Small Human Choices

Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy BY Talia Lavin. New York: Hachette Books. 288 pages. $23.
The cover of Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy

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.

I wasn’t.

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.

Talia Lavin. Photo: Yonit Lavin
Talia Lavin. Photo: Yonit Lavin

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.

Excerpted from Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacyby Talia Lavin. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.