Writer Tal Lavin's latest project tackles the rise of the far-right... and sandwiches. [podcast + transcript]
Swords & Sandwiches is an exciting newsletter you should subscribe to ASAP.
Parker Molloy: So you've been writing this awesome newsletter over on Substack, called The Sword and the Sandwich. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Tal Lavin: Yeah, so I launched, actually, this month, October 4th, and it's a really odd... It is an odd mix. Like, I recognize it's an odd mix. The sword is first of all, because I own a bunch of swords, and love them, but also, it sort of symbolizes like I'm writing about the American right and far-right, and then the sandwiches are very literal. Like, for a really long time, I have been obsessed with Wikipedia's list of notable sandwiches, which has hundreds of sandwiches on it, from all over the world, and I have wanted to address this in some systematic way. I love projects that have structure that I can fuck around within, like a sonnet.
So the premise is I'm going through every sandwich on that list. It's very arbitrary, you know? Obviously a Wikipedia thing, so it's... But I'm treating it almost like a sacred text, and then going through it and writing essays, or interviews, or recipes, or stories about each sandwich. We've covered the American hero, the bacon sandwich, and bacon, egg, and cheese, and now this week, we're on to bagels, which is exciting for me, so yeah, this week's content is harrowing tales of child abuse and bagels.
That's just such an interesting combo. And just to be... Like, those are separate posts. They're not-
Oh, yeah, it's not-
They're not one in the same.
Yeah, so it's like Monday is the shit that will horrify you, and then Friday, we're riding into the weekend-
-is the stuff about the American right.
No, Friday is the-
No, I really aim not to traumatize anyone with my sandwich posts. These are nonviolent sandwiches. It's like I need the break, psychically. Maybe readers do too. Sometimes, it's really hard to shift moods, when... Like, the current series is about corporal punishment in evangelical households, and the sort of ways it impacts people as adults. So it's really hard for me sometimes, to switch modes. I almost resent it. I'm like, "Ugh, now I have to write about bagels," but then I spend an hour researching and writing about bagels, and I feel better, and then dive back into hell.
Yeah. Well, as you mentioned, you published the first of a three-part series on corporal punishment, evangelicals, and the "doctrine of obedience," as you write in the piece. I found it fascinating because I honestly didn't... I've never really thought about the history involved in all of that. I'm used to people on Twitter being like, "I don't think it's wrong to hit kids. I got hit, and I'm fine," and then you look at them, and you're like... They're not fine.
No, it's like, "Oh, you think you're fine. But are any of us, really?"
I'm definitely not.
I'm so not fine, and I wasn't raised evangelical. I'm a Jew, and I'm a childless Jew even, so it's not... I can keep some distance from the material. Well, obviously so many people shared their pain with me for this series, lots of different facets of their pain, their stories, how they're coming to terms with it, how they're healing, and to me, not to be melodramatic, but it felt like, "Oh, this is why I became a journalist," and like, I have to hold this pain gently, and treat it well, and treat it as the sacred trust it is. I mean, I don't believe in any god, but whatever. Sometimes I think of things as holy or sacred, as just a stronger word for like really important. Feels necessary.
I've been astounded at the response. I mean, I tried to... I have a tic about historical research. Like, almost every piece I've ever written has some element of history in it. I also dove a ton into primary sources for this piece, which in this case was Christian parenting guides, of which I read big swaths or the entirety of like three or four books, and then tons of people's testimony about how these doctrines affected them.
And then, I looked at what's the historical context? Like, why did all these books start getting written in the '70s and updated in the '90s? I mean, corporal punishment obviously has been around forever, but like, corporal punishment as sort of a political necessity and as a theological doctrine really arose as like... and the evidence is pretty clear, in the books themselves, and also in like the historical record, that they arose as basically a backlash, both to the work of Dr. Spock, who wrote Baby and Child Care, and he was super popular, and everyone loved him, and he was also an antiwar activist in his later years, and got arrested protesting Vietnam. And he said don't hit your kids, right?
It's hard to overstate how much these authors hate Dr. Spock. Like, they hate him. They think he sucks, and he's the reason everything's wrong, but anyway, you have this Dr. Spock influence telling you not to hit your kids, and then essentially what these books posit, or what they feel they're reacting to is like, a lot of the movements in the '60s were student-led. The antiwar movement, the gay rights movement was a youth-led thing in many cases, or perceived as a youth-led movement, the feminist movement was really led by young women, and the sort of curative, the corrective force is writing these books.
