Notes on the Culture of Hate
How do we fight a movement that spreads as irresistibly as a story?
Happy first day of Summer, and welcome back to the Sword and the Sandwich. This week, Talia is in Europe, celebrating the Spanish translation of Culture Warlords, or La Cultura del Odio. To mark the occasion, Talia was invited to Barcelona to discuss her journey through the dark web of white supremacy, a speech she’ll be delivering (in Spanish!) on June 22. For this week’s column, we hope you’ll enjoy the English version of the address. Tomorrow, we’ll be publishing the Spanish translation, and on Friday we’ll be back to our normal publishing schedule.
It is a dream and an honor to be here in Barcelona, speaking about my book and my work. Of course, in the process of translation, some things are lost, and some things are gained. Jorge Luis Borges talks about “the interpolations of every book in all books,” the way languages reveal and conceal in equal measure, and how a translation can sometimes be superior to its original. I have been extremely lucky to work with Capitán Swing and with my book’s translator, Íñigo García Ureta, to give it an entirely new life, in a more musical language than my own, less weighed down by Germanic roots, and manic theft of every piece of vocabulary it encounters. To see the book I worked so hard on interpreted anew in a new language, spoken about—even read aloud in a language I myself do not speak—seems like a quiet miracle, a miracle of paper and ink, that my anger and my longing for a better world could make it to this far shore.
I had a hard time writing this speech, a little overawed by this company, by the fact that I, a humble little Jewish girl from New Jersey with a bad haircut, would be allowed to give a speech in beautiful and ancient and glamorous Barcelona. But I realize now that it is the extremity of the time in which we live that drew me here, not any augustness of my personage. I wrote a book about what fascism—what eliminationist, genocidal sentiment —looks like in the twenty-first century. And while there are, of course, many differences in the ways it manifests in my country versus here in Spain, there are similarities as well. There are core emotional truths that persist and allow fascism to replicate, whether under the banner of the Vox party or the Republican Party, the latter-day Francoists or the swastika-clad murderers who stalk mosques and Black churches and synagogues on every continent. And it is those that I can begin to speak to, knowledge hard won through travels in the dark.
I began my book with a quote from a Spanish anti-fascist—Dolores Ibárruri, “La Passionaria,” that humble coal miner’s daughter who rose alongside her fists to fight the peril she saw all around her. Her chant, ¡No Pasarán!, is spoken with reverence and fury by antifascists in my country as well, the chorus of those willing to put their bodies in the way of fascism, sacrifice their limbs, or even their freedom, to save what can be saved from its advance.
The second epigraph was another quote, also about Spain, from the famous anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman, about the legions who gathered to fight in the Spanish Civil War: “They were as one in their grief and in their determination to continue the struggle against fascism…” Being in Barcelona, which served as frontline and recruiting ground of that war, I think, too, of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and his account of the doomed ardor of that fight, the way he wrote: “I used to think of the recruiting poster in Barcelona which demanded accusingly of passers-by: ‘What have you done for democracy?’ and feel that I could only answer: ‘I have drawn my rations.’ When I joined the militia I had promised myself to kill one Fascist.”
I speak to you now in a different time, one with just as much cruelty but with less cavalry, where lies that spread instantly and laws that punish those who differ do much of the work that bullets once did. And the threat of bullets hangs over us all like a miasma, sitting as it does at the very core of fascism, nurtured tenderly by a movement that loves violence like a mother, a father, a son, the poisonous and only child of this movement that would see me dead for who I was born, would see all opposition dead, would see anyone with the wrong skin or the wrong love hung in the town square, as is their carefully cultivated fantasy. I have spent a long time soaking in violence of their rhetoric, enough to know beyond a doubt that this is their goal. And, living in my own country, I have watched that violence seep, like acid, closer and closer to the center of power, destroying the rights of trans people, women, gay people—a Procrustean bed fitting all into carefully laid-out molds of gender, religion, race, and discarding like lopped-off limbs those who do not fit. It is a pitiless march forward, spreading across the world, and there is no safety on either side of the big cold sea.
