Peel and Stick: SPLC’s Reckless Labeling

Peter Wood

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) yesterday published an article, “American Freedom Alliance Event Blames Immigrants for California’s ‘Destruction.’” I’m mentioned in the third paragraph of the article as a featured speaker. I hasten to add that I gave a ten-minute talk Sunday morning at the American Freedom Alliance’s Los Angeles conference on the decline of California’s civic institutions. My brief talk was about the spread of false narratives in education, collective forgetfulness, and the ferocity of some progressive activists. I had nothing at all to say about immigrants.

A video of the event will be available soon.

The American Freedom Alliance might be described as a mix of conservative populist and libertarian intellectuals. The dominant political theme was opposition to regulatory overreach. The keynote speaker was Victor Davis Hanson. Attendees were provided a 74-page compilation of articles, and several of the speakers were promoting their books. I left with copies of Greg Walcher’s Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back, and Lance Izumi’s The Corrupt Classroom.  One attendee, Howard Hyde, gave me a copy of his book, Escape from Berkeley: An Ex-liberal Progressive Socialist Embraces America.

I mention these details to evoke the character of the event. No Confederate flags were waved. No Nazis appeared in the audience. There were no protesters, and no counter-protesters. It was Sunday-morning short-sleeved Los Angelenos mainly expressing their sense of marginalization from state government. Three hopefuls for the Republican nomination for governor spoke. I sat next to a second grade public school teacher, Ms. Hanson, who has a sideline of promoting cursive writing instruction

But SPLC has labeled AFA a “hate group.” The first sentence of SPLC story about the meeting explains why: 

The August 20 conference began with AFA president Dr. Karen Siegemund and the 150 or so attendees gleefully celebrating the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center listed her group as an anti-Muslim hate group, in part due to the vile Muslim-bashing that took place at last year’s gig.

I wasn’t at “last year’s gig” and can’t say with certainty what happened there that aroused such antipathy from SPLC, but I’m skeptical that it took much. The AFA crowd is, I would judge, not inclined to give much credit to the idea that Islamic terrorism and radical Islam are incidental concerns for the American people. The topic, however, was not on the agenda for the meeting this week. When AFA president Karen Siegemund told the audience at the beginning of the day that SPLC has labeled AFA a “hate group,” the audience indeed cheered. The people around me made clear why they were cheering:  not because they hate Muslims, but because they view the SPLC itself as a false authority that smears the reputations of those who hold views in opposition to progressive ideology.

The National Association of Scholars has so far stayed outside SPLC’s ever-growing list of enemy and suspect organizations. I would just as soon NAS stay outside that list, but the prominent mention of me and NAS in this article bodes ill. 

NAS published an article in Academic Questions three years ago, George Yancey’s “Watching the Watchers: The Neglect of Academic Analysis of Progressive Groups,” (Vol. 27, No.1, Spring 2014), which dealt with the history and tactics of SPLC. SPLC at the time took note of it and posted a brief reply, focused more on what a writer at Breitbart had made of Yancey’s article than on the article itself. That is the extent of our past dealings with SPLC.

The culture wars impinge ever closer on efforts to describe accurately and critique fairly American education. There is no avoiding this and no reason to run from it, but it is important to understand that SPLC is an active partisan in these matters. SPLC continues to benefit from a reputation as an honest arbiter of the character and motives of extremist groups in American life, but over the decades since its founding in 1971, it has devolved into a body that affixes that label to many mainstream groups simply because they espouse policy views at odds with progressive orthodoxy. Some thought SPLC hit bottom when it put the Family Research Council on its hate group list along with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. 

We are at a historical moment in which it is important to be able to distinguish between extremist views and those that are animated by the spirit of restraint and moderation. By blurring or even erasing this line, SPLC plays an increasingly destructive role in our civic culture. I would prefer, of course, if SPLC were to leave NAS alone, but if it decides to call us out, I’d be inclined to follow the AFA crowd and give a soft cheer. Joe McCarthy lost his last shred of credibility by accusing too many and by attacking the innocent. The SPLC will likewise eventually squander what little it has left of its credibility. If we can help blow out the guttering flame of that candle, so much the better.


Image: City post-its: Wall by Sarah JoyCC BY-SA 2.0-SA 2.0y

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