James Dobson, of Focus on the Family fame, his first book was called Dare to Discipline, like he's like, "We're fighting against this godless heathens that tell us not to hit our kids." So basically, they're saying chaos and social disorder starts in the home, and you have to hit your kids to get them in line.
I cannot wait to read the second and third piece of this, because the first one is great. It really starts to get into Dobson, and The Pearls, and all of that stuff, and the responses have been heartbreaking, that I've seen from people, where they are talking about how it affected them on a personal level, and on one hand, it's amazing that the story has resonated with that many people, and that that's clearly captured what they're feeling and what they're going through, and I mean, that's just you being a great writer, and interviewer, and researcher. I mean, beyond that, it's just so profoundly sad that there are so many people in this world who have been hurt in that sort of way. They haven't felt able to express these ideas themselves, for fear of backlash or for fear of coming off as weak. That was another thing that I saw in some of the replies here, but-
Or because they were taught that it was holy, that it was ordained by God, and a lot of the people, the people who spoke to me, have left evangelicalism. There's a process, it's like a very common term, and sort of ex-evangelicals. Basically, it's just calling it deconstruction, sort of tearing down the doctrines you were raised up with and figuring out a new way forward, and I really applaud people who are doing that work. It's very difficult. It's very painful.
My Substack's really new. Like, I have 3,000 subscribers. It's small. The post, as of now, it's been out for less than two days, and it's gotten 50,000 views almost. I think to me, that's just an indicator of how it resonates, how people... I mean, first of all, I think there are a lot of outsiders who are sort of horrified, and then there are a lot of people who are like, "This was my childhood. I've never heard it discussed this way. I've never connected these dots." And the heartbreaking thing is like people are so grateful, grateful, that someone cares, anyone, about what happened to them. Generations of kids, generations. Like, the people who talked to me ranged from 22 to 65. It's very much a live issue, and it's still happening, although spanking is, thankfully...
I hate the term spanking, actually, because spanking, I think has a lovely place in kink, but when you're talking about it in child-rearing, you are talking about hitting kids, so I've actually sort of very consciously, in my public speech about this stuff, stopped using that term, because it feels like a euphemism to me. You're talking about hitting children with the intent of causing pain.
That's exactly it. I made the mistake of not writing down any questions, because I was like, "I know you. We're going to just-"
We're just going to vibe about-
Yeah, and it's like, "Oh, man. This is so dark and hard," you know? But that's what I love about your writing. You wrote this amazing book, Culture Warlords.
And yeah, it was about basically me fucking immersing myself in online Nazi life for like 18 months, and it was hard. It was a hard thing to do, as a Jew, as a person, who doesn't like seeing clips of murders on my phone all the time, presented as just and right. But I guess yeah, my beat is like looking into darkness and coming back out with a report.
It feels weird to be like, "You're so good at this," you know? This thing that involves hate, and darkness, and pain, but your book was my favorite book of last year, and it's one of those books that I recommend to anyone who's at all curious about what's happening in the world, because I don't think you could talk about any current event without talking about how so much of our lives is affected by the far right, and white supremacist groups, and antisemitic people, and it's really kind of scary how much all of that overlaps, you know? You have the white supremacist groups.
They tend to overlap in their beliefs with a lot of the evangelical groups, which tend to overlap with a lot of the anti-LGBTQ groups, these sorts of things where there's a very powerful and strong coalition of people that, I don't know, they just make the world a worse place by what they do and what they say, not by existing. I mean, I'm all for people existing. I want to make that clear, but I think that their actions and what they do just makes things so much harder. Is there anything in going into writing that, or in just your work generally, that surprised you? Were there any ideas that you had, that you had to challenge and rethink along the process?
Well, so one of the big... How do I put this? Okay. I will answer your question after, but this is something that... Culture Warlords was my first book. I had never written one before, and it has some first book syndrome, which is like I put too much of myself in it, you know? Where it at points bordered on the memoiristic in ways that I now look back on with a little bit of regret, just in the sense that it feels a bit self-indulgent sometimes, like we didn't need a chapter on my childhood.
