An Expanding Crusade: The Political Agenda of Morris Dees
Students who attended the annual Peck Award lecture on April 6 were confronted with a rare sight at Wabash College: tight security. The presence of a police force this year was the result of the new Senior Peck Medal recipient. Mr. Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), has angered a lot of dangerous people in the course of his career. This is much to his credit. Mr. Dees has dedicated his life to a crusade against hate groups, and the results are impressive. Dangerous racist organizations across the country are out of business due to his pioneering legal tactics. His activism, however, is not limited solely to organizations that are “dangerous,” in the sense that they break the law. As a disclaimer on the SPLC website states, the “hate groups” listed by the organization do not necessarily “imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity.” They merely designate groups that hold “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
Those who attended Mr. Dees’s lecture will not be surprised to learn that he is a leftist. Nor will they be surprised to learn that some of the groups and people the SPLC “monitors” are well-known conservatives. The “Intelligence Project” section of the SPLC website, for example, currently reports on the “hate and extremist activities” of Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin. The sophomoric antics of the Michigan State University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom have also earned it a spot on the SPLC’s hate groups list, under the vague category of “general hate.”
Mr. Dees and his organization have every right to call out whomever they please, and to be fair, they do so with considerable consistency. The Nation of Islam and Black Panthers, among other minority groups, are also targeted by the organization for their beliefs of racial superiority. The SPLC’s mission, however, can sometimes be very political, and its attacks on “hate groups” can morph into attacks on political opponents.
Morris Dees and the SPLC are very dedicated to immigration reform. Mr. Dees supported former President Bush’s comprehensive reform policy, and since the defeat of that policy, the SPLC has dedicated its resources to targeting the “nativist” groups that brought it about. It was the immigration debate which led to his report on Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin. The two allegedly blamed illegal immigrants for the subprime mortgage crisis. The SPLC also issued a report this February linking a number of think tanks dedicated to strict immigration policies together as part of a racist conspiracy.
The report presented the case against, among others, National Review writer and Center for Immigration Studies executive director Mark Krikorian. While Krikorian’s ties to the ethically questionable anti-immigration leader John Tanton are undeniable, the report uses shaky evidence to prove that Krikorian is a racist. For example, it reported Tanton “frequently copied Krikorian on correspondence with white nationalists” as evidence of his racism. It also included a photo of Krikorian posing with a student leader from Michigan State University’s YAF (the aforementioned “hate group”) along with the caption “hobnobbing with extremists.” Being carbon copied on emails and posing for pictures with conservative students cannot be all that uncommon for a man of Mr. Krikorian’s profile. If the SPLC wants to make a case against him, it could use better tactics than guilt by association.
Now, I admire Morris Dees, and his crusade against hate. I live near Warsaw, Indiana—home of Mr. Tom Metzger, the hate-mongering former leader of the White Aryan Resistance. Mr. Metzger used to be a powerful political force, once capturing the Democratic Party’s nomination for a congressional seat in California. After his defeat, he continued to preach hate through his WAR organization, and in 1988, incited the murder of an Ethiopian man. Morris Dees successfully sued him for $12.5 million. Thanks to Morris Dees, Tom Metzger is now bankrupt, living in his mother’s house, and operating primarily through the letters to the editor column of the Warsaw Times Union.
Morris Dees’s organization is renowned for cases such as these. What troubles me is that it seems he sometimes uses that renown to smear. Someone with a reputation for shutting down dangerous racists has an added responsibility to clearly distinguish political opponents from dangerous racist ones. But for Morris Dees and the SPLC, too often, the White Aryan Resistance and Rush Limbaugh are portrayed as one and the same.