When I initially spoke to reporters after Culture Warlords had been translated, many asked me variations on the same question—questions about my country. About where hate comes from. As if it were some mystery, totally unknown to Spanish life, an American curiosity, like hot dogs or machine gun massacres in shopping malls. I am not a nice person, I am a rude little Jew, and so I responded: you are speaking to me from a country that kicked out my people long ago, by threat of death, or forced them to convert. A country that drove Muslims from its shores, and turned their mosques into tourist attractions. Even the beautiful jamón serrano I have sampled with pleasure in ensuing years has its own dark history: in the centuries following the Inquisition, to hang a ham in your window was a sign you were not a Jew, not a Muslim, but a faithful Christian, and thus to be spared from the wolves of persecution.
And all this is only within Iberia. How much death—how much suffering, how much horror—was imported from this land to my own continent, under the banner of greed, and with the blessing of a cruel conquistador Christ? So who are you to ask me where hate comes from? Does it not come from here, too? Yes, we Americans embrace our hate, broadcast it on the airwaves, let it shape our laws; we embrace genocidal sentiment with the flamboyance and crudity for which we are famous. But it is everywhere. And it is here, too, if not in this room, then close by, the way your shadow moves with you and distorts your steps.
Where does hate come from? How does it rise up so clearly on this shore and the next, and across other seas, inspiring massacres, giving rise to torments, the fuel of the strike and the sneer?
One of the things I explained over and over when speaking about this book was a kind of disassembly: for my research, I spent a year diving into the murky pools of fascist chat rooms, listening to what the foot soldiers of hate had to say. And I learned that it is not only the poor and the ignorant and the uneducated who fall prey to the siren song of hate. Often there was an explicit image in the minds of my audiences: a poor man, toothless, living in his mother’s basement, hating the world because the world had given him nothing. But that is not the truth of it. There were prosperous men, with wives, and jobs, and big complex lives, who gladly take part in spreading the machinery of genocide. There are women who advertise it as a glamorous lifestyle, businessmen who fund hate groups through shell companies, buoying the creatures of hate with the proceeds of their car dealerships or orchards or trading fortunes. There is no neighborhood, no fancy school, no amount of physical comfort that can keep it at bay; there is no guarantee that it is not among your families and those you know. Because hate is like any other human endeavor. It is built on emotions, and built on stories, and those have no borders at all.
When I say hate is built on stories and emotions, I mean that organized hate movements—like neo-Nazism, ultranationalism, fascism, militia groups, far-right conspiracy communities and all the other disgusting flavors of hate—are clever in the way they reach out to their recruits, with a caustic mixture of animal cunning and pilfered and distorted history. The two keys to the doors of fascism are both forged from the metal of human nature: our emotions, and our desire for stories to shape our lives.
What are the things that draw people to fascism? They are things we all feel, universal elements of the human experience. Loneliness. The desire for purpose. The need to feel strong. The longing to belong to something bigger. To serve a greater cause. The urge to see the world more clearly, changed from a place of chaos into one where good and evil are clear, and the mission to flush out evil is clearer still. Who among us has not lain awake at night feeling lonely and unmoored, and wondering what direction our lives should take? Who among us has not felt, in our confusion, a desire for a cause? These are the answers fascists feel ready to supply. It echoes in their manifestos, in their chats to one another, in the endlessly reverberating echo chamber of false certainty they supply, to willing recruits and to stoke the militancy of their soldiers.
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The world is degenerate and broken, ruled by a cabal of the corrupt and the evil. Homosexuality, gender transition, feminism, religious pluralism, antiracism, the Jews who control it all—these are the enemies of the white race, the pure race that by nature and design must rule all. And by any means—from bombs to politics, propaganda to massacre—the corrupted world must be torn down, and a new one planted in its ashes. This is the message passed along on message boards and chat rooms and in the lofty words of murderers left behind along with their spent bullets.