The other major regret I have is not including... I did address transphobia in these contexts. I didn't address it as much as it deserved. Like, it should have had its own chapter, and I'm working on a second book right now, called Lone Wolves Run in Packs, which is about sort of debunking the sort of Lone Wolf theorem that people radicalize in isolation, that sort of white supremacist terror arises because individuals make choices. It's much more about the communities that these kinds of extremism arise from.
And I know transphobia is going to be at the center of a lot of what I write, because it is, at the moment, as Judith Butler very eloquently articulated recently in The Guardian, at the forefront and center of all of these rising fascist movements. And I mean, it is all interconnected. Like, that's what makes it sort of endlessly fascinating and sometimes a bit overwhelming, is like you don't know when to stop researching.
For example, part two of this series is about basically how child corporal punishment affects romantic relationships in the future. Essentially, it's like if you grow up in an environment where you're told... where you accept pain as your due, and specifically in an environment where God is invoked constantly, your sinful nature is evoked constantly, and one of the more terrifying aspects of this whole Christian corporal punishment thing is like, there's a very strong recommendation in all of these parenting books. It's like, "After your kid gets spanked, first of all, if they cry too much from spanking, they're trying to manipulate you, so spank them again. And then also, like hold them, and tell them you love them, and explain, like whisper to them gently about obedience."
It's creepy as fuck, to me, but it also is like, this is trauma bonding. Trauma bonding is a concept in psychology. It's a big way of how abusive relationships work, where basically, you're traumatized by someone. They hit you, they belittle you, whatever, and then they make up with you afterwards, and hold you, and comfort you from the trauma that they inflicted. So, these parental doctrines are essentially... And they're not unique to evangelicalism. I think the unique part here is that sort of theologically mandates in some circles and some biblical interpretations, but like it is pretty common, and the people that I see, who are defending hitting kids in my mentions, are like, "My parents always apologized after, and told me they loved me, and I turned out great," and like, "Did you? Because you're defending hitting kids to me. Like, you're pro-child assault, so I don't know how fine you turned out."
But at any rate, at any rate, basically my A thesis of the second part, and this absolutely bears out in the 150 people that talked to me, many of them, and most of the people who responded to my questionnaire, which is a smaller subset, said like, "I was primed for abusive relationships. Like, I was primed. I knew how to pretend. I knew how to conceal my emotions. I was taught that I was worthless. I was taught that I deserve violence, and I could expect it from the people that loved me. Like, that was the lesson of my childhood, and of course, it went on to affect what I accepted as proper treatment in romantic contexts." And there's tons of other shit. I mean, sorry. I'm babbling at this point, but it's like...
You know, now I'm like reading a whole new set of primary sources, with Christian homeschooling materials, and these doctrines about patriarchy and submission, and like specifically it affects girls very strongly. Men are also affected, boys and men are also affected for sure, in slightly different ways. And I mean, of course it's all connected, right? If the people that I talked to did some really brave work in moving away from the ways they were raised with this kind of brutality, many people don't do that work, for many reasons, and go on to reproduce it in their lives.
Like, it's really, really hard to say, like, "My parents, who loved me and who I love, hurt me, and did wrong," or like, "I hit my kids, and I was wrong to do that." It's like really, really, really hard, to make those moral distinctions, to assess your past and present critically, and a lot of people are neither inclined nor able to do that. And with all the empathy and respect that I can muster, I think one of the roots of authoritarianism in our country, and especially among the Christian right, is...
And this is a nascent understanding. It's not backed with science. It's more just like what I've been researching lately. I think there is a current of tremendous violence that undergirds this culture. It's like, because hierarchies of sex, of gender, of spouses and children as property, you know, are at the core of this doctrine, and enforced by often brutal, often daily physical violence. So it's a self-reproducing ideology in that sense.
Right. Yeah. And yeah, I mean, that's a great point. You know, one other thing I wanted to kind of touch on here, not to change gears too sharply, but one thing that I think that both... Because we both worked at Media Matters for a little bit, and one of the things there is just sort of examining the right-wing media ecosystem, which exists on big and small scales. You have Fox News, which is large, but you also have weird little networks of right-wing bloggers, that coordinate very closely, and that's not something you see on the left as much, or at all. That's why there's this ability of people on the right to really get people who oppose them to be quiet, to shut up, to go away, to not bother them because it becomes not worth it.
