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WARNER: I always love listening to Sam Sanders’ podcast on NPR called It’s Been A Minute. And today we're excited to present an episode of that show, one that raises a question I would not have even thought of asking, but now I can’t stop thinking about. Sam follows a reporter who set out to understand how white supremacy works online. And not just where you can find it, and how hateful it is, but on a much more fundamental level. How do the different pieces of the white supremacist platform fit together in a kind of rhetoric designed to recruit?
This is not a topic, of course, for everyone. This episode contains detailed conversation about misogyny and racism and sexual violence. It might not be suitable for young children. But one thing that you learn from this show is that hate is not just an emotion. It’s a code. And this is an interview with someone who spent the time, and some of her own peace of mind, to break that code. You’ll hear first from that reporter first, and then Sam takes the show.
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TALIA LAVIN: (Reading) Every day for nearly a year, I immersed myself in chat groups and websites and forums where photos of lynchings were passed around like funny memes, where Kill Jews was a slogan and murderers were called saints.
SAM SANDERS: That is the voice of Talia Lavin. She is reading from the introduction of her new book.
LAVIN: (Reading) I silently observed as neo-Nazis mused about what raping me would be like.
SANDERS: And what a book it is.
LAVIN: (Reading) I spoke to bad people and good people on the front lines of the battle for America.
SANDERS: Lavin's book is called "Culture Warlords: My Journey Into The Dark Web Of White Supremacy." And the whole thing chronicles Lavin's journey into the nastiest and most unexpected corners of white supremacy, sometimes not just online.
LAVIN: (Reading) I attended a conference for alt-right YouTubers in Philadelphia and was chased out of a casino. I was rejected from joining a white supremacist pagan ritual in the Albany area by the elders of a weightlifting pagan cult called Operation Werewolf. I listened to a terrible white nationalist freestyle-rap diss battle.
SANDERS: Talia spent more than a year doing this research, and it was extra complicated for her because Talia is Jewish, which means she is one of the targets of the very groups she seeks to expose.
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SANDERS: From NPR, you're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. I'm Sam Sanders. On today's show, Talia Lavin. We talk about her book "Culture Warlords." And this book, when you read it, you can't help but wonder why someone would do this. Why infiltrate white supremacist spaces online as a Jewish woman? Talia says she has a reason.
LAVIN: I think this is a movement that is evil and needs to be defeated. You have to understand where they're coming from and what they believe and what they want in order to better combat them. And that's the goal of the book.
SANDERS: After the break, how she did it, what she found out and why a lot of what you think about white supremacy is wrong.
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SANDERS: Let's get into the book, "Culture Warlords." It is all about you going undercover for a pretty long time to infiltrate the dark web of white supremacy. And this is all further complicated by the fact that you are a Jew. So there's a lot going on in this book and a lot of times in which you are in danger. But I think the best way to start talking about the book and get into some of the themes there is to ask you to describe two of the characters you created to infiltrate that dark web, Tommy and Ashlynn. Who are they?
LAVIN: Tommy - I'll start with Tommy. So Tommy was a character I used to infiltrate the biggest incel message board on the web. Incel stands for...
SANDERS: Those are involuntary - sorry, you say it better than me. Go ahead.
SANDERS: I cut you off. Sorry.
LAVIN: Involuntarily celibate guys. They use that term basically to say, like, we wish we were getting laid. That's how they sort of portray themselves. But I would describe it as a radicalized misogynist movement because, like, I've had dry spells. Like...
LAVIN: ...I'm not going to shoot up a yoga studio about it. Like, the - you know, I mean...
SANDERS: You're right, though.
LAVIN: ...There are a lot of people who can't...
SANDERS: You're right.
LAVIN: ...Get laid in this world. But what the incel movement actually is is, like, very deeply radicalized misogyny.
SANDERS: But also white supremacist.
LAVIN: Yeah, yeah. There are definitely overlaps between the incel and white supremacist movements.
SANDERS: Got you.
