But the organization has long been dysfunctional in even deeper ways, and the story of Dees and the SPLC is useful for illustrating some of the worst and most hypocritical tendencies in American liberalism. If we understand the full extent of what went wrong in this organization, we’ll better understand the ways in which a shallow “politics of spectacle” can take hold, and see the kinds of practices that need to be categorically rejected in the pursuit of progressive change.
The Southern Poverty Law Center perfectly shows social change done wrong. It was a top-down organization controlled by an incompetent and venal leadership.* It was hypocritical in the extreme, preaching anti-racism while fostering a racist internal culture and being led by men whose own commitment to equality was questionable. It didn’t care about listening to and incorporating the viewpoints of the people it was supposed to serve. It was obscenely rich in a time of terrible poverty, and squandered much its considerable wealth. Finally, it picked the wrong political targets, and focused on symbolic over substantive change. Each of these practices goes beyond the SPLC, and is endemic to a certain kind of “elite liberalism” that desires “progress” without sacrifice. It is the kind of liberalism recognized by Phil Ochs in 1966, and its chief characteristics are a deep hypocrisy and a lack of willingness to seriously challenge the status quo.
THE SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER IS EVERYTHING THAT’S WRONG WITH LIBERALISM
What the SPLC doesn’t do with its money is a problem. But there is also a problem with what it does do. The story here has been told many times: After beginning as something vaguely resembling a “poverty law” firm in the ’70s, and winning a number of important anti-discrimination fights, the SPLC turned much of its attention to going after “hate groups.” It pursued the Ku Klux Klan in court on behalf of its victims, winning large judgments. Over time, it began to track “hate” across the country, and it now has a 15-person staff producing “intelligence reports” on hate groups.
The SPLC’s shift toward focusing on hate groups was controversial within the organization. Some felt that it would make sense to focus on more systemic problems, like mass incarceration, rather than targeting (usually small) far-right fringe groups. But Dees saw an opportunity for both publicity and fundraising, and he was right. The organization mostly stopped taking death penalty cases (too controversial with donors) and instead focused on neo-Nazis, a group that pretty much everyone despises.
The SPLC devotes a phenomenal amount of effort to chronicling “hate” across the country. Its quarterly “Intelligence Report,” a beautifully-produced glossy magazine about hate groups, is mailed out by the hundreds of thousands. It writes long profiles of hate figures documenting their every bigoted utterance, and keeps tabs on hate groups through its signature “Hate Map.”
There has long been controversy over the SPLC’s “hate watch” activities. Conservatives are constantly complaining that they have been unfairly labeled racists, with mainstream conservative organizations like the Family Research Council landing themselves on the SPLC list. When Maajid Nawaz, a controversial critic of Islamism, was labeled an anti-Muslim extremist by the SPLC, he sued and received a $3 million settlement, plus an apology. One problem here is that the definition of “hate” is very unclear. It supposedly means having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people,” but in that case I’m a member of a hate group myself, since I despise bourgeois liberals. The SPLC includes “black nationalism” on its list of hate categories, which means that every time it reports the number of hate groups in America it is including the “New Black Panther Party” (and doing precisely what FOX News did in its own disgraceful reporting on the supposed threat posed by roving gangs of New Black Panthers).
The biggest problem with the hate map, though, is that it’s an outright fraud. I don’t use that term casually. I mean, the whole thing is a willful deception designed to scare older liberals into writing checks to the SPLC. The SPLC reported this year that the number of hate groups in the country is at a “record high,” that it is the “fourth straight year” of hate group growth, and that this growth coincides with Donald Trump’s rise to power. There are now a whopping 1,020 hate groups around the country. America is teeming with hate.
This whole SPLC set-up strikes me as fraudulent in the extreme. I don’t know how else to describe it. They have a team of people investigating these groups. They have to know that they’re inflating the danger. They know that when they report “over 1,000” hate groups in America, they’ve deliberately excluded membership numbers in order to sound as scary as possible. They’re perpetrating a deception, because they don’t want you to know that groups like the “Asatru Folk Assembly” are no political threat. The SPLC has continuously sent out terrifying lies to make old people part with their money. They’ve become fantastically wealthy from telling people that individual kooks in Kennesaw are “hate groups” on the march. And they’ve done far less with the money they receive than any other comparable civil rights group will do. To me, this is a scam bordering on criminal mail fraud. If you tell people things that aren’t true so that you can take their money and then not use that money for the thing you said you would use it for, you’re a fraudster. I hestitate to say that because I know lots of great people who have worked at the SPLC, and good work is done there. But the Morris Dees model is a scam: It finds as much “hate” as possible in order to make as much money as possible.
If you trawl through the Hate Map for a little while like I did, you may also feel uncomfortable for another reason. Most of the people they’re listing as threats seem as if they are poor and unschooled. I bet if you compared the average annual salary of the SPLC staff to the average salary of the people in these hate groups, you’d find a massive class divide. Whether it’s poor Black people joining weird sects like the United Nuwaupians, or poor white people getting together and calling themselves things like the “Folkgard of Holda & Odin,” these are people on society’s margins. A lot of this seems to be educated liberals having contempt for and fear of angry rednecks.
This is not to say that neo-Nazis aren’t fucking terrifying, or that they don’t pose any threat. The Daily Stormer is a real thing, and there is a lot of dangerous white supremacist nonsense believed by a lot of people. But the “hate” focus is all wrong: The biggest threats to people of color do not come from those who “hate” them, but from those (like the contemporary Republican Party) who are totally indifferent to whether they live or die. This is the frightening thing about contemporary racism: It does not come waving the Confederate flag, it comes waving the American flag.
Here we see what appear to be anti-Republican bona-fides.