And I know that there have been times where I've seen something, and I'm like, "I want to write about this," and then I have to think, is it worth it? And when you wrote your book, that was after you had already not only been targeted by randos online, but you had ICE giving you shit. You had DHS upset, because you tweeted about an ICE agent's tattoo, which you were not the first person to tweet that, and you were really one of the few people who actually said, "Oh no, I mistook that tattoo. I am sorry. My mistake."
But it was clear that there was this idea that you were influential in a certain sense, and they wanted to just make your life kind of hell. What was that like, and how does that affect what you write about and how you write about it? I mean, in the sense that there has to be sort of this fear that every time you go into writing these stories that you're going to get targeted. And I know that it can take a major toll on you, and I think that... I don't know. Just any time I see something like that happen, it just breaks my heart, because you do such great work, and yet you've had the federal government giving you a hard time, and trying to push you out of your job.
Yeah. I mean, it sucked. That was back in 2018. But it recurs daily, in this very warped way. I got Ken Klippenstein in The Nation, to kind of tell my story through... We sued ICE under FOIA to be like, "What do you actually have?" And they didn't have my tweet, because I had deleted my fucking tweet, which by the way, didn't say, "This guy's a Nazi." It was just a picture of the tattoo that ICE had tweeted out, without the guy's name, and it looked like an Iron Cross, and then like a picture of an Iron Cross. It was sort of like a question mark. Whatever. It was a late-night thing. I'd seen it tossed around in different circles already online.
And I deleted it after 15 minutes. I was like, "I made a mistake," you know? People pointed out it might be a Maltese Cross. And the next morning, ICE issued a press release, blaming me. We FOIA'd their emails, and they were like, "Ah, we don't have her original tweet." No one had it. Like, given all the people that picked over every aspect of my life, you think someone would have screenshotted that original tweet if it truly virally influenced a trend. It didn't. It straight up didn't. That's not factual. But at the time, I mean, I was very young. I mean, not very young. I was younger, and naïve.
You're like, "It was three years ago."
I've aged 40 million years in the interim because that was my first... I had written a bit about the right. I'd started writing about it. I wrote my first piece about the far right in 2017, so I was pretty new in that realm. I'd had a couple of Daily Stormer pieces about me or whatever, but... It sucks, it hurts, it's weird, but when you are public, you kind of expect it. I was public on a much smaller scale than I am now, and I was employed. I was a fact-checker at The New Yorker.
Oh, god. It was just like we were getting so much... The fact-checking department was getting hate mail, and at the time, right? I was very earnest. I loved my job. I loved my coworkers. It's still the best job I've ever had, probably ever will, because it was fascinating. I was learning something new every week. Like, I got to do research all the time, and it was great. Great. I called fascinating people constantly. But like, I really was like, this is... I was very like, this is impacting poorly on the company. This is impacting poorly on my peers. Like, I must sacrifice myself, because I just don't belong here anymore.
And of course, like I was getting so much hate mail, and segments on Fox about it, because ICE painted a giant target on my back over a lie, because I was a convenient target. I mean, it's like The New Yorker. She's a Harvard graduate. She's Jewish. She's fat. She's the media. Whatever. Like, I was a very convenient culture war proxy. It was also at a time of very intense outrage at the whole babies in cages thing, so it's like let's throw some meat to the lions or whatever, and the meat was me.
I mean, so it's like, I was so naïve, and so traumatized frankly, that I was... It was an awful week. Like, I self-harmed for the first time in ages. Like, you know? And it still comes up constantly. Any time I say anything, someone will be like, "Didn't you accuse a veteran of being a Nazi?" I'm like, "No, I didn't." Anyway. But like then you sound all tinfoily, when you're like, "The government was lying." Like, it's hard to... And I was stupid. I was stupid to resign, and thus cement a narrative that I'd done something wrong. I have so many regrets about how I handled all that shit, like now, now that I've been through the fire a bunch more times.
I will say, though, it severed me from traditional journalism, at least staffed traditional journalism. Like, I've written in a lot of publications, from The New Republic, to Vice, and whatever. I've had freelance bylines all over, but I've basically, besides a brief stint at Media Matters, which I got laid off for pay, for like money reasons, like they were trimming down their extremism department, which seems like a weird decision in retrospect.