LAVIN: They're not totally - like, the overlap isn't 100%. There are a lot of nonwhite men who identify as incels even just based on, like, internal polling on this message board that I infiltrated that I'm not going to name. But, like, there was, like, internal polling. Like, are you white or not? And it was like a 60-40 split. Like 40% were nonwhite.
SANDERS: Whoa, whoa.
LAVIN: Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, misogyny, like, does cross the color line. But, like...
SANDERS: You don't say.
LAVIN: ...Despite the fact that it was such a heavily nonwhite space - like, white supremacists were definitely recruiting there, and white supremacist conversation was ubiquitous. There were tons of talks about eugenics. There was sort of the implicit assumption that, like, white men were at the top tier of, like, attractiveness and attracting women - like, all this stuff. I mean, the point that I was sort of trying to make in the book is that white supremacy and misogyny are really deeply, deeply intertwined and are braided together, especially on the Internet...
LAVIN: ...In ways that are inextricable.
SANDERS: The other character Talia created was Ashlynn Grant (ph). She used that persona to infiltrate a whites-only dating site. What's it called?
SANDERS: Well, that gets right to it (laughter).
LAVIN: Their slogan is, for a Europid vision.
LAVIN: Like, the idea of propagation and reproduction is, like, a really big part of the white supremacist movement, and so it was, like, really funny. You had this incredibly elaborate drop-down menu for, like, what specific flavor of white you are. Like, are you, like...
SANDERS: Give me some examples.
LAVIN: Are you, like, Welsh, Danish, like, Scottish, Irish, Gaelic, whatever - like, this - the whole panoply of possible European ancestries. You could pick your ideology, which was, like - ranged from fully red-pilled, which is sort of term for, like, are you an extremist racist, to, like, getting there. I mean, it was, like, almost like choosing a swatch...
LAVIN: ...For, like, a white wall.
LAVIN: Like, you're like, eggshell, alabaster, ivory.
SANDERS: Oh, my God.
LAVIN: Eventually, I sort of began to see it as more of an anthropological study of just, like, who signs up for an all-white dating site?
LAVIN: So I had them write love letters to their ideal white wife and send them to me...
SANDERS: Stop it. Were they good writers?
LAVIN: ...And I printed them in the book. What I write is they were just, like, this car crash between, like, Nicholas Sparks and "Mein Kampf." Like, it was very...
SANDERS: Oh, my God (laughter).
LAVIN: It was, like, very cheesy romance, but also, like, they were like, we'll raise our wolf pack together. Like, you know, we'll keep our kids away from the Communists and the darkies. I want to kiss you in a wheat field while the sun shines.
SANDERS: Whoa, whoa, whoa.
LAVIN: Like, together we will prosper under the moon (laughter). Like, it was very dramatic prose, but also very racist.
LAVIN: It was like - it was wild.
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SANDERS: So Talia did this for more than a year, and she took on more personas than Tommy and Ashlynn. I had to ask her, why this level of embedding? One reason, Talia says, is that being a Jewish woman made it impossible to get through the front door with her real identity. But there was another reason.
LAVIN: The other reason was that I've seen so many times, you know, journalists very uncritically - you know, I understand the conventions of our profession and, like, the sort of legal and ethical requirement to get comment from the groups you're talking about. But spokespeople for white nationalism lie. That's what they do. Their whole job is to make it seem like their movement isn't inherently violent and genocidal. So to the point of almost true absurdity, I've seen local news, like, describe white supremacist gatherings in their own words as white wellness advocates, like it's, like, Goop for fascism or this idea of, like, we just peacefully want a white ethnostate. And, like, to a certain extent, I was sick of, like, the smooth-talking spokespeople portraying white nationalism as more peaceful than it was.
And I think one advantage to my approach, which was, like, infiltrating these chats, you know, in character or just lurking, or infiltrating in character, engaging in conversation and then writing about it, was that I was able to see their rank and file much more clearly - what they were talking about, their sort of preoccupations, the tenor of the conversation in these rooms - because I was actively engaging in infiltration.
SANDERS: This level of involvement took its toll. At one point, Talia says, she was sometimes playing five or six characters a day online.
LAVIN: Got very, like, psychologically complicated.
