This is a classic, but one thing from Pirke Avot, Chapters of the Fathers, is this passage: ‘It is not your duty to complete the work…’” quoted Talia Lavin.
“Nor are you free to desist from it,” completed an audience member.
Lavin, a Jewish journalist and author who researches white supremacy, spoke on Feb. 22 at the Mayerson Jewish Community Center for an event titled “Exploring Extremism: A Conversation with Talia Lavin.”
Her book, “Culture Warlords,” details Lavin’s experiences going undercover to research and expose the presence of right-wing political extremists online.
The event was organized by Action Tank, a local civic engagement organization, and served as a kickoff for their “Preventing Political Extremism Project.”
The project will create a guide for residents to identify and respond to local extremism and is supported by a Reflect Cincy grant from the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. (Cincy Jewfolk is a recipient of Reflect Cincy funding.)
Action Tank was founded in January 2019 to provide policy research and ideas for action to Cincinnatians who wanted to be more politically involved. They support civic engagement with resources for residents to work on local historic preservation, manage neighborhood investment, and understand the overturning of federal abortion protections.
Lavin’s audience was able to help develop Action Tank’s guide to preventing political extremism, which will be released later this summer. In addition to listening to Lavin speak, attendees were given a survey on political extremism to fill out both before and after the event.
After Lavin’s talk, attendees spent time reflecting on some of the survey questions, which asked questions such as, “How does political extremism affect your daily life?”
The conversation with Lavin was moderated by Kevin Aldridge, opinion editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer. The event was a hybrid presentation: the audience was in-person and virtual, the moderator and Action Tank were present with the live audience, and Lavin joined via Zoom.
Unique for the live audience was the addition of illustrated notes, taken by artist Brandon Black of Drawnversation. Black provides “graphic facilitation,” highlighting the critical parts of an event or conversion with engaging, hand-drawn illustrations and quotes that he finds of note.
During her talk, Lavin detailed some of her experiences spending time in Stormfront’s neo-Nazi message boards, chatting with white supremacists on the web and even catfishing on an extremist dating website. At times funny, at times frightening, Lavin ultimately had one clear message:
“Don’t underestimate your opponent,” Lavin said.
In many ways, white supremacists, she wanted the audience to know, are “people like you and me.”
Lavin was inspired to write her book following the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, NC, in 2017. Up to that point, Lavin said, she was blissfully unaware of precisely how widespread the issues of antisemitism and white supremacy were in the US.
There’s a familiar American story, she said, where “people like me who grew up in the 80s and 90s really felt this sense of security and comfort.” It’s the sort of American success story where her grandparents were Holocaust survivors, but their grandkids were able to attend Harvard.
But when she took her first job as an intern with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Lavin was tasked with moderating the online comments on stories. Much of the traffic “came from Nazi websites like Stormfront,” she said, where the users might share an interest with the JTA readers in “which celebrities were Jewish, just for very different reasons.”
Then came Charlottesville.
“I think the [Charlottesville] rally and those chants of ‘Jews will not replace us’ really jolted me out of whatever remaining complacency I had,” she said. From there on out, Lavin made studying the American far right her primary focus.
Extremism, she notes, is not only a more present force than she realized, but it is also a growing force in American life, she said. Distilling her work, Lavin had two primary insights to share with her audience.
The first is that “it is very easy to think ‘I’m totally immune to this kind of propaganda,’ but the truth is that any of us, no matter who we are, if the right pitch reaches us at the right time…all of us are subject to propaganda,” Lavin said
Everyone has a “psychological need to feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, to have a community, and to have a purpose – and white supremacist groups play very effectively” on these needs, she said.
They find those who feel alienated and dissatisfied, who “lack a sense of purpose, feel that they lack a strong community,” and prey on such people to recruit their membership.
The second insight Lavin called “The Cletus fallacy,” after the character “Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel” from the popular cartoon, The Simpsons. “It’s the idea that every white supremacist… is some ignorant hick from the southeast who lives in his mother’s basement and doesn’t have all his teeth.”
The audience laughed, but this, Lavin said, is a warning. To fall for this fallacy is to “underestimate your foe,” she said.
Lavin emphasized that extremism can be seen all across the United States, from all levels of education and in all income brackets. “It doesn’t matter what your zip code is, it doesn’t matter what your IQ is, it doesn’t even matter what your socio-economic or educational demographic is…this propaganda can be fit and tooled” to appeal to anyone, she said.
Despite the challenge, Lavin also focused on how audience members can address this kind of ever-pervasive extremism.
She encouraged attendees to take a “strong anti-fascist stance,” decrying the negative connotation that has been haunting the anti-fascist movement. If you can, she said, you should physically go protest and be ready to fight white supremacists and say, “not here, not in my town.”
But, she acknowledged, this might not be realistic for many, or even most. People may have families and children they worry about. Lavin’s own family received threats after her book was published. Lavin herself admitted she’s not really built to be “a street operative,” but people should note the strengths they do have, she said.
“Don’t stop there and say, ‘OK, well then I can’t contribute,’ because that’s not the case,” she said.
Lavin, for instance, fought the only way she knew how: “I can write. I can research and monitor. I have skills that are relevant to anti-fascism… the same is likely true of everyone in this room.
“You are a writer [or] you are a communicator. You are someone that can show up to a school board meeting when there’s anti-trans propositions or book bans on the line,” she said. “You will see someone posting something horribly racist on your Nextdoor, [and] you can maybe oppose them.”
It may seem like a big fight, but she told the audience to “go out there and live anti-fascist lives” in any way they can. “Because,” she said, “You are needed.”