Like, I haven't had a staff job since, and now I'm Substacking. I appreciate the stability of Substack. I also am like, obviously there's TERF ambivalence. Like, the first Substack experience I had was like Glenn Greenwald being like, "How dare you tweet," you know? And saying like I think Substack shouldn't have these outspoken TERFs on it anymore. Which fuck Glenn Greenwald. He's just like a troll all the time. I call him “Glerb” in my head.
Anyway. Whatever. It's not so interesting. I've written about... One piece that kind of goes into my reflections, and what I'd learned from that whole shitty, depressing incident, and its various ripple effects, like Laura Ingraham calling me a terrorist and stuff. I had a conversation with Lyz Lenz, who writes the Men Yell at Me newsletter, where we talked about kind of what it feels like to get these kinds of mobbings. They are absolutely techniques to silence. They are very frequently employed by the right, because the right has a much stronger villain of the day kind of methodology. That's what they do. That's like... We've studied right wing ecologies of information, and like, essentially it's like, yeah, a villain of the day can go through so many iterations, from all of these ideologically completely uniform, like punitively distinct media brands. It's a little like the five minutes of hate thing from 1984, and when you're the subject of it, it's very... And I've talked to a lot of women particularly, and transwomen, women through queer women, just women, basically, through... I'm sorry to make that... I didn't mean to make that as a distinction. It's just more like the different loci of vulnerability.
It's like been almost exclusively women, through the process of like, "How do I get my information offline? How do I deal?" I have some practical tips, mostly just sign up for DeleteMe. It's a useful service. Anyone who's a journalist, frankly I think should be signed up for it, because you'll have... Chances are, you'll have your time in the hopper, especially if you are not a conservative white man. But like, a lot of it is emotional guidance. Like, the way I describe it sometimes is like having the roof ripped off your life. Like, you feel like you're just toddling along, a relatively insignificant figure, and suddenly, you're in a national spotlight as villain of the day. It's a fucking traumatizing experience, really. I feel like this podcast is you asking reasonable questions, and then me like just rambling.
No. I mean, it's all very fascinating, because it's hard to explain to people who haven't gone through anything like this, because on a smaller scale, I've gone through this. Like, there was one time, I was at home, and I was just sitting there, and Andy Ngo posted a thing that was... It was like a photo that showed his backpack, with white dots on it, and I said that it looked like a pigeon pooped on him. I thought that was just kind of funny, and I closed Twitter, and I took a nap. Then when I woke up, I had people who were like, "Wow, you were cheering for him to be poisoned with cement milkshakes and beaten to death," and I'm like, "What the fuck?"
So then I delete my tweet, and I say, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for it to be taken that way," et cetera, et cetera, and one thing I've learned is if you publicly acknowledge something and if you publicly apologize for it, they go, "Ha, we've got you." And that happened with... I remember there was one time, there was a trump rally, where David Weigel at The Washington Post tweeted out a photo that showed the rally kind of half empty, but he took it from a weird angle. It was an accident. He accidentally showed the rally looking small, and Trump himself, who at the time was the president of the United States, tweeted out a demand for an apology, so Dave responds by saying like, "Yeah, sure. I'm sorry. That was a mistake. Here. Here are some other photos from the event. We're good, right?"
And then the response to that was Trump then said, "You should be fired," you know? It's this whole thing where if you ever acknowledge that maybe you got something wrong, that is what they just cling onto and create their narrative around.
Yeah, I mean-
That's why it's so frustrating.
... it's “don't show the whites of your eyes” kind of vibe.
Oh, Andy Ngo is such a putrid fuck. I really hate him. I called him a... I think I called him a fascism-adjacent dipshit in my book, like down on paper. I wish it was in the index as like, "Ngo Andy, fascism-adjacent dipshittery of,"
Like, yeah. Right? He sucks, and he's so deeply transphobic and racist. Like, all of his... It's interesting. Like, he's a very big purveyor of the five minutes of hate format, and he always highlights gender-nonconforming protestors. He highlights black protestors. It's very calculated. It is very... obviously comes from very deep-seated bigotry on his part, and to me, that is just factual. It's the way he works, and he knows who his audience is, and he is who he is. We met once, because I was covering this conference. It was like him and-
Oh, I remember that.
It was in the book, yeah. It was like him and Tim Pool, like organized this conference to prove how tolerant they were, and I wound up being chased out.
