Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin

Warning: If you have already lost all faith in humanity, I recommend you just stop reading this now because it is not going to help.

Talia Lavin is a freelance writer who has bylines in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and The Village Voice. More importantly to this book, Lavin is Jewish. This fact is important because Culture Warlords is the culmination of over a year Lavin spent studying and infiltrating white supremacy groups online and sometimes in person; though, in person she played herself rather than an alter-ego. Many of the groups she infiltrated targeted her specifically because of her writing and her openness of her Judaism. In one case, she had the ‘pleasure’ of reading white nationalists discuss whether they would rape her. When asked by NPR why she would expose herself to this world, her response was, “You have to understand what they believe in and what they want to better combat them.”

To do her research, Lavin had to spend a lot of time in chat groups, some more private than others. Obviously, she could not join these groups as herself, so she developed personae. On the dating site (seriously, visit it; it’s horrifying in how normal it looks until you start reading it) she posed as Ashlynn. Ashlynn is looking for a strong white man to join her in her fight to purify the race. To prove their dedication to the cause, and to get a look into their psyche, Ashlynn asked the men who were interested in her to write love letters to their ideal white wife. Lavin describes these love letters as Nicholas Sparks meets Mein Kampf.

Not all of Lavin’s research was done online. She was able to find out about events online, but she clearly could not attend as anyone but herself. In one case, she attended a conference at a casino as herself—as a reporter—and spoke to attendees about their beliefs. One woman in particular at this event was very open about her thoughts and feelings. Later, when Lavin posted on Instagram about her experience at the conference, the woman was upset that Lavin included a picture of her and quoted her. She demanded Lavin take down the post because she’s a mother with children. Apparently, it’s okay to feel and say racist things, but not okay for those around her to know about it. When Lavin refused to remove the post, she was chased out of the casino by a couple of white nationalists.

Not all of her research focused exclusively on racists/white supremacists/white nationalists. She also posed as a 21-year-old man in an incel chat room. If you are unfamiliar with what an incel is, it is the term used for ‘involuntary celibate’. Simply put, no one is having sex with them, and it’s the fault of women and more attractive men. Mostly the fault of women. It probably will come as no surprise that the men who frequent these sites are misogynists. While not all incels are white, these chat rooms are a great recruiting ground for racist groups. There is—I’m sure this will shock you—a lot of overlap between white nationalism and misogyny.

I think the most disturbing thing about this book for me was how hidden many of these groups are. We probably all know that guy who talks about how he doesn’t think Black and white people should marry, but do we know if he’s in a chat group talking about the race war? Unfortunately, racism has become more mainstream in the last few years, but even your most ardent racist knows what he can say in public and what he can’t. So, do you ever really know?

After reading Culture Warlords you may need to cleanse your mind and enjoy:
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Lovely War by Julie Berry
Clap When you Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Sarah Johnson is a collection librarian at Mid-Columbia Libraries. She reads more than 120 books a year. In her free time, she teaches fitness classes, gardens, and brews kombucha.