SANDERS: Yeah. You got in your head. Was there, like, a particular moment where you're like, I might be in too deep, either in your own head or in real life?
LAVIN: I mean, I definitely - one of the more difficult moments - and I actually open Chapter 1 with this just to, like, give an impression of kind of the load that this takes - was, like, so I had infiltrated a particularly violent chat room that I'd been told featured a lot of people who were accelerationists. That's - those are people who push for civilizational collapse in order to further white nationalist ideas.
SANDERS: Pushing for the race war, basically.
LAVIN: Yeah, the boogaloo, the race war, the hootenanny, the day of the rope - you know, the part where they get to shoot the people they hate. So I was in this very violent chat room. And all of a sudden - I, like, log in at 4 o'clock in the morning because I can't sleep, and they're talking about me, Talia Lavin. They - they're like, would you rape her? You know? And, like...
SANDERS: Oh, my God. I'm so sorry.
LAVIN: And they were like, oh - you know, the conclusion by most is that I was too ugly to rape, but that you could rape me with a shotgun, and that would be OK. And so...
SANDERS: Oh, God. And you're in there reading this in one of your aliases?
LAVIN: Yeah, and they don't know that I'm there; they're just discussing me in absentia. So, like, that was a really weird moment for me where I'm like, oh, boy, like, I - the stuff I'm exposing myself to is, like, very toxic. And I think I got pretty depressed, like, while writing the book because you feel like you're - it's almost like a bell jar. You're sealed off from everything good in the world, and you're immersed in just the toxic silence of hate, where nothing good can pierce it.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, one of the things that you write about is how the things that these supremacists are talking about in these corners of the Internet are very serious - genocide and race wars, et cetera - but they talk about it in some really kind of immature, crude language. You write in the book, quote, "the corpses they long to create are buried under slick layers of euphemism and crude humors." Basically, the folks wanting the race war are also dealing memes and, like, tongue-in-cheek rhetoric as if they're teenage boys. What do you think that's about?
LAVIN: So I think one of the more interesting documents that reveals this dynamic is The Daily Stormer style guide. So The Daily Star is like...
SANDERS: Right. They have a style guide.
LAVIN: Yes, and it got leaked to Ashley Feinberg...
LAVIN: ...At the Huffington Post when she worked there. So it's this 12-page document that basically tells you how to write a Daily Stormer post. The Daily Stormer is, like, the neo-Nazi broadsheet of the Internet. And, like, the biggest sort of instruction they had was keep the tone light, and outsiders shouldn't be able to tell if you're joking or not. Of course, I do want to gas all the kikes, but an outsider shouldn't be able to tell that. And so there is this very deliberate use of humor. I mean, Brenton Tarrant, the man who shot 53 people at a Christchurch mosque, you know, I read his manifesto. It contained jokes. It had memes in it.
LAVIN: And he went out and he...
LAVIN: And he went out and shot 50 people. He was pretty [expletive] serious about his ideology.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
LAVIN: But the goal is always to retain this element of plausible deniability, always to maintain this veneer of detached irony, both to draw in people who - for whom, like, Internet irony is appealing, which is a lot of us. A lot of people find edgy jokes appealing. And those edgy jokes can condition you to dehumanize people. Like, these chats are just absolutely flooded with videos, gory videos of Black people dying and, like, jokes about it. And once human beings and their deaths are punchlines for you, you are a lot closer to killing them.
SANDERS: After the break, Talia Lavin on why white supremacy cannot exist without anti-Semitism.
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WARNER: Hey. This is Gregory Warner, host of NPR’s ROUGH TRANSLATION. Of course, this week we are turning over our show to Sam Sanders and this episode of It’s Been A Minute. I am briefly, though, coming back into your feed just to say that all of the work that we do here at NPR, we are able to do thanks to your support of your local public radio station. So here's the link to visit and show that support - donate.npr.org/translation. Again, donate.npr.org/translation. Thanks. And now back to Sam.
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SANDERS: I want to talk about the ways in which you explain in the book how anti-Semitism is required for a lot of this ideology to work. I got to start by saying, you write about being Jewish and being very Jewish in this lovely way. You write, quote, of yourself, "in real life, I'm a 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."
