Shortly after the election of Donald Trump in November of 2016, a lot of people I knew wrote biggish checks to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They weren’t alone: According to tax filings, the group took in $136 million last year alone, bringing its total assets to a whopping half-a-billion dollars.
This surge in the organization’s popularity makes sense: The SPLC, after all, is the group that had once, nearly four decades ago, protected Vietnamese shrimpers from the Klan in Galveston Bay, sued several white supremacist groups out of existence, and delivered justice to the family Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student bludgeoned to death by members of a Neo-Nazi group in Portland, Oregon. You’d think that an organization with such a gleaming record would be richly deserving of support, particularly as far-right thugs are once again openly on the march.
Then again, you could ask Sam Harris.
In late March, the SPLC included a piece about the best-selling author in its daily Hatewatch Headlines, a compilation of media reports on bigots, thugs, and other assorted creeps. Why was the neuroscientist and prominent atheist thrown in together with Mark Anthony Conditt, the Austin bomber who had murdered two black men, and Nazi war criminal Jakiw Palij? Because Harris defended Charles Murray, a political scientist best-known for arguing that genetic differences may account for varying levels of intelligence between races. The assertion drove many in academia and journalism to label Murray a racist; he was famously shouted out of an appearance at Middlebury College last March, and was labeled a “White Nationalist” and an “extremist” by the SPLC. But when the prominent Harvard geneticist David Reich echoed Murray’s ideas in a New York Times op-ed last month—arguing that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’”—Harris took several of Murray’s critics to task on Twitter, including Vox’s Ezra Klein. Klein responded in his typically obfuscating fashion, doing little to discuss the ideas at hand and a lot to strangle them with potent ideological terms. White men discussing the possibility of genetic differences between blacks and whites wasn’t science, Klein thundered—it was racism pure and simple, facts and findings be damned. The SPLC was quick to mirror this sentiment, placing Harris on its HateWatch list.
This was far from the first time that the SPLC applied the blunt force of its historic reputation to label political opponents as racists or extremists. Harris’s co-author, Maajid Nawaz, experienced the organization’s wrath as well. A former radical Islamist who spent four years in an Egyptian prison, Nawaaz abandoned his zealotry and committed his life to promoting a pluralistic and non-violent version of Islam, a mission that led him to serve as an advisor to three British Prime Ministers. In the fall of 2016, however, Nawaz was placed on the SPLC’s list of “anti-Muslim extremists,” widely disseminated with the header “a journalist’s manual.” His sins, according to the list, included sharing a cartoon of Jesus and Muhammad on Twitter and visiting a London strip club. You hardly have to be a scholar to realize that neither is particularly convincing evidence that Nawaz, himself a practicing Muslim, is some sort of bigot. Joining him on the list was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a victim of female genital mutilation in her native Somalia and an outspoken campaigner against the practice, as well as others, like child marriage and honor killings, common throughout the Islamic world.
Rightly enraged, Nawaz threatened to sue, and the SPLC quietly removed the list. When questioned about the removal by the National Review last week, the SPLC refused to comment.
Examples of this sort of lunacy abound. The SPLC, for example, still maintains a watch list of groups and individuals promoting “male supremacy,” an ideology that “misrepresents all women as genetically inferior, manipulative and stupid.” Among its preachers, according to the SPLC, is Christina Hoff Sommers, an American philosopher and writer who has criticized the radical feminist position that saw all women as perpetual victims and called instead for an “equity feminism,” a classical liberal position that focuses on equal treatment of men and women rather than on identity politics.
These examples are, of course, grotesque, and it’s easy to want to dismiss them as yet more rotten examples of our ever more crass civic culture. It’s a privilege we can’t afford: When a venerated organization whose mission statement still speaks of “seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society” spends so many of its considerable resources besmirching utterly legitimate activists and advocates—many of whom, like Nawaaz, working to reform oppressive and violent structures—we would do well to stop and recognize the pernicious patterns at play here. The SPLC applies the powerful language of civil rights to mark those with whom it disagrees as bigots or racists or white supremacists, inviting likeminded journalists to use the organization’s sterling reputation as an unimpeachably credentialed reason to push political opponents outside the bounds of acceptable debate. Facing Hoff Sommers’s claim that so many alleged feminists these days spend most of their energy attacking men rather than striving for equality is hard; labeling her an extremist who should therefore not be taken seriously by serious people is much easier. The SPLC has half a billion dollars and seemingly endless appetite for such character assassination campaigns, which should trouble anyone committed to unfettered inquiry, intellectual exchange, and the other old-fashioned values for which journalism, academia, and other high-minded pursuits once stood.
But the prognosis isn’t all bleak. While the SPLC does its best to impose its ideology by encouraging reporters within its echo chamber to adopt its absurd definitions, free-thinkers like Sam Harris these days can simply launch their own podcast, raise a fortune from committed listeners, and reach tens of millions of people, many more than care or even know about Ezra Klein and Vox. Let the SPLC continue to smear and squirrel away its millions in off-shore accounts: Common sense these days is just a download away.
Photo by Chris Boland.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.