Politico on the Southern Poverty Law Center: mission creep or overreach?

A recent comment by reader “Historian” on this site led me to an article in Politico, a centrist site, about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), long derided by right-wing sites but only now coming onto the critical radar of the Left. Founded by Morris Dees in 1971 to defend civil rights, the SPLC did some wonderful work in the past: defending innocent but accused black people, prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan, and fighting the death penalty. More recently they’ve expanded into areas of immigrant and gay rights and criticism of the policies of President Trump (oy, do I hate writing those two words!).

The Politico article, “Has a civil rights stalwart lost its way?“, by Ben Schreckinger, highlights the SPLC’s victories but also levels the criticisms we’ve come to know (inflated salaries, a niggardliness about using its endowment, the designation of Muslim reformers as “Islamophobes”), and some I didn’t. One that disturbs me is this (the quote is taken from Wikipedia, but referenced; the information-sharing is also noted by Politico):

The SPLC cooperates with, and offers training to, law enforcement agencies, focusing “on the history, background, leaders, and activities of far-right extremists in the United States”.[86] The FBI has partnered with the SPLC and many other organizations “to establish rapport, share information, address concerns, and cooperate in solving problems” related to hate crimes.[87]

This gives the SPLC unusual power compared to similar organizations, as it in effect partners with the U.S. government. I don’t think the American Civil Liberties Union shares its information with the government. And the controversies about the SPLC’s recent lists of “hate groups” and “hating individuals” remain, as the SPLC’s line between “hate” and political differences of opinion about government policy is very tenuous:

In October, the SPLC faced explosive blowback when it included British Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz on a list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” The targeting of Nawaz—a former Islamist turned anti-extremism campaigner who is considered a human rights leader by many in the mainstream—even sparked critical coverage in the Atlantic, creating the unusual spectacle of a publication founded by abolitionists going after a group founded to fight the KKK. In December, after the SPLC urged Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer not to attend a dinner hosted by anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney, Dermer used his speech at the dinner to condemn the SPLC as “defamers and blacklisters.” In February, the group again raised eyebrows by adding to its list of hate groups the hard-line Center for Immigration Studies—an anti-immigration think tank criticized for pushing bogus claims about the dangers of immigrants, but which has also been invited to testify before Congress more than 100 times.

. . .  The new approach has prompted accusations of overreach: The SPLC has included Senator Rand Paul and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists on its extremists lists (Paul for suggesting private businesses shouldn’t have to adhere to the Civil Rights Act and criticizing the Fair Housing Act; Carson for his views opposing same-sex marriage). The group did back down after it put Carson on the 2014 “extremist watch” list—removing his name and issuing an apology that earned a lot of coverage in the conservative media. “This week, as we’ve come under intense criticism for doing so, we’ve reviewed our profile and have concluded that it did not meet our standards,” the organization’s statement said, “so we have taken it down and apologize to Dr. Carson for having posted it.”

Here are some statements by critics:

William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell and critic of the SPLC, says the group has wrapped itself in the mantle of the civil rights struggle to engage in partisan political crusading. “Time and again, I see the SPLC using the reputation it gained decades ago fighting the Klan as a tool to bludgeon mainstream politically conservative opponents,” he says. “For groups that do not threaten violence, the use of SPLC ‘hate group’ or ‘extremist’ designations frequently are exploited as an excuse to silence speech and speakers,” Jacobson adds. “It taints not only the group or person, but others who associate with them.”

Ken Silverstein, a liberal journalist and another critic of the group who authored a scathing investigation of its marketing and financial practices for Harper’s in 2000, attributes the growing scope of the SPLC’s censures to a financial imperative to wade into hot-button issues that will rile donors. “The organization has always tried to find ways to milk money out of the public by finding whatever threat they can most credibly promote,” he says.

The whipping up of fear about “Islamophobia,” which led to its unconscionable listing of Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali as “anti-Muslim extremists”, is to my mind an example of such overreach—clearly a way for the organization to fill its coffers by appealing to poorly motivated liberal sentiments.

I think the SPLC generally remains a good organization, but it really does need to tweak its policies, perhaps concentrating more on the genuine civil rights violations that for decades constituted its meat and potatoes. And the more I think about it, the more I object to the making of “hate” lists, for, as Politico notes, being put on an SPLC list immediately reduces financial support of various organizations. This may be one reason besides “defamation” why Maajid Nawaz is suing the SPLC.

26 Comments

  1. Rich Sanderson
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    “I think the SPLC generally remains a good organization”

    I completely disagree. It is struggles on the basics, and can’t rectify its obvious mistake with Maajid Nawaz, then it is a failed organisation.

    • Posted September 4, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I fail to see anything they are doing is a positive at this point.

      • Historian
        Posted September 4, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

        I certainly wish I had the time to do what you did: make an in-depth analysis of everything the SPLC does and reach the conclusion that absolutely nothing it does is worthy. I would love to know your research method.

        • Posted September 4, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          It would only take one example on your part to prove me wrong. Fire away.

