When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

I’ve been complaining about the Southern Poverty Law Center for a long time and how it makes all the wrong moves in eviscerating conservative and often mainstream evangelical targets in the name of ferreting out hate. Only when it turned its focus on a British Muslim and got his story horribly wrong — resulting in a lawsuit filed against them by the aggrieved Brit — was it obvious to lots of media people that the SPLC was seriously off base.

With the recent dismissal of its co-founder Morris Dees, followed by the resignation of its president, Richard Cohen, various media, almost all of them on the left side of politics, have been piling onto the SPLC with cartloads of venom.

You’d think it was them who’d been tarred with the hate brush. But it wasn’t.

As religious liberty specialist David French, a Harvard Law man, reminds us at National Review:

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.”

Recent articles that go after the SPLC include this lengthy read in the New Yorker. The critique majors on the organizations less-than-diverse racial make-up, its finesse as a “marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals” and its place as a “highly profitable scam.”

Although there’s very little about this mess that is directly about religion, there is an emphasis on morality or at least morality that got lost along the way. Part of the problem was the incessant appeals to blue-state America to contribute money so the SPLC could kill off the bogeyman of the Religious Right, along with racism.

The only problem with that is that blue state America, ie Seattle’s own Amazon, listened to the SPLC and cut various groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom and a small Catholic group called the St. Benedict Center plus others from its Amazon Smile program that funnels proceeds to charities.

The SPLC caused some real damage to various Christian groups while raking in lots of dough, as CBN points out. And as the New Yorker says, it worked:

The controversy erupted at a moment when the S.P.L.C. had never been more prominent, or more profitable. Donald Trump’s Presidency opened up a gusher of donations; after raising fifty million dollars in 2016, the center took in a hundred and thirty-two million dollars in 2017, much of it coming after the violent spectacle that unfolded at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that August. George and Amal Clooney’s justice foundation donated a million, as did Apple, which also added a donation button for the S.P.L.C. to its iTunes store. JPMorgan chipped in five hundred thousand dollars. The new money pushed the center’s endowment past four hundred and fifty million dollars, which is more than the total assets of the American Civil Liberties Union, and it now employs an all-time high of around three hundred and fifty staffers.

But its genius was its annual “hate group list”:

… which in 2018 included a thousand and twenty organizations, both small and large, remains a valuable resource for journalists and a masterstroke of Dees’s marketing talents; every year, when the center publishes it, mainstream outlets write about the “rising tide of hate” discovered by the S.P.L.C.’s researchers, and reporters frequently refer to the list when they write about the groups.

Which is incredibly sloppy journalism, as my erstwhile colleague Mark Kellner pointed out. So reporters — at least some of them — knew the SPLC was a farce but they continued playing the game because it targeted people they didn’t like anyway.

So, it was OK when the SPLC was attacking conservative Christians because surely they deserved it. It’s when the Center overreached and went after a Muslim that folks on the left realized what a charade the whole “hate map” thing was.

As critics have long pointed out, however, the hate-group designations also drive attention to the extremists. Many groups, including the religious-right Family Research Council and the Alliance Defending Freedom, raise considerable money by decrying the S.P.L.C.’s “attacks.”

The writer of this New Yorker piece lost all credibility with me at this point, as having a gunman in the Family Research Council lobby is not something to mock by using scare quotes.

It seems clear that a lot of folks knew the SPLC was a joke, but they didn’t care. Fox TV pointed out a year ago that Google used SPLC employees to police YouTube videos. Where was the outcry back then?

Another piece worth reading is the one in Current Affairs where the writer pinpoints the SPLC as symbolic of everything wrong with American liberalism.

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 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.

It seems that these tell-all pieces about the SPLC have come off the presses pretty quickly since the ouster of two of its top people, leaving one to wonder if certain writers had these essays squirreled away, like obituaries on famous people that are set to run upon the moment of their demise. If so many people knew the SPLC was a charade, then why didn’t they say anything about it? A bunch of exposés ran in the 1990s, but there’s been nothing recent.

This whole thing brings to mind a lesson from C.S. Lewis’s 1946 novel That Hideous Strength, which showed how corrupt organizations end up eating their own offspring. I am amazed how it’s been the left, not the Religious Right, that has run major take-outs on the SPLC in the past week. They’re several years too late, but better late than never, I guess.

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