Posted on | April 19, 2010 | 45 Comments
It was 1997 and I was a columnist for the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune when the latest copy of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Intelligence Report” arrived at the office. Looking for some local angle in the report — my editor’s mantra was “local, local, local” — I flipped to the map in the back where, with several symbols, the SPLC identified the location of various “hate” groups.
My eyes popped out of my head when I saw that one of the symbols was located squarely in our community, identifying a “patriot” group that the SPLC wished to portray as a menace to the public weal: A chapter of the John Birch Society!
It so happened that I actually knew the local JBS organizer. Gretna Fuller was the wife of a judge in neighboring Gordon County. A few years earlier, as sports editor of the Calhoun (Ga.) Times, I’d covered her son when he wrestled and played baseball for Gordon Central High. In addition to her activities with Birchers, Gretna was also an all-around conservative Republican, involved with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum among other groups and a frequent contributor to our newspaper’s letters-to-the-editor column.
And here was the Southern Poverty Law Center identifying Gretna Fuller in the same category as dangerous groups like the Hammerskins and the Aryan Nations!
Think what you will about the John Birch Society, they’ve never been associated with crime or violence, and this SPLC “hate” map included several JBS chapters, denoted in the category of “patriot” groups. In the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the SPLC had evidently begun casting a wide net to identify “patriot” organizations, creating the impression that there were Tim McVeigh wannabes lurking in every neighborhood. And among these alleged threats to society were harmless Republican moms like Gretna Fuller.
This startling discovery was my first real insight into the modus operandi of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and especially the role of Mark Potok in the transformation of the Montgomery-based center. Originally devoted to tracking violent neo-Nazi and Klan groups, in the 1990s the SPLC began expanding its purview to include all “extremists,” which has proved to be an amazingly flexible term. In 2003, for example, an SPLC report warned its readers of the dangers posed by such respectable conservative organizations as the American Entreprise Institute and the Bradley Foundation.
This shift in the SPLC’s mission coincided with the hiring of Potok, a journalist whose biography includes this important datum:
While at USA Today, he covered the 1993 siege in Waco, the rise of militias, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the trial of Timothy McVeigh.
Byron York has recently explained how the Clinton administration exploited the Oklahoma City bombing and, with the addition of Potok to its staff, the SPLC began doing the same thing. Longtime critics of Morris Dees and the SPLC says they have always exaggerated the “extremist” threat:
In 1994, the Montgomery Advertiser — the SPLC’s hometown newspaper — published a nine-day expose of Dees’ empire of hypocrisy, cynicism and greed. It said in an editorial that the Klan had become “a farce.” It also agreed with the criticism that the SPLC “focuses on the anti-Klan theme not because the Klan is a major threat, but because it plays well with liberal donors.” . . .
In 2009, liberal journalist Alexander Cockburn called Dees the “arch-salesman of hate-mongering.” Under a headline that labeled Dees the “King of the Hate Business,” he said Dees thrived by “selling the notion there’s a right resurgence out there in the hinterland with massed legions of haters, ready to march down Main Street draped in Klan robes, a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’ tucked under one arm and a Bible under the other.
It was with the addition of Potok to the SPLC’s staff, however, that Dees’ outfit began trying to connect this “massed legion of haters” to mainstream conservatism. This involves a deceptive technique that Laird Wilcox — a respected researcher of extremist movements — has called the “links and ties” method, using incidental associations between groups and individuals to create a false perception of shared ideology and purpose.
One of the big coups for the SPLC was smearing various Republican politicians, including Sen. Trent Lott, former Sen. George Allen, and former Rep. Bob Barr, for associating with the Council of Conservative Citizens. Once the media accepted the SPLC’s portrayal of the CCC as a dangerous “white supremacist” organization — a portrayal that CCC officials have always disputed — then the links-and-ties method meant that any association with that group could be construed as evidence of “white supremacist” sympathies.
No one has ever directly accused George Allen of being a white supremacist — which he most certainly is not — but the pretzel-logic of the links-and-ties method has the effect of making its targets guilty until proven innocent.
Few people in mainstream journalism or politics undertakes a critical examination of the SPLC’s labels because to do so would be to risk the charge of defending a “hate” group — and then, through the magic of the links-and-ties method, you will be named in the next indictment.
Since the arrival of Potok at SPLC, the links-and-ties smears have multiplied to the point of transparent absurdity. A few years ago, the SPLC began smearing immigration-control groups in such a way that Michelle Malkin would qualify as a “white supremacist.” Jim Antle recently busted that smear:
Advocates of reduced immigration levels and stronger border security are high on the SPLC’s list of targets because of the obvious racial component of the immigration issue.
Locating cranks who have made ill-tempered remarks about immigrants is not terribly difficult work for highly trained members of the thought police. But Morris Dees’s marauders have not been content to stop there. In late 2007, the SPLC labeled the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) a hate group. This troubling designation by extension tarred organizations like CIS [the Center for Immigration Studies] and Roy Beck’s NumbersUSA—and quickly achieved its intended chilling effect on the immigration debate.
The SPLC’s smear became the centerpiece of the National Council of La Raza’s “Stop the Hate” campaign. “Hate” was loosely defined as any position that differed from La Raza’s advocacy of loose borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants. La Raza used the SPLC’s “findings” to try to silence its critics, and the mainstream media, always eager to portray conservatives as racists, cheerfully repeated the slur in its woefully biased coverage of the amnesty debate. Stop the Hate claimed its biggest scalp when Lou Dobbs stepped away from his microphone at CNN—by most accounts, a voluntary move, but one hastened by the network’s growing discomfort with the controversy surrounding Dobbs’s outspoken views on immigration.
FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA are far from hate groups. They are wonky, white-paper-generating organizations committed to nothing more controversial than cutting back immigration from its post-1965 high of 1 million new immigrants a year to the more traditional level of 300,000. They shy away from the more racially charged aspects of the debate, which reflects their roots in the wing of the immigration-restrictionist movement animated primarily by environmental and economic concerns rather than blood and soil.
But such facts cannot be allowed to get in the way of a good fundraising mailing—or a malicious attempt to drum certain viewpoints out of polite society. In its fevered writings about immigration reformers, the SPLC has concocted conspiracies so elaborate they would raise eyebrows within the John Birch Society.
It comes full-circle, you see? The SPLC’s fearmongering about the Right — where America is always just one Tea Party rally away from that dreaded moment when the brownshirts come goosestepping down Main Street — is at least as irresponsible as the Birchers’ fearmongering about the Left. Unlike the JBS, however, the SPLC is treated by mainstream journalists as respectable and authoritative. And among those abetting this smear operation is Geraldo Rivera:
Allahpundit summarizes this particular application of the links-and-ties method:
Militias are right-wing and angry and tea partiers are right-wing and angry, ergo tea partiers want to blow up the Murrah building. No need to directly accuse them of it, either. Just warn the public vaguely about the danger of “anti-government rhetoric” and let swing voters make the connection themselves.
One of the unintended consequences of the election of our post-racial president is that the “racist” smear has now become so ubiquitous that more and more people have begun to question the labels that liberals like Potok so blithely affix to their political adversaries. Ask the PUMAs like Hillbuzz how it felt, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, to be labeled “racist” for supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Courage is the indispensible virtue. At some point, conservatives have to stop being frightened by smear artists like Mark Potok. Remember: There are five A’s in “raaaacism.”