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BOOK REVIEW

A writer infiltrates the world of white nationalism in ‘Culture Warlords’

A man gives a Nazi salute at a gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
A man gives a Nazi salute at a gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.EDU BAYER/NYT

“In real life,” writes Talia Lavin, “I’m a schlubby, bisexual Jew, living in Brooklyn, with long brown ratty curls, the matronly figure of a mother in a Philip Roth novel, and brassy personal politics that aren’t particularly sectarian but fall considerably to the left of Medicare for All.” Online, though, Lavin has lurked in the vilest Internet communities, sometimes silently while at other times impersonating a white supremacist woman looking for love, a violent incel raging against women, and a blue collar guy slowly turning toward white nationalism. Researching her book, “Culture Warlords,” left Lavin more than troubled; it rendered her “incandescent with the kind of rage that doesn’t just last an evening.”

The rage isn’t just because bigotry exists or that it festers in burgeoning online communities, Lavin explains. It’s that the people behind the Nazi-influenced screen names are indeed people, on the outside relatively normal people, hiding in plain sight. They could “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,” she writes.

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“Culture Warlords” is wide-ranging, angry, and sadly relevant. As mass killings such as those in Charleston, S.C., and Christchurch, New Zealand, demonstrate, the violence bandied about online by white supremacists is all too often carried out in real life (and then those killers are celebrated by new recruits online, in an ecosystem of evil). Lavin is of course not the first to write about the problem, but her book feels particularly insightful, perhaps because she understands so deeply both the modern idiom in which these bigots operate today and their historic roots in race science, eugenics, and anti-Semitism.

There are many facets to the organizations Lavin infiltrates, different favored Internet platforms, a variety of in-group catch phrases, a range of most hated others. Incels rage against the women who won’t sleep with them (and the men women do sleep with); they venerate Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people before killing himself in 2014, leaving behind a manifesto titled “My Twisted World,” in which he blamed women for not loving him as he felt he deserved to be loved. There are the tween racists of YouTube, brought in by gaming and ending up radicalized to hate. There are the grown men who wear Hawaiian shirts and show up, heavily armed, to just about any major protest, hoping to promote “Boogaloo” — a second Civil War, one pitting straight white Christian men against everyone else.

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There are distinctions among them, but there are larger points on which all these groups overlap. Among those protesting pandemic lockdown orders, for instance, Lavin found “a loose coalition of heavily armed white nationalists, antivaccine activists, conspiracy theorists, and members of the antigovernment militia movement.” It’s part political theater, part dead-serious threat. (Shortly after the anti-lockdown protests in Michigan, the FBI foiled a plan to kidnap and possibly murder the state’s governor.) Indeed, one of the more insidious aspects of these social movements is how frequently they claim to be joking or acting when caught. As Lavin writes, “[m]any white supremacists begin as internet shock jocks — utilizing racist or anti-Semitic rhetoric primarily to provoke — but that is often only the beginning of an ideological journey that ends in deadly sincerity.”

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After her sojourn among the violent alt-right, Lavin spent time with activists on the anti-fascist and anti-racist left, often demonized by President Trump and others for their alleged violence. What she finds is a different ethos entirely, a mostly decentralized collection of individuals trying to stand up to what they see as a rising tide of hatred. If there’s any equivalence between the two sides, she argues, it’s a false one ginned up by those on the political right and by an often credulous media. (“[A]ll things in nature strain toward symmetry, but none more so than mainstream news outlets,” she writes.) At any rate, Lavin makes her own position clearly known: “I consider myself an antifascist because I’ve met antifascists, and I’ve met fascists, and I know which I prefer.”

Lavin’s anger at the violent racists and anti-Semites she met while writing “Culture Warlords” was shared by one more group, she adds. “I raged against white moderates,” she writes, “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.” Those who defend the free speech rights of those who would murder for their racist ideology, she warns, are asserting “an argument born of self-congratulations.” And one that’s nearly as dangerous.

CULTURE WARLORDS: MY JOURNEY INTO THE DARK WEB OF WHITE SUPREMACY

By Talia Lavin

Hachette Books, 288 pp., $27

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

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Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.