In a rare introspective moment after Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016, some of the nation’s cultural elite questioned how they could have so deeply misunderstood the American electorate. They vowed to do a better job of listening and engaging with the ideas of all those supposedly deplorable Trump voters.
It was an admirable impulse, if short-lived. Just a few years later, with an election looming, mainstream media outlets and left-leaning journalists have abandoned soul-searching in favor of more familiar turf: denunciations of right-wing extremists.
Some, like New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz, have taken a more traditional approach, documenting in his book Anti-Social: How Online Extremists Broke America, the supposedly racist dog-whistles of figures like Jordan Peterson. Others, like the producers of the New York Times podcast series, “Rabbit Hole,” warn about the dangers of YouTube videos, which in their rendering are the new gateway drug to violent extremism. Most of them uncritically take as their starting point the idea that, in the Trump era, anyone to the right of Nancy Pelosi should be presumed to be a white supremacist until proven otherwise.
The exemplar of the form is Talia Lavin, who, in her new book, Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, styles herself as Margaret Mead among the racist incels. Unfortunately, she seems far more interested in denouncing her enemies, real and imagined, than in trying to understand why some Americans have found extremist messages appealing.
Lavin gained social media notoriety a few years ago when, employed as a fact-checker at the New Yorker, she falsely claimed that a disabled veteran and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent was a neo-Nazi white supremacist because of one of his tattoos. When ICE demanded an apology, Lavin grudgingly gave one, although she spent far more time and energy complaining about her own victimization than thinking about the act of character assassination she had committed. She also left her job at the New Yorker.
If you lose your job as a fact-checker for falsely accusing someone of being a Nazi, it’s not the most logical career move to double down on that intemperance. But it evidently worked for Lavin. She was briefly an “extremism researcher” at the liberal activist organization Media Matters for America, and she has now published a book-length effort to convince us that she is the modern-day Neo-Nazi hunter the world needs.
Right-wing extremism is a real and serious problem, too often downplayed by people on the right. Unfortunately, Lavin, an unreliable narrator whose prose reads more like an agitated middle-schoolers’ diary entries than the work of a serious journalist, is not the person to illuminate its threat.
Consider her self-identification as a supporter of the violent left-wing movement, Antifa. In an interview with Salon in June promoting her book, a reporter described Lavin as a supporter of “the counterpunching Antifa movement, of which she considers herself an ally, and perhaps a member. (If it had members.)”
If you equate Antifa with months-long violent sieges and destruction in cities like Portland and Seattle, you’ve got it all wrong, Lavin says. She likens Antifa to “vegetarianism and birdwatching. Antifa is the same. It’s a movement and a set of principles you can adopt in your life,” she says. As for the movement’s demonstrated acts of violence, Lavin dissembles, “Anti-fascists are willing to employ any means necessary, up to and including violence, to prevent far-right organizing in their communities, and to defend the people they care about.” She claims further that criticism of Antifa is “a pernicious lie that’s being used to sell racism and extremism as a both-sides issue, when it’s not. I’d ask them to keep in mind that there’s never been a murder attributed to anti-fascists, ever in the history of the United States.”
In other words, Lavin eagerly embraces the role of activist over that of journalist. “A tremendous amount of Antifa work—work I’ve engaged in exclusively— is monitoring the activities of racists, in many cases online, infiltrating groups so their movements can be predicted, revealing these people to their communities, tactics like that. You know, ‘This guy who works at Buzzy’s restaurant is a member of the KKK,’ or, ‘This member of the armed forces is also in Identity Evropa,’” she says. (This, of course, is also the work of federal agencies like the FBI, which can point to recent successful efforts to prevent violence among domestic extremist groups, and does so within the limits of the rule of law, but Lavin is no fan of law enforcement).