Which to me was pretty... And then they were like, "You were chased out? You just walked away, while being followed by people." And like, okay.
Well, and also you were live-tweeting it at the time, so it was very clear what was happening, you know? It's like anyone who was reading your tweets saw that you were... they were... There were people there who were treating you horribly, and then you-
Well, Ngo said I look like a pigeon, and that I'd waddled away, which like, pigeons are very noble birds. They can eat garbage without any adverse effects, and they successfully hide their young offspring such as I've never seen a baby pigeon. So, I admire the pigeon as an urban bird, and I don't find it offensive. And you know what? But whether I waddled, or sauntered, or whatever, people were screaming at me, and I would describe that as being chased... It's so surreal. You wind up in... I think I opened the chapter on that rally by just being like, "I'm sitting at home, arguing about whether I was chased or not." Like, you wind up in these obscene, stupid semantic scenarios, and they were like, "We're going to get security footage from the casino." It was held at a casino, "Like to prove that you weren't chased." And they never produced the security footage. They found like one security chief guy who was like, "No one was chased, probably." Because of course he would say that, right?
Yeah. They're not going to be like, "Yeah, someone was chased, and we just kind of sat back and were like, huh."
Like, "Yeah, people routinely get ideologically run out of our casino." Like, you know? And they're so enamored of gotchas. They also love choosing the most unflattering pictures of me online. I think also when you're a woman, and like, so they inherently see you in this sexualized way, the sheer amount of fucked up shit that's happened with my photos... Someone posed as me on 4chan, and it was like, "I'm Talia Lavin, a journalist, and here's a bikini photo of me to prove it," and three separate times. I had posted one bikini photo in the history of time on the internet, and like, it's just weird shit, like saying, "You look like a neanderthal," or weird Photoshops. You know what I'm talking about.
Like, it's very sexualized, and it's also this mix of like, "You're disgusting, and I'm going to sexually demean you, and..." Like, I will say, that's one of the things that I know has left some residual psychic shit. Like, I've had periods of my life where I look in the mirror, and I'm like, "Am I the monster they think I am?" You know? And it really depends. It's like, if I'm having a good day, mentally, it all just slides off my back. If I'm having a bad day, it can sink in. And this, "Don't feed the trolls" shit, like they're not going to go away.
If you feed them or not.
Like, you know? It's not... You can't blame people who are targeted for how they react.
Right. Yeah, and that's the thing. It's like, I still don't know what the right way to respond to-
There isn't like-
... harassment is, because there's not, yeah. It's just a bad situation, and it's... I mean, that's part of the reason... I don't know. I felt there came a time where I couldn't just mentally commit to having a full-time job, if that makes sense. I mean, I kind of got to this point where my mental health had just deteriorated from a lot of the same stuff that you were just kind of talking about, where-
Also Media Matters specifically is like, look at horrifying and traumatic shit all fucking day.
Yeah. It's like, I love the-
Write it up in these little bulletins that no one reads. Like, I mean, it's great, and they do great work, but like-
Great work, but-
... it is a tough organization to work in.
Yeah. I mean, and I feel like it's only gotten harder over the years, because it used to be like, "Hey, look, Bill O'Reilly said something that wasn't true." And now it's like, "Oh, Tucker Carlson invited the grand wizard of the KKK to..." You know, and you're just like, "How did we get here?" And especially the people there who have to do so much of the research on 4chan and all the online stuff. That is-
Well, I mean, that was my job.
Yeah, that was you.
Every time I talked to... Every time someone would say to me like, "Oh wow, I can't believe that you have to do..." I'm like, "At least I don't have to watch NRATV every day. I don't have to go through 4chan." I mean, people would point out to me whenever something I tweeted would end up being screen-capped and posted to 4chan, which was sometimes helpful, and sometimes I was like, "I don't need to know this," you know? And it's just-
It's like, "Just FYI, they're posting pictures of you on 4chan."
It's like, "Oh, cool, cool, cool." But yeah, I mean, it's tough, and it takes a toll on you that I don't... I don't know. And it's hard to just go, "Well, it's only a few people. It's only 10 people or 100 people out of millions out there," you know? Or something like that. But I mean, if 100 people are tweeting about you nonstop, or messaging you, or trying to start a harassment campaign, it feels like it's the whole world. It really does, and it eats away at... It was eating away at my ability to stay focused on work, and doing what I wanted to do, so I mean, that is personally why I was like...
