Magazine | September 10, 2018, Issue

‘Essentially a Fraud’

The Southern Poverty Law Center has less to do with justice than with fundraising

It had to happen sometime. The Southern Poverty Law Center has made so many vile, unjustified, hysterical, and hateful accusations over the years, it was bound to pay a price. When it did, the bill due was $3.375 million. Such was the amount the SPLC agreed to pay the British Muslim Maajid Nawaz and his think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, after smearing them in a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.” Nawaz, a former Islamist radical turned whistleblower who calls for the modernization of Islam in columns for the Daily Beast and on London talk radio, had threatened to sue the SPLC for defamation — traditionally and properly a difficult case to make in U.S. courts. Yet the SPLC caved spectacularly.

The amusing but uncharacteristically groveling tone of the SPLC’s apology suggests fear of Nawaz’s lawyers: “We have taken the time to do more research,” stated the SPLC (doing research — what a novel idea!), noting that Nawaz has made “valuable and important contributions to public discourse,” adding that he is “most certainly not” an anti-Muslim extremist, and concluding, “We would like to extend our sincerest apologies to Mr. Nawaz, Quilliam, and our readers for the error.” The settlement further stipulated that the SPLC’s president, Richard Cohen, would film a video apology, prominently display it on the outfit’s website, and distribute the apology to every email address and mailing address on the SPLC mailing list. Whether Cohen was further required to come over to Nawaz’s house every week and iron his laundry could not be learned.

The Nawaz settlement was the most damaging episode yet in what has become an increasingly dire situation for the SPLC’s floundering image. Image, painstakingly built since its founding in 1971, is its chief asset. Image is what keeps the dollars flowing in. The Right has long been calling attention to the SPLC’s questionable tactics, but these days even Politico, The Atlantic, and PBS are running skeptical pieces about the saints of the South. Politico wondered whether the SPLC was “overstepping its bounds” and quoted an anti-terrorism expert, J. M. Berger, who pointed out that “the problem partly stems from the fact that the [SPLC] wears two hats, as both an activist group and a source of information.” David A. Graham of The Atlantic wrote that the “Field Guide” was “more like an attempt to police the discourse on Islam than a true inventory of anti-Muslim extremists, of whom there is no shortage, and opened SPLC up to charges that it had strayed from its civil-rights mission.” PBS interviewer Bob Garfield suggested to its president that the SPLC is increasingly seen “not as fighting the good fight but as being opportunists exploiting our political miseries” and that this was tantamount to killing “the goose that lays the golden egg.” In 2015 the FBI dropped the SPLC from its list of resources about hate groups.

Lately the SPLC has taken on an increasingly desperate, self-parodying tone, denouncing such mainstream figures as the psychologist, author, and PJ Media columnist Helen Smith and the American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, calling them “anti-feminist female voices” and adding them to its double-secret-probation list under the catch-all term “male supremacy.” Former Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain, who is black, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the group had “smeared” her after she questioned the SPLC’s “misguided focus.” Mark Potok, then the SPLC’s national spokesman, de­nounced her as “an apologist for white supremacists” in a story published on the front page of Swain’s local news­paper, the Tennessean.

To sum up recent events: The SPLC has been crazily denouncing highly respected writers who are Muslim, black, and female for being anti-Muslim, anti-black, and misogynist. All of these contrived charges are in the service of the SPLC’s core mission, which is to separate progressives from their dollars.

Founded in 1971, the Alabama-based SPLC, dubbed “essentially a fraud” by Ken Silverstein in a blog post for Harper’s back in 2010, discovered some time ago that it could line its coffers by positioning itself as a scourge of racists. Silverstein reported that in 1987, after the SPLC sued the United Klans of America, which had almost no assets to begin with, over the lynching murder of Michael Donald, the son of Beulah Mae Donald, the grieving mother realized $52,000 from the court case — but the SPLC used the matter in fundraising appeals (including one that exploited a photograph of Donald’s corpse) that raked in some $9 million in donations. Today the SPLC typically hauls in (as it did in 2015) $50 million. In its 2016 annual report it listed its net endowment assets at an eye-popping $319 million. It’s now quaint to recall that, when Silverstein called the SPLC the wealthiest civil-rights group in America, it had a mere $120 million in assets. That was in 2000. President Richard Cohen and co-founder–cum–chief trial counsel Morris Dees each raked in well over $350,000 in compen­sation in 2015.

News that has anything to do with the South or with race has proven to be a bonanza for the SPLC; after the events in Charlottesville last summer, the SPLC swiftly took action to capitalize. It placed a digital picture of Heather Heyer, the young Charlottesville resi­dent who was killed when a white supremacist drove into a crowd, on its “Wall of Tolerance” and blasted out press releases about it. What is the Wall of Tolerance? It’s a gimmick to make donors feel important, neon-style virtue-signaling in the pixels that light up a giant video screen that continuously scrolls the names of 500,000 people who have taken a pledge to be tolerant. After Charlottesville, Apple CEO Tim Cook pledged $1 million to the group and put an SPLC donation button in the company’s iTunes store. JPMorgan Chase promised $500,000.

The SPLC’s publicity machine turns such events into gold, creating the impression that we’re forever a week away from a neo-Nazi takeover or a rebirth of the KKK. As both the Nazis and the white-bedsheet fans have done the SPLC the disservice of fading into tiny remnants of themselves, the SPLC is forced to find new monsters, designating the likes of Rand Paul, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Ben Carson as extremists.

