There is a long and noble tradition in this country of journalists going undercover to expose the far right. More than a century ago, Walter White—a Black man so light-skinned he could easily pass for white—made a name for himself by infiltrating southern lynch mobs, gathering evidence against them, and then broadcasting their evil deeds to a broad reading public. In the 1940s, Stetson Kennedy impersonated a racist encyclopedia salesman to penetrate the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan and then humiliated them by divulging their closely guarded secrets on a children’s radio show. In the late 1970s, Dick Lehr paid $28 for robes and joined the Connecticut chapter of David Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in an effort to “get inside Duke’s local outfit, identify his local leader and either verify or debunk his headcount of followers.”
Into this remarkable pantheon of investigators enters Talia Lavin, a journalist and self-described “schlubby, bisexual Jew, living in Brooklyn, with long brown ratty curls, the matronly figure of a mother in a Philip Roth novel, and a brassy personal politic that’s not particularly sectarian but falls considerably to the left of Medicare for All.” As she describes in her impassioned new book, Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, Lavin spent a full year infiltrating the online safe spaces of a panoply of modern white supremacists, from incel message boards to a European neo-Nazi terror propaganda cell. For these efforts, as well as her earlier journalism and activism, Lavin has become a regular target and particularly loathed figure among the far-right; they have published her relatives’ names on white supremacist social media sites, sent her parents a postcard bearing a Nazi slogan, and discussed in chatrooms “whether I was too ugly to rape.”
These days, there is, to be sure, no shortage of studies of white supremacy, from the trenchant scholarship of Alexandra Minna Stern and Kathleen Belew to the powerful reporting of Vegas Tenold and David Neiwert. Where precisely Lavin’s book fits in this firmament may, at first, seem a bit unclear. Culture Warlords is not truly a history or an ethnography or a memoir or even really a travelogue from racist site to racist site. It belongs, rather, to an older model of writing. It is a jeremiad, in the very best sense. There may be deeper, more comprehensive studies of the far-right, but the value of Culture Warlords is its anger. It is appropriate that the current profile picture on Lavin’s prolific Twitter account shows her wielding a massive sword. With her frankness and unapologetic partisanship, Lavin models an activist-journalist-scholar approach, the writer-as-warrior.
As she mentions early in Culture Warlords, Lavin’s first experience with antisemitism came online. She grew up attending Orthodox Jewish schools in a neighborhood of Teaneck, New Jersey, known colloquially as the “Hebrew Hills.” The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, hers was a childhood “in which every meaningful personal relationship I had was with a Jew.” As a result, antisemitism was largely abstract to Lavin until adulthood, when she took a job as an editorial intern with the tiny, venerable Jewish Telegraphic Agency. At this time, she felt secure in her “secular, cultural Judaism,” but she quickly learned that one of the main traffic drivers to JTA was the white supremacist website Stormfront.org. It turned out, the neo-Nazis reveled in stories about Jews—Jews behaving badly, Jews exercising power, Jews identified publicly as Jews. Reading the graphic, anonymous threats they sent made her “bones ache,” Lavin writes, but from that moment, she knew she was “going to fight.”
Culture Warlords is an account of a year in that battle. On June 1, 2019, Lavin joined more than ninety far right and white supremacist groups on the encrypted messaging app, Telegram. There, she went by “Tommy” and just lurked and observed. Soon, though, she became more active. Lavin decided to endow Tommy with an anime porn addiction and have him join an online incel forum. Though one survey suggested that 40 percent of incels—short for “involuntary celibate”—are people of color, Lavin found that racism was rife in their online spaces, with “radicalized misogyny” leading users “straight into the arms of white supremacy.” Soon, Tommy transformed into a pickup-driving West Virginian “holy warrior for Christ” and joined several white nationalist online religious groups. There, Lavin studied the bizarre and vitriolic conflict between white supremacist Christians (who celebrate mass murders of Jews and Muslims and view the Crusades as something of a Lost Cause) and white supremacist pagans (who loathe Jesus as a Jew and are drawn instead to the Norse gods by the lure of “what they see as an all-white religion, freed from the taint of Jewish perfidy”).