The Montgomery behemoth

Ben Schreckinger at Politico takes a look at the Southern Poverty Law Center and its expanded…agenda.

Since 1971, the SPLC has fought racial discrimination in the South and established itself as the nation’s most prominent hate-group watchdog, most notably winning legal fights that put some of the last nails in the coffin of the Ku Klux Klan. It has also built itself into a civil rights behemoth with a glossy headquarters and a nine-figure endowment, inviting charges that it oversells the threats posed by Klansmen and neo-Nazis to keep donations flowing in from wealthy liberals.

Trump has been a kind of gift to them, P argues, renewing their Relevance Ticket and inspiring new donors.

The rise of Trump is a moment made for Dees, the SPLC’s 80-year-old founder, who is more than a little Trumpian himself. Smooth, publicity-savvy and detail-averse, Dees is a marketing genius whose greatest success may be selling his own persona as a crusader—a skill on display across the street from the SPLC’s office, where a black granite memorial to the casualties of the civil rights movement proclaims it was built by the Morris Dees Legacy Fund. Inside the memorial’s gift shop, visitors will find on the wall a framed photo of Dees staring off into the distance, looking equal parts pensive and saintly. On a shelf next to SPLC-branded water bottles and mugs, the same image of Dees reappears in another frame; it’s also printed on nearby postcards, which are available for purchase.

Touches such as these have led some journalists to nickname Dees, with irony, “the Mother Teresa of Montgomery.” And as Dees navigates the era of Trump, there are new questions arising around a charge that has dogged the group for years: that the SPLC is overplaying its hand, becoming more of a partisan progressive hit operation than a civil rights watchdog. Critics say the group abuses its position as an arbiter of hatred by labeling legitimate players “hate groups” and “extremists” to keep the attention of its liberal donors and grind a political ax. Which means that just as the SPLC is about to embark on its biggest fight in decades, taking on rising racism and prejudice across the country, its authority to police the boundaries of American political discourse is facing its greatest challenge yet.

Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t even restrict itself to policing US political discourse, where at least it can be assumed to know something of what it discusses. Maajid Nawaz is part of UK political discourse, not US.

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.

Well, it was a destructive, reckless, factually wrong, outrageous thing for the SPLC to do. Maajid is in no possible sense an “anti-Muslim extremist.”

Is tough immigration control really a form of hate, or just part of the political conversation? Does rejecting a religion make you an extremist? At a time when the line between “hate group” and mainstream politics is getting thinner and the need for productive civil discourse is growing more serious, fanning liberal fears, while a great opportunity for the SPLC, might be a problem for the nation.

That second question appears to be a reference to Maajid, but Maajid hasn’t even rejected the religion – he’s very much still a Muslim. This is part of the damage the SPLC has done: people assume they must have had some reason to include him.

The SPLC’s hate group and extremist labels are effective. Groups slapped with them have lost funding, been targeted by activists and generally been banished from mainstream legitimacy. This makes SPLC the de facto cop in this realm of American politics, with all the friction that kind of policing engenders.

Yes, American, which is, to repeat, another reason they shouldn’t have pinned the lie on Maajid Nawaz.

The SPLC’s leaders say they are aware of the various critiques lodged against them but have no plans to change their approach. Heidi Beirich, the head of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, says the group’s criteria are clear and transparent, pointing to the definition published on its website of hate groups as ones that “have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

Which doesn’t apply to Maajid, as many people (including me) pointed out to her when she sent us a form letter saying that.

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