An Interview with Talia Lavin
Talia Lavin '12 is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She has worked at the New Yorker, the Huffington Post and Media Matters, and written for the New Republic, the Nation, and the New York Times Review of Books, among other publications. Though Lavin first encountered the world of the far-right while fact-checking stories for the New Yorker, it was not until the the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, in 2017, that she began to publish her own coverage of the movement. "It was sort of a seismic national moment," she recalls, "and my experience of it was as a Jew, watching these anti-Semitic chants, and the horror of that." She published her first feature on the far-right shortly thereafter; her subsequent work has focused mostly on investigating and unraveling the mechanics of reactionary forces in the United States. She will publish a book on the subject, Culture Warlords, with Hachette Books in October. Lavin spoke with Advocate Publisher Eliya Smith '20 by phone in early January. This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.
EOS: In "Age of Anxiety," which you wrote almost a year ago, you had this great quote: "the state of the union, it seems, is scared as hell." Is fear still the predominating emotion in the United States, or do you feel like it's morphed into something else?
TL: I think we are still definitely a nation led by fear. I think the predominant emotion that nationalists like Trump prey on is fear. And propaganda outlets like Fox quite actively stoke it. People on the other side of the spectrum are also feeling a great deal of fear. Fear towards the environment, fear of war --- just a whole lot of terror in this world. And fear, as I am learning from my own experiences with panic disorder, can be really powerful. The answer isn't necessarily to tell people to calm down; I don't think the rational response to the world right now is to be calm. I do think there is a way of sort of cooling your fear, acknowledging that things are valid and you're right, but you need to be part of the world, and to fix things as best you can.
EOS: You spend so much time researching and steeping yourself in these things that I assume are really hard to encounter. On a personal level, how do you deal with that? What kind of steps you take to insulate yourself emotionally, if that's even possible?
TL: I make sure that I'm in community with people. I have a pretty robust group of people who are either reporters or activists who deal with this stuff on a regular basis. And that really helps, just in terms of talking to people who understand. If I say, "ugh, this particular hate meme that I've seen crop up on Telegram is bothering me today," they won't be like, "well, why are you exposing yourself to that stuff?" They get it.
Everyone who covers the far right --- men and women, although for sure women have it worse --- has experienced harassment, and stress, and the horror of being exposed to that kind of propaganda day in and day out. Especially as a Jew, it becomes pretty weird. Like when I was researching my book this past year, just to spend every day really immersed in anti-Semitic propaganda, it was disturbing and sometimes surreal. And then you wind up sounding like an absolute crazy person as parties, because the stuff that's on the top of your head is like, absolutely so far from --- even in the Trump era --- the stuff that people talk about on the regular. But it's just the stuff that's in your head.
EOS: Do you find it fulfilling? I'm wondering how you motivate yourself to keep working on these projects, which I'm sure can be really painful.
TL: I think that it's a very tumultuous time in history to be living through. And sometimes I think about what I would like to tell my children, should I have any, what I was doing during this time, and to be able to say that I was recording and sometimes just actively fighting the growing fascist movement in my country. It sounds cheesy, but that's something that gets me through the day. And the other thing is, again, being in community, having these comrades, and knowing that I'm working with other people who are facing the same pains, and even far worse situations in terms of threats, and who are continuing undaunted, is a motivator.
For anyone who is considering doing this kind of work, I think the most important thing to say is: don't be a lone cowboy. I think there can be kind of a machismo in the world of journalism. Practically, it's super helpful to have comrades who I can talk to. But then also just to have people who get it when you say, "hey, today's hard, I need a pep talk," or whatever. Being a lone cowboy is just not the way to do this work, 'cause you're gonna burn out really quickly.
EOS: Do you find hopeful takeaways the more you dig? Are there reasons to feel like the escalation of the far-right might be turned around?
TL: I have to say that I don't have an easy-pat answer to that. I think if you look at the landscape of the world, the reactionary forces are ascendant. And winning. If you look at just the absolute smoldering tire-fire that is the world right now, it's really hard to come to other conclusions. So I do think that we have to face that we're in sort of a long, dark night of the forces of reaction.