Some on the left are well aware of what the SPLC is up to. As Alexander Cockburn put it in The Nation, Dees is “king of the hate business.” Karl Zinsmeister of Philanthropy Roundtable notes that the SPLC’s “two largest expenses are propaganda operations: creating its annual lists of ‘haters’ and ‘extremists,’ and running a big effort that pushes ‘tolerance education’ through more than 400,000 public-school teachers.” In 2015 the SPLC said it had spent $10 million on direct fundraising, which is a lot more than it has ever spent on outside legal services. The group has never spent more than 31 percent of its donations on programs, Zinsmeister pointed out, and at times has spent as little as 18 percent.

Earlier than others, the SPLC grasped the importance of the verb “hate.”

An easy way to ratchet up hatred, and the passion that makes people open their checkbooks, is to accuse others of hate. Hate sometimes proves tricky to control, however. In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center put the Family Research Council (FRC) — a conserva­tive Christian group — on the “hate map” that appears on its website. A gunman guided by the map later walked into the FRC building, his goal to “kill as many as possible and smear the Chick-fil-A sandwiches in victims’ faces.” The gunman who shot Republican House majority whip Steve Scalise and three others in an attack on Republicans last year was an SPLC fan. To the SPLC, the learned social scientist Charles Murray is a “white nationalist” who peddles “racist pseudoscience.” Professors and protesters at Middlebury College opposed Murray’s appearance there in a letter that cited the SPLC as its (sole) source, and when Murray appeared there to give a lecture, the protesters shouted him down and manhandled a woman professor who was appearing at the same event.

The SPLC has become a kind of Weimar Republic of hate inflation. Its list of “hate groups” looks increasingly like a way of attacking ordinary conservatives. It tagged the Alliance Defending Freedom as an “anti-LGBT hate group.” The Alliance Defending Freedom is simply one of the multitudes of legal-activist groups trying dutifully to win its arguments in the appropriate courtrooms. The ADF was targeted by the SPLC because it defended the proprietor of Masterpiece Cakeshop on religious-liberty grounds, arguing that the cake maker could not be forced to spell out sentiments about gay marriage with which he did not agree. If the ADF is a hate group, then I guess so is the seven-member majority of the U.S. Supreme Court that gave Masterpiece a victory in the case.

In October 2014, the SPLC labeled the great neurosurgeon Ben Carson an “extremist.” Because this designation made the SPLC look silly and risked the group’s coveted public perception as nonpartisan, it backed down. Sort of: “We’ve reviewed our profile and have concluded that it did not meet our standards, so we have taken it down and apologize to Dr. Carson.” Then, in the same statement, the SPLC resumed hammering Carson as an extremist for saying things such as “Marriage is between a man and a woman” and for being one of innumerable talking heads on cable news to make facile comparisons between the U.S. and Nazi Germany. We’ll take it as a given that there are far too many Nazi analogies being made these days, but if the SPLC is serious about policing those it’ll take note of the many talking heads on the left who are making them.

Dees, who earned a spot in (I’m not making this up) the Direct Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame for his service to the cause of pitching birthday cakes, cookbooks, tractor-seat cushions, and other junk-mail items, is “more than a little Trumpian himself,” according to Politico. “I learned everything I know about hustling from the Baptist Church,” Dees once said, according to a 2000 piece that Silverstein wrote for Harper’s. “Spending Sundays on those hard benches listening to the preacher pitch salvation — why, it was like getting a Ph.D. in selling.” Dees’s onetime business partner Millard Fuller told Silverstein, “Morris and I . . . shared the overriding purpose of making a pile of money. We were not particular about how we did it; we just wanted to be independently rich.”

Dees once told his donors that he would stop fundraising when the SPLC endowment reached $55 million. When the SPLC blew by that milestone, he upped it to $100 million. Today it continues to build its huge endowment while its six-story, multi-million-dollar headquarters is “the most architecturally striking structure in downtown Mont­gomery,” according to Politico.

Stephen Bright, a lawyer and longtime director of the Southern Center for Human Rights who actually defends the indigent in death-penalty cases, wrote in 2007 that “Morris Dees is a con man and fraud. . . . He has taken advantage of naïve, well-meaning people — some of moderate or low incomes — who believe his pitches and give to his $175-million operation.” He added that because Dees “spends so much on fund raising, his operation spends $30 million a year to accomplish less than what many other organizations accomplish on shoestring budgets.”

The SPLC can no longer be fairly termed a nonpartisan watchdog group. It has become a hate group itself. Actual political violence is of no interest to it unless it can be deployed in service of the SPLC’s thinly veiled campaign to damage the Right. Bafflement ensued when, in 2012, National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke called up the SPLC to ask whether the outfit was adding Occupy Wall Street to the list of hate groups it tracks after three anarchists linked to the movement were caught plotting to blow up a bridge in Cleveland (all three later pleaded guilty). An SPLC flack explained that his group “only tracks those who commit violence or who seek to destroy whole systems in the name of an ideology.” Since this was exactly what the Occupy fanatics were up to, Cooke was puzzled. “They were anarchists,” the spokesman told Cooke. Yeah. So?

Well, the spokesman added sheepishly, “We’re not really set up to cover the extreme Left.”

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