By Adam Schendel
In undertaking the writing of her new book Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, writer and journalist Talia Lavin endured torrents of vile online harassment, received threats of murder and rape, and was physically chased out of a casino by an angry group of racists there to attend a conference ostensibly devoted to “open dialogue.”
Lavin, who is Jewish, bisexual, and describes herself as an antifascist, made herself the target of such abuse in order to chronicle and expose some of the most hateful and violent currents animating far-right politics in the U.S. today, including white nationalist militias, anti-Semitic spaces on social media, violent incels, neo-Nazis, and the anti-government Boogaloo movement. She embedded herself within these communities by going undercover and assuming online identities such as a gun-toting Iowan woman seeking love on a whites-only dating app, as a viciously misogynistic “incel” named Tommy, and more.
Lavin’s book comes after some of the deadliest high-profile acts of American violence in recent years were perpetrated by right-wing extremists, including the murders of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015, the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left eleven dead, the murder of 51 by a gunman at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, and the probable motives behind the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that stands as the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Much of the animating force behind the hate that Lavin documents is grounded in anti-Semitism, which she contends feeds into racism and anti-feminism, and vice versa. The book valuably spends an early chapter tracing the modern origins of anti-Semitism, beginning with prejudice against Jewish immigrants in the late 19th-century and the conspiratorial allegations of global Jewish control published by industrialist Henry Ford in the 1920s. She details the echoes of such sentiment in the radio propaganda of Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s while Nazi-imitating white militias called the Silver Shirts and the German American Bund were being founded, as well as the blame placed on “Jewish communists” by racists in the 1950s during the struggle to dismantle Jim Crow segregation.
The legacy of these hateful roots are propagated in the online spaces used by right-wing extremists today, like the messaging app Telegram and the message board 8chan, which have grown exponentially as extreme views are pushed off more mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Here, users share violent memes and videos, swap classic fascist texts such as William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries and James Mason’s Siege, and worship right-wing killers like Charleston shooter Dylann Roof and the New Zealand gunman Brenton Terrant while airing their own violent fantasies about societal collapse.
Even though these users spend their days joking about the Holocaust and hypothesizing on whether Jews are a subhuman species, Lavin makes clear that they are not uniquely evil specimens, but ordinary people, “mostly men and some women” who have “chosen to hate, to base their communities of solidarity on hate, to cultivate their hate with tender, daily attention.” They are people who may work at the next desk over at the office or live in the same neighborhood, appearing completely innocuous, and “you would never know that deep in the night they trade photos of lynchings like baseball cards, and laugh.”
Among the other right-wing environments that Lavin infiltrates is a dating website called WhiteDate.net, designed specifically for the purpose of connecting fellow white supremacists looking to fall in love with a partner who wants to procreate for the sake of propagating the white race. Lavin attempts to interview a teenage YouTuber named Soph, who became a sensation at age eleven as a foulmouthed online gamer and went on to amass almost a million subscribers as she produced videos filled with sharply Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic views.
Critical to the rise of right-wing extremism in almost every area Lavin explores is the internet itself. She notes that white supremacists were some of the first to recognize the power of the internet in the 1980s, due to its wide-reaching ability to radicalize countless people once they’re caught in its web, and for its potential to link right-wing movements internationally.
People are radicalized online not just by recommendation algorithms on YouTube, but by right-wing celebrities, such as Alex Jones, Tim Pool, or Andy Ngo, who Lavin dubs “launderers.” These popular launderers can get rich by introducing people to far-right views, “repackaging the same ideas [from] Telegram and neo-Nazi news sites, but in a way that’s palatable to the clicking masses.” They then put people on a path to further radicalization by introducing ever more fringe ideas by submerging “their fans in a worldview that casts the modern world in an irredeemable and fearsome light, one full of sinister conspiracies engendered by the left.”
The global reach of extremism on the internet has manifested itself in troubling ways, such as the sensationalizing of crimes committed by minorities in Europe that find traffic as stories at Fox News or Breitbart, or the fact that some white supremacists from the U.S. have traveled to Ukaine to fight and train with a neo-Nazi militia called the Azov Batallion.
If there is one weakness to Lavin’s new book, it may be in the timing of its release amidst the endless news cycles of 2020, which brought many new developments to the fertile topics she writes about that ended up being just too recent to make it into her final draft. While it would have made for an important point of emphasis, Lavin didn’t have the time to include anything about the QAnon conspiracy theory, which found widespread currency this year. The conspiracy, which alleges that an elite cabal of Satanic pedophiles are conducting a global ring of child sex trafficking, has clear echoes of the most vile anti-Semitic theories of the early 20th century.
Also missing from the book are recent relevant incidents such as the Texas man associated with the anti-government Boogaloo movement who traveled to Minneapolis with firearms to co-opt anti-police protests in late May and was arrested for firing an AK-47 into a precinct building, or the similar story of a California man who ambushed police and murdered a sheriff’s deputy in June in the hopes of contributing to the start of a civil war. Additionally, the book came too soon to reference President Trump’s infamous call during the first presidential debate for the violent, far-right Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” which became a rallying cry for the group; and the disturbing murder of Portland protester and antifa supporter Michael Reinoehl by federal agents in September acting on behalf of Trump, who went on to glorify the killing as an act of “retribution.” It was subsequently reported that the marshals never announced themselves or attempted to arrest Reinoehl before opening fire.
Culture Warlords is a sometimes funny, but also grim and worthy analysis of the origins and ongoing evolution of right-wing extremism in the U.S. If anything, the variety of recent news stories that Lavin could have included but didn’t have time for are a troubling sign that these conspiratorial and violent ideologies are worryingly prevalent and not going anywhere anytime soon.
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