You know, it's like I had a lot of reservations when it came to making a jump to trying to do a newsletter, and especially with Substack, but ultimately, I was like, I think this is the better option for me personally, because it provided a certain level of stability, a certain level of just me being able to write a bunch of things in advance, and if for two days, I can't work or can't function, essentially, then I'm okay, you know? That's kind of one of the plus-sides there.
Yeah, I mean, freelancing is super “publish or perish.” It's like, if I don't write, I don't get paid, and sometimes it's hard. I mean, yeah. I mean, that resonates so much, and I think like, I mean, people have asked me, or concerned family members have been like, "Why don't you write a cookbook? Like, why don't you do something different?" I'm like, "Yeah, no I will." Like, my third book is definitely going to be like a food-focused memoir. That's the plan. But I have... And when I'm talking about my current work, I'm...
Oh. Oh, now I remember what I was going to say, about why it feels so powerful when even a relatively small number of people are coming after you. My therapist, not to be like, "My therapist," but my therapist, who I started seeing just before the whole ICE thing, and he's lovely, and we've been in this therapeutic relationship for years, he's like, "It's evolutionary." There's a reason why we selectively remember bad things, selectively prize, or sort of focus and obsess on bad voices about us. It's because there is an evolutionary mandate to be aware of criticism, so you don't get kicked out of the tribe and lose your security and your food. Like, there is an evolutionary mandate to keep an eye on criticism, and it's a self-preservation mechanic in its way.
It only becomes maladaptive in this completely unprecedented context, of like within a minute, a million people can see your stupid thing. Like, Twitter I think in particular, is very the sort of, "I'm talking to my sphere, and then suddenly it gets catapulted into a much larger one." Like, that's a unique feature of the platform. It's part of what makes it fun, is being able to see voices that you never would have heard, and people from all over the world, and all that stuff, but it can entail this relatively traumatic leap from like, "I'm just talking to my buddies," to like, "Now everyone's criticizing me for something," and sometimes, it's from people who are leftier than me, and sometimes that can be more painful, because I'm like, "I probably agree with you. I just wish you weren't being such a dick about it."
Or, "Am I wrong? Should I retire and become a Benedictine monk?" And then it's from the right, and to be honest, that's less painful for me most of the time, because I'm just like, "Ah, I'm used to genocidal fuckers being horrible, because I'm anti-genocide."
Whoa, bold position, anti-genocide.
I mean, like I don't... Yeah, and like, I... Ugh, whatever. So, context collapse is a major thing, but also, there is an evolutionary... Not that I'm so into evolutionary biology, because I think it's a lot of bullshit sometimes, but there is a survival value in looking at critique. It's just the level, and ubiquity, and immediacy of that critique. Like, these are not your tribe. They're not going to imperil your food, but you're still wired to be like... You know?
To keep it in mind, because they also might kill you, or whatever.
Yeah. I mean, it is good to... There is that line, of is it good to be aware of criticism or not? There are obviously things, you know, threats to your life, and those are important to know, and to be aware of, because you don't want to be harmed by someone, you know?
Or your family.
Yeah, or that is another one. I mean, I've had situations where it's been... I've gotten messages from people who were talking about my family, and where they live, and stuff like that. It's like, "What is wrong with you? Why would you do this? Because you disagree with something I wrote online? Because you disagree with me?" Those sorts of things, it's... A lot of it's-
It's very... Yeah.
Yeah, it's a product of this time of hyper-connectedness that we live in, you know? And the way we communicate, which is kind of... I mean, that's kind of the angle that I'm trying to think about a lot of things. I mean, that's kind of the premise of my newsletter, is just-
The present age.
Yeah, it's like here we are, and everything is insane, and I don't know what to do, you know? But we're trying to get through it. I mean, with the pandemic especially, so much of our communication has shifted to the internet, that might not have been before, but I mean, in my case, and maybe yours, it's like, yeah, it was already on the internet, but you know? It's like, I was already spending way too much time on social media before the pandemic, before it was cool.
It's like, I'm a weird recluse.
Like, half my friends are online. Like, yeah.