Lavin is inconsistent in the application of the principles she does expound, however. She describes independent journalist Andy Ngo, who has been physically assaulted by Antifa activists and frequently targeted with death threats, as “truly a piece of shit, fascism-adjacent dickwad” because he posts publicly available mugshots of arrested protestors on his Twitter feed, something she denounces as unfair “doxing.” And yet, a few moments later, she encourages people to deputize themselves racism sleuths and expose their neighbors. “You can become an anti-fascist just by looking up racist groups in your town,” Lavin says. “Like, if a teacher in your local school is starting to post increasingly racist things, and you look into it and you find that they’re part of some racist group, and you out them. That’s an anti-fascist thing you did.”
As with the interview, Lavin’s book has a hectic, disorganized tone, careening from discussions of the term globohomo on Internet message boards to weak comparisons of the COVID pandemic to the Black Death. The bulk of the narrative focuses on her “infiltration” activities — basically catfishing on extremist chatrooms.
Lavin poses as an attractive white woman on a white-supremacist dating site (by stealing someone else’s photos) in order to “seduce some lonely bigots,” but ends up spending pages mocking the love letters they send her. She boasts about her “antifascist cat fishing” to other journalists in hopes of getting them to write about her. She spends pages summarizing, in term-paper-like fashion, the work of scholars of anti-Semitism and racism. She offers little that is new or insightful about either the ideological origins or current expressions of white supremacy. That’s a missed opportunity, given its reemergence in the Trump years as a popular trope.
As a recent (and refreshingly nuanced) assessment by Michael Powell in the New York Times described, the term “white supremacy” has been doing the heavy lifting for left-leaning activists and the mainstream media lately, and has broadened to include anything and everything that one might disagree with—to the detriment of greater understanding of the term itself. Lavin revels in such hyperbole: “Anything, an errant wind, a dumb tweet, a conspiracy theory invented from whole cloth—can drum up the forces of white grievance,” she writes.
For all the extreme and distorted personalities she chronicles, Lavin seems oblivious to the blind spots in her own. Her book is not really about the world of white supremacists; it is about how Talia Lavin feels, emotionally, about white supremacists. The words “I” and “me” and “my” appear far more often than they should in a book that purports to be written by a journalist. Analysis falls by the wayside as everything is analyzed through the prism of Lavin’s often-Manichean feelings: “I consider myself an antifascist because I’ve met antifascists, and I’ve met fascists, and I know which I prefer,” she writes. That’s all well and good if you trust the narrator, but in Lavin’s case, that would be a mistake.
Indeed, Lavin seems most excited when she is describing her multiple and deliberate fabrications, impersonations, and hoaxes, not when she makes a stab at understanding what motivates the people she is catfishing. This isn’t journalism; it’s narcissistic pseudo-anthropology, and it is far more revealing of Lavin’s than it is of the extremist right.
Of course, anyone even slightly on the right is not the audience for this book. If we are not already irredeemable white supremacists, we are the easily manipulated dupes who are at risk of becoming insta-fascists at the click of a mouse, or, as Lavin describes the process, “Wrapped up in a glossy layer of reasoned inquiry, hate is cunningly smuggled through the bright screen.”
She is preaching to those on the left who might still value reasoned debate and free speech. In a review of the book in the New York Times, Jennifer Szalai tiptoes around Lavin’s Antifa activism and radical views by noting that Lavin “suggests that drawing delicate distinctions, an activity beloved by liberal moderates, is ultimately powerless against the steamrolling forces of an insurgent far-right.” Lavin is less measured. She describes her rage for traditional liberals, as “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.” She never engages in any sort of good-faith argument about the weaknesses or strengths of the free-speech-oriented liberalism that has, until recently, been a strong voice in America’s culture wars.
Ultimately, this slow-motion tantrum of a book works neither as a memoir of time spent in the digital dark alleys of right-wing extremism nor as a journalistic expose that might cast light on extremist movements. Boiled down to its essence, it is merely a tweet: Anyone Talia Lavin doesn’t like is a Nazi.