are basically perpetual motion machines for encouraging violence and terror. It really only takes one person to be tipped over the line. It’s very easy to acquire guns, depending on your state, and we’ve seen over and over again that it only takes one person with one gun to plunge communities into grief and fear. I’m very afraid this is a moment that will draw people who want to speak to that kind of chaos.
I can only imagine the things you’ve heard, but what’s the scariest or gnarliest? You must be terrified all the time.
I open chapter one with this anecdote: I was surveilling a particularly violent Nazi chat room undercover and under a false name. I was just eavesdropping, not participating. I open up the chat—it’s like four in the morning, I can’t sleep—and immediately I see they’re talking about me—Talia Levin—and they’re discussing whether I’m too ugly to rape. And the conclusion is ‘I would rape her with a shotgun.’
So that was pretty disturbing to encounter head-on. They didn’t know I was there, it was a totally in absentia discussion. And I’m not trying to be glib here, I’m pretty neurotic. I don’t even say paranoid. Like, I know there are people who want to kill me. I choose to channel that: I’m more angry than I am afraid, and I’m more determined than I am angry.
Do you take precautions? How has it influenced your daily life?
I’m an agoraphobe who collects swords. I have six swords that I keep by my bed. I started collecting swords during the writing of this book, so yeah, of course it’s influenced my day-to-day life. I try to check my six and I try to be careful, just enacting reasonable persecutions, trying to keep as much of my information as I can offline. You know, I live in Brooklyn, I’m not gonna totally shut myself off from the world. But yeah. I mean, people keep asking if I’m afraid, and of course I’m afraid. But would I do this again? Yes. It was worth it. It is worth it.
Do you ever get contacted by law enforcement? You’d think there’d be a deep interest. One has to assume they’re also monitoring these people.
I’m don’t want to discuss that… I haven’t been asked to be a consultant for the FBI, and I don’t think I would take that on if I were asked. The sheer number of mass casualty events enacted by white supremacists over the past number of years, and the ways in which we see vigilantes regularly deputized by law enforcement all over the country these past months of protests—law enforcement is deeply compromised. There are white supremacist elements in law enforcement who operate without shame and with impunity. Law enforcement vs. white nationalism in the U.S., it’s like fighting oil with oil. It’s completely ineffectual.
People have this impression that law enforcement is going to come and clean things up, and I don’t think that’s the case. Often it’s a deeply beleaguered, super-spread-thin and resourceless press corps calling out incidents of white nationalism, so you have a reactive law enforcement apparatus, you have reactive social media companies.
Journalists have limits on our time, limits on our sanity, limits on our resources. We can’t act alone. But none of the tremendous resources of tech or grossly over-funded police are being put to this. That’s why I talk a lot about antifascism in the book and the ways it’s misunderstood. I consider myself an antifascist, and I really think it’s on all of us to ensure in our community, sometimes by putting our skin on the line, that bigotry has a social cost.
What do you think is a call to action? What can people do to push back against this?
Well, I’ll give you an example from this week from my life. I have an Instagram, like lots of your readers, and of course, since I put out the book there’s been a bit of an uptick of people finding my Instagram, showing up, and commenting. Like, whatever, ‘you disgusting Jew, blah blah blah.’ So, two nights ago I saw a guy commenting ‘the Jewish religion is that of Satan’ on a selfie of me.
I noticed he was writing this under his real first and last name. I go to his bio, it says U.S. Marine Corps 0331. That’s a designation meaning he’s a trainee machine gunner. So, I look him up. I find proof that this is the guy, stationed in North Carolina training to be a machine gunner, and here he is writing viciously anti-Semitic comments on my Instagram. It becomes really obvious that this is a current and active member of the Marine Corps. So I gathered all my screenshots, posted it to Twitter, tagged the Marine Corps, and said ‘you have a private who’s a Nazi.’
They responded and said ‘we’re looking into the post and taking appropriate action.’ His bio had a quote from Richard Spencer and a quote from a neo-Nazi band. It wasn’t an edge case. So when I talk about putting a social cost on bigotry and putting your skin on the line, I mean if a neo-Nazi shows up and starts talking shit, find out who they are and tell their employer. Tell their family. Don’t let them get away with this in darkness. And I can’t do it alone – I need help.
The more of us who band together to reimpose the social cost on naked bigotry, the more we can strike a blow against its metastasis in the United States. It means more than a yard sign—it means getting up and saying ‘No.’ Use your skills as a native of the internet. What I did wasn’t particularly sophisticated. It was Google. Use your internet savvy, the extra time you may have from being unemployed because of the fucking plague, use it to bust Nazis! There’s nothing better you can do.
I wake up every day recognizing the enormity of the threat, the fact that so many people are oblivious. This is really an attempt at a warning claxon, and it’s an attempt to push people out of docility and complacency about it. The idea that it’s just some poor, ignorant people online, it’s not that serious… No. It is that fucking serious. It’s machine gunners and cops and people at the highest level of government. An SPLC investigation revealed Stephen Miller and Julia Hahn, powerful figures, are openly sympathetic to and members of the white nationalist movement. It really does go pretty high up. And I don’t have a simple answer. When I was on the white dating site so many people were members of the military. So many. It was astounding.
I am outgunned, I’m outmanned, most people won’t believe it’s a real threat. The book is a stab at public education. My very earnest feeling is that if all of us band together in solidarity and band together as vehemently as we can against this type of racism, against the metastasis of organized hate, we are the only chance we have. We are the only people who can defend each other. Waking up with this terrible knowledge is hard sometimes, but the only way out is through. There’s a certain moral clarity—I don’t have a doubt that fighting Nazisim is the right thing to do. Fighting it by any means necessary. I’m a Jew. I’m one generation removed from the holocaust. We have to be as uncompromising and ruthless as they are in rooting out their ideology.
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