How Author Talia Lavin Infiltrated The Far Right
Reprinted with permission from DailyKos
If someone were to describe Talia Lavin's general thesis in Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy in simple terms—namely that it's not only okay to punch Nazis, it may actually be desirable—ordinary nonactivists or dedicated pacificists might balk.
People who take the time to sit down and read the book, on the other hand, are likely not only to agree heartily with her, but go out looking for some white supremacists to punch all on their own once they've finished it.
Lavin is a Jewish woman from Brooklyn who became notoriously demonized online by both the mainstream and extremist right for an incident involving an incorrect identification—quickly corrected, but permanently recalled—on Twitter. She subsequently lost her position as a New Yorker copy editor and became the subject of a massive online smear-and-humiliate campaign. Because of that experience, she came to realize that the world of the online radical right was a dangerous and threatening cancer on the American (and global) body politic, and set out to first discover its deeper nature and how it operates, then how to combat it.
She did this by creating new online identities for herself—a cornfed white girl from Iowa who was looking for a good right-wing man; a lonely young man with horrible insecurities about his romantic life who identified with other "involuntary celibates," or "incels;" an angry young Christian conservative eager to do battle with "pagan" elements—and entering the online realms created by and for such people. It was a simultaneously edifying and terrifying experience.
Armed mostly with an agile wit and deft understanding of the kinds of personalities with which she was dealing, Lavin methodically exposes the real interior world of people caught up in far-right ideologies in ways that are simultaneously hilarious and chilling. The universe she exposes is an utter cesspit of dehumanization, narcissism, and stunted personalities, boiled over years into a toxic stew of humanity whose whole purpose and meaning in life is derived from immiserating everyone else—particularly vulnerable people: ethnic minorities and women and LGBTQ folk and immigrants are who they focus their energies on targeting.
Journalists like myself who have been writing about the extremist right for many years are really all too familiar with this, but it's a difficult reality to convey in plain journalistic prose, especially if one is constrained by the norms of daily news reportage. Lavin, however, is an extraordinarily gifted writer capable of both deadpan accuracy in her journalism and poetic prose that captures the essence of her subject better than mere reportage could ever hope for—such as in this passage describing how mainstream conservatives encouraged the radical right's growth, believing they could control it, only to discover the uncontrollable monster they created:
Now that, at last, the buboes have begun to rise, odorous and pustulent, on their own white skins, they have begun to call it out. Now, at this late hour, and covered in the filth of their own making, they have begun to feebly ring the bells of warning. They are telling us what we already knew: There is a plague among us, with death written on its pale countenance, advancing through each city, each street of this country.
Culture Warlords is a passionate book, and all the better for it since by immersing her readers in the unreality of the white-nationalist and far-right universe, most of us are jolted into both an intellectual and a visceral understanding of what we're up against. She explores, near the end, the community self-defense nature of the antifascist movement and concludes sensibly that neo-Nazis, incels, Proud Boys, and all the radical-right haters are not just best, but possibly only, defeated by the force of the people who outnumber the poisonous bloc by millions coming together as one and expelling them from society as a matter of basic public health and well-being. By the time you're done, you may find yourself ready to join her in that fight.
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