Talia Lavin begins her masterful examination of white supremacist culture with a reference to a famous New Yorker cartoon of a dog sitting in an armchair by a computer bragging: “On the internet, no one knows you are a dog.” Throughout Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, Lavin goes undercover in an effort to better understand and expose the misogyny, racism, and antisemitism of the dark web. Lavin is successful in her endeavour because the same anonymity that allows hatred to spread on the internet means that she — a self-described curly-haired Jewish girl from Brooklyn — can be anyone she wants when she enters a chat room.
Lavin assumes many identities throughout the book. In one chapter she is Ashlynn, a “a slender, petite blond huntress who’d grown up on a white-nationalist compound in Iowa.” In another, she poses as Tommy O’Hara, part of a celbate sect known as incels who believe that women have plotted against them in an effort to keep them virgins. Through these different personas, Lavin is able to endear herself to a wide range of white supremicst communities, earning their trust and giving them space to say the kind of things that only come out when they believe the outside world is not listening.
The book is at once chilling and laugh-out-loud funny. Lavin has an acerbic wit and a matter-of-fact writing style; she doesn’t pull punches. As she enters into the dark corners of the web, she reports what she sees, be it crude, grotesque, or just pain gross. However, she doesn’t just report — she also analyzes. Lavin is a careful commentator on the ideologies and trends of white supremacy. In one chapter, she turns a humorous anecdote about a grudge match between groups of pagan and Christian white supremcisits into an examination of the themes that animate their dispute: the rewriting of history, the rejection of Western culture, the embrace of folklore, and the desire to create cohort narratives.
Perhaps the greatest lesson one takes from Culture Warlords is an underscoring of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s adage “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Though each of her chapters concentrates on a discrete element of white supremcist culture — antisemitism, antipathy toward women, anti-immigrant sentiment — the book as a whole conveys a nuanced view of how each brand of hatred informs the others. While it can be frightening to read about how many people are targeted by white supremacist discourses, the book is hopeful nonetheless: Lavin demonstrates that targeted groups have the ability to unite into a force that overwhelms their antagonists.
The book’s only real weakness is that after artfully diagnosing the problem, it does not offer many tangible approaches for how to deal with White supremacy. Lavin ends with two chapters on Antifa — a worthwhile examination and defense of the movement that nevertheless leaves the reader wondering what other tools exist that might be employed in the fight against hatred. Though not overt, Lavin does subtly model for her readers one other specific approach. She acknowledges that a key tool used by antifascists is “doxing”: revealing the names, locations, and occupations of known white supremacists. Culture Warlords is filled with a myriad of names and descriptions, both of the perpetrators of hatred and of the web platforms they use. By including these specifics, Lavin shows her readers that when we expose the people hiding behind the screen, they stop being symbols. We can then understand them as the flawed human beings they are, and quickly they become less dangerous and significantly less scary.
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.