In 2019, Nathan J Robinson of Current Affairs published an article titled “The Southern Poverty Law Center is Everything That’s Wrong with Liberalism.” While the first part of the article is excellent—it’s a well-sourced exposé that highlights the flaws of the SPLC under its former head, Morris Dees—the second part left me wanting, to say the least. Robinson’s reporting of the endemic racism, sexual harassment, venality, and hypocrisy of the SPLC’s management are legitimate criticisms of a deeply flawed organisation that has often failed to fulfil its ostensible mission. I even agree that the use of the Hate Map as a fundraising tool is deeply cynical. That said, however, Robinson’s critique of the SPLC’s hate map exemplifies an insidious form of class-reductionist leftism and unexamined privilege that diminishes the threat some of these profiled groups present.
First, Robinson’s criticism of the SPLC’s hate-group designations omits a key part of the definition they list on the website. He says:
One problem here is that the definition of “hate” is very unclear. It supposedly means having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people,” but in that case I’m a member of a hate group myself, since I despise bourgeois liberals.
That’s not the full definition. From the 4 October 2017 SPLC FAQ about hate groups, archived on 21 February 2019:
The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as an organization that – based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities – has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics. We do not list individuals as hate groups, only organizations.
That’s a pretty glaring omission. He doesn’t even have the excuse that the FAQ was updated, because the line about immutable characteristics was there over a year before Robinson published this piece. He also failed to mention that the SPLC uses similar guidelines to the federal government’s definition of a hate crime:
Traditionally, FBI investigations of hate crimes were limited to crimes in which the perpetrators acted based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In addition, investigations were restricted to those wherein the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity. With the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Bureau became authorized to also investigate crimes committed against those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.
This is disingenuous. “Bourgeois liberal” isn’t an immutable characteristic. Race is. Sexual orientation and gender identity often are.
Second, Robinson also claims that most of the groups listed on the SPLC’s well-known Hate Map don’t belong there, mostly because they’re skeleton crews of working-class racists with a small following and minimal influence. He writes,
If you trawl through the Hate Map for a little while like I did, you may also feel uncomfortable for another reason. Most of the people they’re listing as threats seem as if they are poor and unschooled. I bet if you compared the average annual salary of the SPLC staff to the average salary of the people in these hate groups, you’d find a massive class divide. Whether it’s poor Black people joining weird sects like the United Nuwaupians, or poor white people getting together and calling themselves things like the “Folkgard of Holda & Odin,” these are people on society’s margins. A lot of this seems to be educated liberals having contempt for and fear of angry rednecks.
Although Robinson’s claim applies to many of the groups he highlighted in his article—a tiny cadre of neo-Nazis going on canoeing trips, an old Confederate-memorabilia seller—it doesn’t apply to all of them. Robinson’s characterisation is ill-fitting for the very first group he mentions: the Family Research Council, which he describes as a “mainstream conservative” organisation that has disputed its inclusion on the SPLC’s hate map. What he fails to acknowledge is that mainstream American conservatism would be considered far-right or outright fascist in other countries. The FRC is far from being a gaggle of harmless old yokels who haven’t updated their websites since 1995; they’re a well-funded Christian Right organisation that is hellbent on stripping LGBTQ people of our equal rights. They promote conversion therapy and conflate homosexuality with child molestation. The FRC’s head, Tony Perkins, has been an adviser to Donald Trump since his election, and he was named chair of the US Council for International Religious Freedom in 2019. A group with access to the White House is not a bunch of angry rednecks. Robinson is also aware that American political views tend to skew to the right compared to those espoused in other countries, making his characterisation of the FRC as “mainstream conservatives” especially inappropriate. An organisation that dedicates itself to limiting others’ rights based on immutable characteristics based on outright falsehoods is the very definition of a hate group.