I will say that the people that give me hope, and the people that I talked to for my book that gave me a sense that there were people in the trenches fighting, were anti-fascists. And I, over the course of the past year or two, I have become someone who identifies as an anti-fascist. I know that term can be loaded, largely because of a really sort of dumb, inaccurate, reactionary media, and also because of the sort of instinctual desire of a lot of people in the center left have to see themselves as sort of virtuous, clean. But this is a dirty fight. The people who give me hope, or the people that I look to emulate or that I think are doing effective work in countering the rise of hate are people who are going through and looking at these chats, people who are infiltrating these groups.
I think we're at a point where the current administration is actively complicit in white supremacy and white nationalism, so you can't hope for top-down social censure. I think that whatever hope comes in countering hate groups is making sure that hate has a social cost, and that's on all of us. As someone with panic disorder, I'm not a frontline kinda gal. I don't do crowds. But I can do a lot of things at my keyboard. So can you.
EOS: So in terms of... angle? I guess that would be the topic of this question. I feel like we're all sort of fed up with the 'this article is going to nuance the far-right' type of profile that we keep seeing. How do you write about, or how do you even approach thinking about the far-right in a way that yields insight but doesn't fall into that trap?
TL: I do think it's important to look at the causes and mechanisms of radicalization. So I think, for example, Kevin Roose at the New York Times has done some good work on that, looking at people's YouTube histories, for example. I think that's important.
For me, the tug is not so much between how do I not write lush, flattering profiles of these gaping assholes but rather, how do I balance the fact that I feel a great deal of academic interest in this, versus always keeping the human toll of hate in the foreground. I think it's sort of inherently easier for me, because I'm the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and so the consequences of, say, violent anti-Semitism are never super far from my mind. I think that I have some inherent advantages on that front --- my maternal family was really marinated in PTSD from what the Holocaust had done, and so my instinct has never been to valorize --- or even treat as cagey or funny --- any figures, no matter how ridiculous they can be.
The challenge [is] making sure your coverage reflects the real potential human toll of radicalization. And I think the way that I do that is just by keeping it in close communication with my own anger; making sure that my anger never gets dialed down or muted. You have to stay angry if you're going to write well about the far-right.
EOS: I was going to ask you a question about how you feel like your Jewishness informs the work that you do, the stakes of reporting on people who so explicitly direct their hatred toward you, but I feel like you maybe just answered it.
TL: I think it's really easy if you are not a target of hate --- whether that comes in the form of violent misogyny or anti-Semitism, anti-blackness --- it's easy to start treating this as an intellectual exercise. Or, you know, even foregrounding the humanity of these young men, rather than always keeping your eye on the prize, which is that they are merchants of hate.
The truth is, it's so easy to try to otherise people who are in hate groups and say, they're poor, they're dumb, they must be toothless and living in a trailer. No. The truth is, some of them are just as well-educated as you or me. It's much more about trying to find a sense of belonging and purpose and meaning --- that's often the galvanizing force for why people join hate groups. And any human being can fall prey to the desire for belonging and the desire to feel like they mean something.
I mean, no one wants to hear about the Nazi next door, but I think that it is important not to otherize, to say, "that could never be me, that could never be anyone I know, because I'm smarter, because I'm better." The truth is that hate groups prey on really universal thoughts. It's just like, "I'm lonely, and what does my life mean?" And then people come in with really easy, ready-made answers, like "it's the Jews," "it's the immigrants," "Jews bringing in the immigrants." "Here's this book, read some history. Have you checked out Protocols of the Elders of Zion?"
It is a weird thing to argue, to be like, 'don't otherize them.' But don't assume that no one you know could fall prey to this stuff, or that it's just a totally alien thing, when really, the things that drive people to hate are the same things that can drive people to do really laudable stuff: wanting to belong, wanting to change the world, wanting to make a difference. And hate groups can and do prey on those sentiments. Quite effectively.