But you go on to talk about how this white supremacist ideology requires the Jew to create what you call a holistic system of depravity. What is that? Explain that to our listeners.
LAVIN: First of all, everyone loves the "I'm a schlubby bisexual Jew" quote. And my mom called me and was like, it says you're bisexual in The New York Times, and all my friends keep texting me about it.
SANDERS: You hadn't told her?
LAVIN: No, I...
SANDERS: Oh, my God.
LAVIN: I had. She knew. But she's like, all my friends keep texting me that you're bisexual. And I'm like, OK, well, I am. So I guess they all know now.
LAVIN: Anyway, back to anti-Semitism - the white power movement guys that I was primarily writing about and their system of ideology - like, anti-Semitism is really inextricable from the kind of ideological or intellectual underpinnings of their entire worldview.
And I would say when you look at the Jew the way they do, a sort of an omnipresent, omnipotent enemy pulling the strings, they believe that Jews are sort of systematically orchestrating white genocide, a very popular conspiracy theory, the idea that the white population is being intentionally diluted via mass migration and via, like, higher birth rates for people of color. And there's this idea that this is an existential threat to the existence of the white race. So the idea that the Jew is, like, organizing all this...
SANDERS: This is what was so crazy. Like, I had never even heard of that idea, this idea that, like, all nonwhites are bad, but Jews are the worst ones because they are the ones who are passing as white and organizing all the other nonwhites to defeat the white man. I had never - whoa.
LAVIN: Yeah. Like, anti-Semitism and anti-Blackness and, you know, racism generally are, like, so intimately intertwined. And it actually goes really far back. If you look at, like, the anti-civil rights movement in the mid-20th century, there was this idea that, like, the NAACP was funded by Jewish communists, that this was all a Jewish plot.
And if you go, like, really deep into what they actually believe, it's like, why would Jews be doing that? It's because they're also super racist and believe that, like, people of color or mixed-race people are sort of more malleable to Jewish control because they are stupider. I mean, certainly white grievance is an industry, and it is - it has a lot of its own bananas proof text. But, like, on the surface, it's pretty hard to argue that white men are, like, the most oppressed demographic in the United States.
So you have to invent an enemy that's stronger than you and bent on your destruction. And that's the rhetorical function of the Jew in the white supremacist worldview - that, like, he's infinitely cunning, infinitely resourceful and, like, hell-bent on the destruction of the white race. And this allows you, the white supremacist, to posit yourself as sort of oppressed, just, righteous and, like, fighting against an incalculable demonic evil. And that's an important rhetorical function to serve.
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SANDERS: There is another thing that I had to ask Talia about. It is impossible right now to talk about white supremacy and not talk about Donald Trump. Since he announced his run for the presidency, his rhetoric on race and identity, it's wandered dangerously close to that of white supremacist. Talia says white supremacists do like a lot of what he says, but they also dislike a lot of what he does. And the relationship between Trump and white supremacy, well, it is more complicated than you think.
LAVIN: In 2016, I mean, his campaign and his victory were just these enormous shots of adrenaline to the movement in ways that really can't be overstated. I mean, just massive new recruitment, new groups springing up overnight. And then there has been significant disillusionment from specifically sort of the most hardcore white power guys over the last few years with electoralism in general, with Trump in particular, because he surrounded himself with Jews, you see.
I know it sounds horrible to say these things. It's - but this has been my life for the last two years, is just, like, studying this stuff.
LAVIN: I would say the - just as Trump has formed the Republican Party in his image in very real ways, the reverse is also true. Like, one of the funnier moments that I was sort of chronicling for the book was when Brad Griffin, the sort of chief propagandist for the neo-Confederate League of the South, wrote this, like, super pissed-off blog post around the 2018 midterms, being like Trump is campaigning on white nationalism, but, like, he's not really doing anything about it.
LAVIN: So he was so mad. Like, he's like, they're taking our thing. They're taking our shtick, but they're not doing anything about it.
