The longer you live, the more you see that a lack of integrity often has a viral effect on an organization. Once the compromises begin, they can’t be contained. They’ll seep into every corner of the institution, corrupting good purposes and damaging people’s lives.
And so it is with the Southern Poverty Law Center — one of progressive America’s most influential and storied civil-rights organizations.
This isn’t news to conservatives, of course. For those who cared about truth, the SPLC’s transformation from a valuable anti-Klan watchdog into a glorified version of Media Matters for America was plain and obvious. It steadily expanded its definition of “hate groups” to include mainstream Christian organizations such as my former employer, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and it labeled as “extremists” men such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray.
These decisions had serious real-world consequences. Corporations and employers cut off relationships with groups and individuals targeted by the SPLC, and violent people used SPLC designations to justify attempted murder and assault. Remember the man who tried to commit mass murder at the Family Research Council? He found his target through the SPLC’s list of alleged “anti-gay groups.” Remember when an angry mob attacked Murray at Middlebury College and injured a professor? Because of the SPLC, those protesters thought they were attacking a “white nationalist.”
Moreover, its methods of determining hate and extremism are so shoddy and corrupt that it’s been forced to dole out a multimillion-dollar settlement to Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim whom it hysterically dubbed an “anti-Muslim extremist.” In fact, Nawaz is a former Islamist who now dedicates his life to combating extremism. The SPLC was also forced to apologize for posting an “extremist file” on Ben Carson. Yes, Ben Carson.
Yet still the donations rolled in. Still the media and progressive corporations valued the organization enough to apply its hate labels to good and decent Americans — people I know and respect. Will they value it still, as the SPLC’s internal corruption is made plain?
The past few days have brought a series of reports from otherwise-sympathetic media outlets that have painted the organization in an extraordinarily unflattering light. On March 14, the SPLC fired its co-founder, legendary trial lawyer Morris Dees. Within hours, the Los Angeles Times wrote that the SPLC “has been wrestling with complaints of workplace mistreatment of women and people of color.”
The climate was apparently so bad that two dozen employees signed a letter to the board of directors declaring that “they were concerned that internal ‘allegations of mistreatment, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and racism threaten the moral authority of this organization and our integrity along with it.’”
The hits kept on coming. Six days later, The New Yorker published a lengthy essay by Bob Moser, a former writer at the SPLC. It begins with this stinging statement:
In the days since the stunning dismissal of Morris Dees, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, on March 14th, I’ve been thinking about the jokes my S.P.L.C. colleagues and I used to tell to keep ourselves sane. Walking to lunch past the center’s Maya Lin–designed memorial to civil-rights martyrs, we’d cast a glance at the inscription from Martin Luther King, Jr., etched into the black marble — “Until justice rolls down like waters” — and intone, in our deepest voices, “Until justice rolls down like dollars.” The Law Center had a way of turning idealists into cynics.
In the pages that followed, he described a place with an “uncomfortable” racial dynamic where female staffers were “warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women.” He described how another former writer called the place a “ a virtual buffet of injustices” with problems “racial, sexual, financial.”
On March 19, the SPLC announced that it was hiring an outside lawyer to “review its workplace environment and policies.” Three days later, Richard Cohen, the president of the SPLC, stepped down. And yesterday, the New York Times published an almost 2,000-word report on the SPLC’s “intolerance within”:
Current and former employees said Mr. Dees’s dismissal was only part of the turbulence rattling a social justice organization afflicted by morale issues, staff turnover and a sense that the center has not embraced the values that it champions across the country.
Oh, I disagree. Given the intolerance and bad faith it exhibited in its evaluations and assessments of all too many conservatives and Christians, I’d argue that the SPLC has embraced exactly the values it champions. It’s intolerant through and through.
Intolerant and fraudulent, in fact. In a scorching piece in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson points out the hysterical exaggerations in the SPLC’s assessment of hate groups. It essentially manufactures fear. This paragraph is amazing:
In fact, when you actually look at the hate map, you find something interesting: Many of these “groups” barely seem to exist at all. A “Holocaust denial” group in Kerrville, Texas, called “carolynyeager.net” appears to just be a woman called Carolyn Yeager. A “male supremacy” group called Return of Kings is apparently just a blog published by pick-up artist Roosh V and a couple of his friends, and the most recent post is an announcement from six months ago that the project was on indefinite hiatus. Tony Alamo, the abusive cult leader of “Tony Alamo Christian Ministries,” died in prison in 2017. (Though his ministry’s website still promotes “Tony Alamo’s Unreleased Beatles Album.”) A “black nationalist” group in Atlanta called “Luxor Couture” appears to be an African fashion boutique. “Sharkhunters International” is one guy who really likes U-boats and takes small groups of sad Nazis on tours to see ruins and relics. And good luck finding out much about the “Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology,” which — if it is currently operative at all — is a tiny anti-Catholic cult based in Shawano, Wisconsin.
What’s to be done? The SPLC can sort itself out. Hopefully it can rediscover its roots and focus its efforts on combating white supremacy and renew its commitment to poverty law. There was a time when it would represent indigent death-row inmates, for example, and there remains ample opportunity to do good for America’s poorest citizens. The SPLC has an almost half-billion-dollar endowment. You can hire a lot of lawyers with that kind of cash.
But the rest of the world should move on. The rest of the world should recognize that a corrupt organization has generated corrupt assessments of its fellow citizens, and it should be ignored. We don’t need the SPLC to spot white supremacists, and we certainly don’t need the SPLC to evaluate religious doctrines — be they Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.
This organization has devolved from helping people to hurting people, but it only has the power that the media and progressive corporations give it. Now, every single time a media organization or a company uses the SPLC’s listings, it should be held to account. There is no excuse. The emperor has no clothes. The SPLC is in a state of moral collapse.