          • Historian
            Posted September 4, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

            You made an assertion without evidence. It’s your job to prove that the SPLC does nothing worthy. I do not know what your criteria for “worthiness” is or what research method you used (assuming you did any research). Until you actually provide evidence and methodology, there is nothing to rebut. I am not going to play a guessing game with you as to what you consider worthy or unworthy. Remember, your assertion requires you to discuss EVERYTHING the SPLC engages in.

            • Posted September 4, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

              It would be impossible to prove they do no good without examining everything they do.

              On the other hand all you have to do to prove they do some good is name one example.

              • Historian
                Posted September 4, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                “It would be impossible to prove they do no good without examining everything they do.”

                That’s exactly my point and is the danger in making absolute statements. As far as my indicating just one “good” thing the SPLC does, it is irrelevant since my definition or example of a “good” thing may be different from another person’s. This is why the person making an absolute statement must provide the evidence and methodology before the assertion can be rebutted. It is a debater’s trick to try to put the onus on an opponent to rebut a vapid assertion that by its nature cannot be rebutted.

              • Posted September 4, 2017 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

                That’s exactly my point and is the danger in making absolute statements. As far as my indicating just one “good” thing the SPLC does, it is irrelevant since my definition or example of a “good” thing may be different from another person’s. This is why the person making an absolute statement must provide the evidence and methodology before the assertion can be rebutted. It is a debater’s trick to try to put the onus on an opponent to rebut a vapid assertion that by its nature cannot be rebutted.

                So that would be a ‘no’, then? Even having had hours to come up with an answer you can’t think of one thing?

        • Posted September 4, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          Maybe you can summarise for us?

      • Posted October 21, 2017 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        + 1

  2. Posted September 4, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    As with so many organizations in human history, the influence of money, in this case lots of money, affects judgment.

  3. jaxkayaker
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Minor typo correction: Politico is missing the “c” in the post title.

  4. ploubere
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    The SPLC carried on many good fights in the past, and deserves credit for taking down the KKK. But that doesn’t earn it a pass for its shady finances and libelous “extremist” branding of people and organizations who don’t deserve it.

  5. Randy schenck
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like list makers and far as I can tell, this organization is a self-appointed list maker. Who died and made them kings?

  6. Posted September 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

    • BJ
      Posted September 4, 2017 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

      I found the part about how the SPLC is now reverse-engineering their reasoning for continuing to list him as an “anti-Muslim extremist” very interesting. I had no idea that they have slowly deleted their initial reasons, replacing them with others every time one is knocked down. Even the SPLC seems to know it’s full of shit. I’m shocked that honesty isn’t important to them, shocked I say!

  7. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    a niggardliness about using its endowment

    I don’t see where Schreckinger makes that charge. He questions the need for such a large endowment, but says nothing about SPLC’s willingness to spend it.

    Most likely, spending it is not an option. Endowments are investment capital, and are typically managed separately from operating funds. Donations designated for the endowment cannot legally be diverted to operations. Income generated by the endowment is available to fund operations (that’s the point), but the principal generally is not.

    So one might legitimately accuse SPLC of acquisitiveness in amassing their huge endowment, but a charge of niggardliness about using it doesn’t really make sense. In all probability they’re using it the only way they legally can: to generate investment income.

  8. harrync
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I think the bottom line is that any “charity” that can pay out over a half-million dollars a year to it’s two top employees, and has so much money it has to park some in off-shore accounts, doesn’t need any more money. Whether they do good or not, no one should give them any money.

  9. jay
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    They refuse to call antifa a hate group, yet mild groups on the right (like religions that don’t endorse homosexuality) make the grade as hate groups (though Muslims who are far more aggressive about homosexuality somehow escape that description).

    The claim is that non of the hate is against a ‘protected group’. Thought antifa’s hostility to Christians as well as Israeli nationals would contradict that claim.

    They’re sleazes now, but they’ve been opportunistic sleazes for decades.

    • jay
      Posted September 4, 2017 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      Side point. Tim Kaine’s son has been arrested for antifa related violence.

    • mikeyc
      Posted September 4, 2017 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      What makes you think “Antifa” is a group?

      What “mild groups” from the right wing do they list?

      • fizziks
        Posted September 5, 2017 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        must…not…dignify…with…response

      • BJ
        Posted September 5, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        “What makes you think ‘Antifa’ is a group?”

        They organize online, use the same tactics as one another, discuss online what tactics to use, discuss and organize where to go online, have group markers like similar clothing…I’m sure I can think of more, but that should suffice.

        • BJ
          Posted September 5, 2017 at 10:05 am | Permalink

          Oh, and most importantly for a political group, the people in it are united by a singular goal of beatings, property destruction, and rioting whenever a significant number of people have the temerity to disagree with them in a public gathering.

    • Posted September 6, 2017 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      The SPLC website states that it watches right-wing hate groups, so I guess part of the problem is that left-wing hate groups don’t count.


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