About halfway through “Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy,” Talia Lavin introduces Tommy O’Hara, who at 21 has never been kissed, much less had sex. Tommy is shy and socially awkward; a junior in college, he considers himself a smart guy, yet he’s surrounded by young women who are utterly mysterious to him, “all hips, breasts and unknowable minds.” His confusion pushes him to seek knowledge and commiseration online, where he learns the reason for his plight: Tommy is “involuntarily celibate” because women are shallow, foolish creatures who have been brainwashed by a malevolent feminist movement to deprive him of the sex and affection that he rightfully deserves.
Tommy O’Hara is an incel. He also doesn’t exist, though others like him do. Tommy is Talia, Lavin’s creation, an identity that allowed her to infiltrate the online chat rooms where lonely men find succor in misogyny and white supremacy. Lavin wanted to learn how these men became radicalized. She says she could relate to the “social isolation and erotic frustration” that seemed to drive them, before their vulnerability got twisted and deformed. As Tommy, Lavin immersed herself in message boards and chat rooms, where the rage she encountered was so violent and self-pitying that it eroded — “word by word, post by post” — whatever stirrings of empathy she had felt.
“Culture Warlords” isn’t one of those books in which an intrepid author journeys behind enemy lines in order to write plaintively of our shared humanity. Yes, Lavin says, the people she encountered were human — ordinary individuals who eat, drink, sleep, and feel sadness and joy like anyone else. But it’s precisely their humanity that angers her; their hatred is “the culmination of dozens or hundreds of small human choices.” Studying the far right made her more knowledgeable about and less patient with those who tolerate it. Her research, she says, “taught me how to hate.”
But she doesn’t leave it at that, and one of the marvels of this furious book is how insolent and funny Lavin is; she refuses to soft-pedal the monstrous views she encounters, and she clearly takes pleasure in cutting them down to size. She is aided in her mission by the fact that the language of extremists tends to occupy the space between risible and profoundly dumb. Contemporary white supremacy is a mishmash of old anti-Semitic tropes, racist pseudoscience and bizarre fantasia — what Lavin calls a “bigot’s pastiche.” The people who promulgate it often toggle between cruel, inane jokes and a fastidious humorlessness. “Anything,” Lavin writes, “an errant wind, a dumb tweet, a conspiracy theory invented from whole cloth — can drum up the forces of white grievance.”
So Lavin went undercover, not just as Tommy but as Ashlynn, too — a blonde, gun-toting Iowan looking for love on a dating site for white supremacists. Lavin got to know the subculture to the point where she became fluent in its language, with its self-important feints at Norse mythology and a rudimentary numerology. (Neo-Nazis famously love to use “88,” because the eighth letter in the alphabet is H, and 88 signifies “Heil Hitler”; I learned from Lavin’s book that some enterprising Christian neo-Nazis have also started using “83,” for an oxymoronic “Heil Christ.”)
Radicalization often happens online nowadays — something that Lavin used to her advantage. She describes herself as a “schlubby, bisexual Jew” who grew up Modern Orthodox in Teaneck, N.J., and whose politics are now “considerably to the left of Medicare for all.” Her maternal grandparents escaped the Nazi death camps by hiding in the Galician woods. Online she could be anyone else — Tommy, Ashlynn or “Aryan Queen,” entering a chat room of American and European “accelerationists” who are trying to incite a race war.
In order to connect with accelerationists on the other side of the world, she used her foreign-language skills, recording messages in Russian in a “sexy-baby timbre and a heavy American accent” to convince a Ukrainian neo-Nazi that she was a milk-fed Midwesterner trying to learn new languages for the cause. She gathered enough information to reveal his identity, and then sat back to enjoy the mistrust and chaos she had sown in the white supremacists’ ranks. They knew that someone had betrayed them; what she knew was that she had turned their own florid, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against them. “I had made their worst nightmares come true,” Lavin writes. “Behind the beautiful Aryan they desired was a fat, cunning Jew, biding her time.”
Unlike Andrew Marantz’s “Antisocial,” in which Marantz covered right-wing extremists as a journalist-observer, “Culture Warlords” expressly melds reportage with activism. Lavin justifies her methods by explaining that “bigotry and Nazism should have a social cost.” That social cost relies on shame — a dwindling commodity these days, as extremists have been delighted by an explicitly anti-immigrant White House, Lavin says, and a cadre of “launderers” who repackage far-right ideas into edgy-but-not-quite-bannable videos that get them clicks and converts on YouTube. At a Philadelphia conference that was supposed to be a celebration of “tolerance” and “free speech” but turned out to be a safe space for the alt-right, Lavin met an attendee who said he was impressed with the “diversity of opinion” there. She asked if he had actually met anyone whose views differed substantially from his own. “Yes,” he told her. “I met an ethnonationalist. But I’m a civic nationalist.”
Lavin resolutely identifies as an antifascist; a report last week in The Nation examined how she became a target of scrutiny by ICE, which issued a press release accusing her of “slandering an American hero,” after she posted (and quickly removed) a mistaken tweet about an officer’s tattoo. She condones “some degree of violence in pursuit of quashing fascist organizing,” saying that “sometimes a thrown punch in a street brawl is a way to keep the next fight from happening with knives,” without allowing that a thrown punch can have the opposite effect. It’s the only part of her book when she starts writing from a defensive crouch and loses some of her scathing specificity. Fascists love violence; it escalates, turning politics into a show of brute force that pulls everyone into the fascists’ vortex. Will you really crush them by giving them more of what they love?
But Lavin suggests that drawing delicate distinctions, an activity beloved by liberal moderates, is ultimately powerless against the steamrolling forces of an insurgent far right. Having been on the receiving end of the bile spewed by online trolls, she says that hatred flourishes when it’s allowed to take cover in the shadows: “Let us hold it to the light — this wet, rotting, malodorous thing — and let it dry up and crumble into dust and be gone.”
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