(Book Review) Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy

I wrote this book review on January 4th. I like to work a week ahead when I can. I did not know that on January 6th there would be a violent, white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol. So, I want to leave intact my thoughts from before, but add something as well.
America is not great. We have never been great. The United States has been powerful. It has been prosperous. But we have never lived up to the ideals we were founded on—ideals about human equality written by slaveowners who did not include women in their aspirational notions of our nation, either. I love this country. I get as romantic as anyone about the ideals we are meant to represent, but I also did my graduate research on discourses about citizenship in American literature and I have done the studying to know that we have never, not once ever lived up to being “great.” We have only been a democratic republic in which all citizens were enfranchised for about 55 years. (Oh wait, no we haven’t, because remember the felons.) And as soon as we reached that milestone with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one party set about doing everything they could to sneakily disenfranchise people again. The modern Republican party cannot win presidential elections without voter suppression.
As many have said, what happened on Wednesday was not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention since Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. This is the logical conclusion of his rhetoric. There were Confederate flags in our Capitol. Really, talk about losers. Talk about traitors. My blood ran cold. There was a hangman’s noose on Capitol Hill. There are a lot of areas where I think we can probably compromise in politics. White supremacy is not one of them. Absolutely not. Not a chance. Never.
I struggle knowing that people I love voted for this immoral, craven, stupid liar who has enabled some of the very worst groups and exploited some of the more vulnerable. It hurts my heart.
White supremacy is a moral rot that cannot stand. It is dangerous to all of us. It is anti-American, anti-Christian, ignorant, against our best interests, and I just can’t even. I can’t. This country was built on it and we will never, ever, ever be great until we have a moral reckoning, a real one, repent, apologize for where we have failed our fellow humans, and move forward.
January 4th, 2021:

My husband is Puerto Rican, an identity that is unified but heterogeneous, a mixture of Spanish colonizers, African slaves, and Indigenous Latin American people. Most of the time, this fact slips under the current of the intimacy of our relationship. He is just Julio. He listens to salsa music when he works. He cooks us pasta every Sunday and has a passion for baking French bread. The fact of our inter-ethnic marriage usually only comes into our heads when confronted with white supremacist ideology. Then I wonder how safe we really are, how safe Julio is, running or driving. I wonder if there are people we know who look down on our marriage. I wouldn’t be surprised now that I know how many people in our circles were willing to vote for a white supremacist.
I read a lot of scary books, but Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin is easily the scariest thing I’ve read in a long time. Lavin, a Jewish, feminist, antiracist journalist, infiltrated multiple white supremacist spaces online in order to better understand modern white supremacist ideology and how it circulates and proliferates online. In her book, she follows the racist and anti-Semitic genealogy of the alt-right and traces its support of Donald Trump and the ultimate, shocking conclusion that he was not extreme enough for many of these people. Her depiction of how white supremacists and their ideas hide in our midst like a “plague” is timely and haunting.
In the current culture of antiracist books, I think Lavin’s journalism offers a really important portrait of how anti-black and brown racism and anti-Semitism are woven together. The blurb on the cover from Rebecca Traister reads “Brutal, urgent, [and] also unexpectedly delicate.” I think that’s a pretty good, succinct description of what makes this book so good. Lavin has a light, pithy tone that hums along through truly depressing material until it lands hard, sometimes humorous or self-deprecating punches. For example, she is chased out of a convention for white supremacist YouTubers and one of them later compares her to a pigeon. As she rehashes the event, she notes: “(I am not shaped like a pigeon. I’m more of a noble heron or perhaps a heavily pregnant stork.)” (161). I was moved by how far she was willing to go to uncover how these white supremacist subcultures function and how they infect broader civil discourses. I was scared for her just reading it.
I thought that the best chapter (worst?) was the one in which she infiltrated a white-only dating site, posing as a white supremacist chick ready to make white babies and be a traditional wifey. Through her analysis, she paints a stark portrait of how misogyny and white supremacy intertwine, perfectly setting up the following chapter on Incels (“Involuntarily Celibate.” They hate, and sometimes kill, women because they are not having sex with them. Sex that they deserve because they are white men, ffs). This chapter also demonstrates how humane Lavin is. As much as she abhors white supremacy, she is still able to see the humanity in the people she encountered on the site:

“Here’s the truth that emerged for me out of a whole lot of deception, out of becoming Ashlynn and courting her suitors. The worst people are still people; their humanity is impossible to disregard, but it does not absolve them. If anything, it makes their choices more abhorrent, surrounded, as they are, by the banality of a life indistinguishable from other lives. Even a self-described Nazi eats dinner, and chances are it’s pork and pinto beans, and would you like the recipe?” (85)

It’s scary how mundane it all is.
When I worked in a jail, I met a fair number of white supremacist or adjacent people and I was kind of mystified by how often that ideology intersected with religion. Lavin also has an illuminating chapter about how white supremacy relies on old-timey notions of Christianity or paganism for its origin story.

“What all these obsessions—with medieval Christianity, with Christian symbolism, and with the Middle Ages in particular—reflect is not just a desire to devolve to a society that was more warlike, built on casual and deadly violence. It also reflects a desire to create an origin myth for whiteness—and imbue a thrown-together and internally inconsistent ideology with an intoxicating whiff of ancient virtue” (141).

In another valuable chapter, Lavin explains what Antifa is and how it functions, a good and necessary text in response to the transformation of anti-fascists into a boogeyman on some corners of the web. And FoxNews.
If you are already invested in reading anti-racist literature, this book is clearly in your wheelhouse and will probably make you feel really mad and scared too. But, if you do not normally read these sorts of books, I think you should definitely read this one. It’s eye-opening and nauseating. Or at least it should be.

Further Reading
Timeline: U.S. Citizenship Law
Comps Notes: Theories of Citizenship and Nation
Two Books On Racism in American Christianity
One Person, No Vote

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