What is the world the fascists imagine, rising like a new Jerusalem from the destruction they have hastened along? A world where white women are absolutely subservient, chaste brood mares for the Caucasian race, their wombs swollen with promise. Where all the Jews are dead. Where people of color are dead or subservient or siphoned away to inferior lands where they are kept separate. Where any deviation from heterosexuality, from the norms of subservient femininity and ascendant violent masculinity, is punishable by death. Where God is pressed into the service of whiteness. This is their new Eden, a poisoned garden, and there are those—in the legislature of my country, in the states of my country—who are ready to usher it into being, who work to do so every day.
There are young men listening to the song of this new Eden who are, even now, readying their arsenals to strike, being coaxed and jostled into the courage to kill and die for paradise by their comrades sitting at computer screens. The world they want is not sufficiently far away, and for every murderer there are a thousand sympathizers, ten thousand sympathizers, who may condemn violent deaths in one moment and sign laws that will create lifetimes of half-death, of misery, in the next.
It seems strangely fitting to be sitting here and talking about this Europe, in Spain, because this land and this continent are the locus of the other great tool of fascism, which is story, false history. I have encountered many fascists who hold up Europe as a dream—the birthplace of the white race, the promised homeland, now made corrupt by immigration and by evil Jews who have encouraged feminism, homosexuality, gender nonconformity. They view Europe as the Avalon of Arthurian legend, once a place of pure white bravery, of warrior-kings and knights who rode out to slay Muslim barbarians in the name of Christ. And like Avalon it has vanished into the mists—in this case, the smoggy miasma of corruption.
Many fascists wear the colors and symbols of Crusaders. Many fascists adopt the dream of a Medieval era that never truly was, except in the distortions of pop culture and high fantasy books and bad scholarship—dreaming of a pure white homeland restored, of themselves as the heirs to these holy warriors. They trade stories of blood libels against Jews—like the story of Simon of Trent, a boy whose death was blamed on a Jewish plot to consume the blood of Christian children in the eleventh century, and whose name I have seen referenced, now, in two separate murderers’ manifestos.
There are also those who cast aside Jesus, because he was a Jew—too antisemitic even to be Christian, despite the legions of Jews murdered in his name. They imagine themselves heirs of the Vikings, and worship Norse gods, calling it a white indigenous religion, wearing its symbols, their prayer the desire for the dominion of the white race. In Eastern Europe, they adopt the old Slavic myths—Chernobog and Bielobog—but the goal of their worship is the same. This twisted history serves the same purpose: to cast themselves as the heirs of an ancient heritage, of whiteness long before whiteness became a racial category, or racial categories were created as we know them now. Like any nationalism, white nationalism relies on myth to propel it forward, cleansed of any inconvenient truths, the more ancient the myths the better. In their endless fight for a poisoned Eden, they imagine themselves reincarnations of the warriors that came before them, that trod this very ground a thousand years ago, the blood of many centuries in their veins.
So how do we fight a movement that spreads as irresistibly as feeling, as story? These soul-deep human desires it feeds on, preying on the lonely and the cruel, the lost and the zealous?
We have to create an Eden of our own. With our own hands, tend a garden, protect its borders with a flaming sword of our own, as the angels did once. A garden where all are free to love how they will, to present as any gender they desire, where women are free, truly free, freer than they have ever been. An Eden where any God can be worshiped. Where the only thing forbidden is hatred. It is so far from our world as it is now—so riven with hate and fear—that one almost despairs to imagine it. But only through the fierce courage of imagination can it be defended. Only by creating our own stories, stories that hum in the blood with urgency, can we fuel a fight whose stakes are our bodies and our freedom, our very lives.
I hope, with your hands and mine, to break the soil on our own Eden, to defend it with my life if necessary. Our weapons are art, are story, are journalism, are true history—and the clash in the street, the interpolation of our own bodies between their targets and the foe. All the skills you possess are needed—even the ones you don’t think of as martial. They, too, are necessary, to build and bulwark and defend the world against this tide of hate. I am honored to be here across the sea from my home to spread this word, because it needs must be spread as far as there are ears to hear, and eyes to see. Thank you.
Such a powerful speech. I am sure it will be well received in Barcelona.