LAVIN: But it was just - but it was, like, the white nationalists...
SANDERS: Well, yeah.
LAVIN: ...Were, like, openly being like, yes, he's campaigning on white nationalism. This is, like, the...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
LAVIN: This is what he's appealing to.
SANDERS: Yeah. One of the things you write about in the book is how, contrary to what some on the left might think, this white supremacist boom, it's actually bigger than Trump. And in some ways, it's quite fundamentally opposed to Trump and the Republican Party. You've already mentioned that a lot of white supremacists don't like the fact that Jewish people work in Trump's White House. But also, a lot of white supremacist ideology is a resentment of capitalism and resentment of corporations and anger at things like Trump's support for Israel, right? Like, why don't more people know that (laughter) there are these distinctions?
LAVIN: Well, I think the white power movement, the extremist right, like, it has a lot of different tranches and subdivisions. And, like, I think it's very tempting for a lot of people to want to just flatten it and say, they're all, like, [expletive] Nazis. Like, the militia movement is very pro-Trump, you know, very - they talk about Constitution, patriot, liberty, American eagle. You know, we'll shoot anyone because we're - basically, like, we view ourselves as the real police in America.
But the white power guys that I looked into - and I was specifically looking into sort of white power on the Internet and these specific sort of accelerationist communities, people who very openly embraced Hitler and Nazism. And they did have, yes, substantial differences with the Republican Party, like the support of Israel, the support of Jews. Like, anti-Semitism was a huge dividing point.
SANDERS: So much of Talia's research for her book involved her being in the story personally, living in those chatrooms online, taking on different personas to go in deep and, ultimately, showing up in white supremacist spaces herself. Reading the book, I kept worrying about her. So my last question to Talia, it wasn't about anti-Semitism or white supremacy, it was about her.
Reading the book, I just kept saying, oh, my goodness. How much has she been through? Is she experiencing PTSD from this? Like, are you mentally, emotionally all right? Be honest.
LAVIN: (Laughter) I mean, I started collecting swords during the writing of the book. I have about six now.
SANDERS: Man, OK. OK.
LAVIN: Like, the FBI has been to my house to tell me there are death threats and rape threats against me. It's, like...
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.
LAVIN: ...Sometimes rough. But my feeling is that I am still angrier than I am scared and more determined than I am angry. Like, if I had to decide, knowing what it did to me, to write this book again, like, I would. You know, I think this is a really important movement to expose and to understand just because they want to think of themselves as bogeymen who can scare you. Like, they don't get to take away my right to talk. (Laughter) They don't get to take away my right to explain who the hell they are. You know, this is going to be around for a long time (laughter).
LAVIN: And we need people in the fight.
SANDERS: For people who are hearing this chat who think this is maybe just a phase and that this crazy groundswell of white racism will die down - and a lot of them will say, you know, you have to ignore it because if you pay too much attention to it, you grant these people legitimacy and airtime - what would you say to them?
LAVIN: It's a careful line to walk. And I've seen examples of journalism that felt more like glorification than edification. I think that what I tried to do was to, like, keep it 100 with people, like just say, from the start, I think this is a movement that is evil and needs to be defeated, and that tracing their ideology and its motivations is an empowering means to do that because you have to understand your enemy. You have to understand where they're coming from and what they believe and what they want in order to better combat them. And that's the goal of the book.
You know, it's - I tried not to sensationalize but to map patterns of radicalization and how people get there. Some of it winds up being sensational just because it's a really [expletive] weird subculture with a lot of, like, bizarreness and a lot of florid violence. But I think I avoided glorifying them and more just showed them as, like, the crude, repulsive, very human and very ugly Movementarians they are. And again, like, the goal is just to really - by the end of the book, I want you up in arms. And I sort of give people a little path towards how to do it.
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SANDERS: Thanks again to Talia Lavin. Her book "Culture Warlords" is out now.
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SANDERS: This episode was produced by Andrea Gutierrez. It was edited by Jordana Hochman. Listeners, we are back in your feeds on Friday. Until then, stay safe. Take care of yourself. All right. Until next time, I am Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.
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