I mean, I think it just helps me to reframe. I think a lot of people who are in this experience, especially in the first time or first several times, are like, you know, "Am I weak for feeling bad?" I'm like, "No." It's human nature, you know? You're not weak. Like, please don't beat yourself up about having feelings about people saying terrible things about you. Like, you know? That's part of my like Talia's pep talk for traumatized victims of the right-wing hate complex thing. You know, and there's also the like, "Am I wrong for seeking it out?" I'm like, you know, it can be a discipline thing, to try to not seek it out all the time. Well, yeah, it's also human nature. Forgive yourself for that, for wanting to know. That is also a very natural impulse.
In my case, I mean, stuff does happen that I need to be aware of. You know, when literally the organizer of Unite the Right, Jason Kessler, posted my mom's office address on a Nazi blog. Shit like that, like I need to know. I need to warn, and I feel so fucking guilty that my family has to suffer for my choice to traumatize myself every day. I mean, it is interesting. I do feel like the evangelical series that I'm working on now is like... is interconnected with a lot of this stuff, in ways that are maybe less explicit, maybe less overt, but I think it is interconnected. I also think these are just stories of pain that deserve honor and telling, and careful telling.
But I do think it's interconnected. I also think like, you know? In my experience, if you deep dive and learn a lot about one thing, you see the way it shows up in lots of other places. I've rarely regretted learning a lot about a subject in my time. Like, could I be focusing on the Charlottesville trial? Could I be focusing on militias? Could I be focusing on what are the Oath Keepers up to lately? Like, could I be focusing on the antivax white nationalist nexus? Of course. There's so many topics. There's like-
Yeah, there's no shortage.
Yeah, I had to explain to someone, when I'm talking about like I study the far right, there's a massive range of topics, covering tens of millions of people. It's not like, "How could you have such a narrow beat?" It's not narrow.
And it almost mirrors in that sense, like my experience of academics. I was very serious as a student, and I didn't do a PhD. I thought about it, but it was like I was studying one poet, and all their works, and how they came to translate things the way they did, and the deeper you dive into one topic, the more of a world it encompasses. Like, you learn one thing, and you learn the history of it, and something else, and something else, and something else, so I rarely regret my sort of history-based and deep dive model of things.
It's sometimes very intensive. It requires a lot. I think I've bought, for this project, I have bought eight or nine books already, including some that are only available on paperback, so I'm going to get a copy of God, The Rod, and Your Child's Bod in the mail, which I then... Once I read it and use it, I plan to publicly burn it.
Yeah. I mean, that's going to... I feel like buying that is something that ends up getting you on a watchlist or something.
You'd think, but you know what? Like, corporal punishment is legal in public schools in 19 states.
Yeah. I mean-
It's legal in private schools in 48 states. My home state of New Jersey is one of the two that's banned it in private schools.
There you go. See? “New Jersey. We've banned something.”
Jersey pride. And I feel conflict when I'm talking about should it be... Like, many countries have outright banned corporal punishment, of any kind, even by parents. You know, even by parents, whatever, including by parents. Sweden was the first, in 1979, and like, is that what I'm advocating for in the US? If we had a less shit justice system, and a less racist justice system, and whatever, it's such a punitive and carceral society, maybe. That's not what I'm advocating for when I'm just saying like, "Don't hit your kids" on social media a lot lately. I do think it's a very reasonable demand to say like, ban it in schools. Like, because people get paddled in schools every day, and it's disproportionately black students that get paddled.
By paddled, I mean struck with a board to cause pain.
Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, and I mean, that's another issue in itself, is that you know, with any policy, with any sort of action, it's the enforcement of said action or policy tends to affect marginalized groups more than everyone else basically, but I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. You are one of the smartest people I know, one of the best writers I know, and I cannot recommend enough that people subscribe to The Sword and the Sandwich for both sword and sandwich posts, because-
... you will learn something in both.
Yeah, I'm like looking at all this stuff about the history of the bagel right now. I found this New York Times article from 1960, that called bagels... What was it? "An unsweetened donut with rigor mortis."
Like, okay, first of all, it's so good. I'm unabashedly pro bagel in my life, so-
I don't trust anyone who's not pro bagel, to be honest, so-
Yeah, so there is the sandwich part. The sword part is, you know, rougher, but they're both valuable in their own way, and thank you so much for having me on.
Of course. Any time.
Yeah. And I enjoyed this kind of loose, wide-ranging conversation.
Yeah, it was great! It was so much fun. I really appreciate it.