The Family Research Council isn’t the only group that gets off scot-free in Robinson’s article: Robinson describes Daryush “Roosh V” Valizadeh’s Return of Kings, labelled a male supremacist group by the SPLC, as the work of a small-time pick-up artist and his friends, but that grossly minimises his reach. David Futrelle of We Hunted the Mammoth has catalogued Valizadeh’s abhorrent behaviour for years. The man peddled manuals on how to rape women for years before his conversion to conservative Orthodox Christianity. In 2015, Valizadeh sicced his followers on Aurelie Nix, a feminist activist who successfully campaigned to cancel a demonstration he was planning to hold in Montreal. Roosh is not harmless. Roosh has shed his old pick-up-artist ways, but he’s still a snake-oil-peddling misogynist, homophobe, and antisemite. I don’t give a shit that Roosh is “just one guy.” He built a following selling books that glorified sexual abuse. He’s encouraged rape and death threats against women and their allies who stand against him. By describing Roosh as a “pick-up artist and his friends,” Robinson is telling Roosh’s victims, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about a man who encourages rape and death threats.”
Third, Robinson’s accusation that the SPLC is a group of educated liberals targeting angry rednecks exemplifies the class reductionism prevalent among some progressives and leftists. There are plenty of working-class white people who abhor racism. Their class does not absolve them of their responsibility to their fellow human beings. This claim is the classic “Trump voters voted for him because of their economic anxiety” canard. Robinson’s claim that uneducated white nationalists are on the margins of society, and the insinuation that they are sympathetic figures, makes him look as though he’s making excuses for racists. Some of these people may be poor, but it doesn’t matter how much money they have if they’re going to kill me.
(Also, Robinson can’t speak for the working class: he seems to have grown up upper-middle-class and attended elite private universities like Brandeis, Yale Law School, and Harvard, all of which are in the US News and World Report Top 50. It would be one thing if he’d grown up working class, but that’s not his experience. This dude is a lifelong member of the fucking bourgeoisie himself! I myself have a lot of educational privilege, but I grew up working class—my father was an enlisted airman and my mother did random clerical and retail jobs. Neither has a college degree. My parents had lower-middle-class aspirations, but I think they were still working class. My grandparents were unambiguously working class.)
Fourth, Robinson has posted excellent long-form take-downs of the odious conservative talking head Ben Shapiro and the now-disgraced Jordan Peterson. Shapiro is a bog-standard Republican who spouts the same nonsense as Ted Cruz or any other rank-and-file GOP functionary. He espouses similar views to those of the “mainstream conservative” Family Research Council, though he’s Orthodox Jewish rather than evangelical Christian. Jordan Peterson isn’t a large organisation; he’s a Canadian psychology professor with an online cult following. Why are Shapiro and Peterson a threat, whereas Roosh is just an insignificant nutjob with a blog?
It’s clear that Robinson neither knew nor cared about the real-life harm that the FRC and Roosh V have caused. If he had, he would have found out that Roosh sold rape manuals, or that the FRC has worked assiduously to impose theocratic norms on a pluralistic society by restricting LGBTQ people’s civil rights. He would have known that Roosh used Gamergate-like tactics to silence his opponents, too.
Finally, Robinson claims he knows the biggest threat to people of colour:
This is not to say that neo-Nazis aren’t fucking terrifying, or that they don’t pose any threat. The Daily Stormer is a real thing, and there is a lot of dangerous white supremacist nonsense believed by a lot of people. But the “hate” focus is all wrong: The biggest threats to people of color do not come from those who “hate” them, but from those (like the contemporary Republican Party) who are totally indifferent to whether they live or die. This is the frightening thing about contemporary racism: It does not come waving the Confederate flag, it comes waving the American flag.
As far as I know, Robinson is white or white-passing. He cannot speak for those of us who encounter racism day in and day out. This is the kind of rank paternalism he’d happily attribute to “bourgeois liberals.” You are not our voice. Robinson wrote this not long after the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, the Christchurch shooting, and other incidents in which “lone-wolf” far-right domestic terrorists gave vent to their hate by murdering people in broad daylight. Indifferent Republicans may pose a systemic threat through their promotion of deregulation, robber-baron tactics, healthcare rationing and other capitalistic evils, but domestic terror attacks are designed to make us afraid to go out of the house, lest we be gunned down by hatemongers with far-too-accessible guns. Hate crimes are intimidation tactics that are designed to whip us into submission, as lynchings were in the post-Reconstruction, pre-Civil Rights era. Subprime lenders are a threat. So are neo-Nazis. It’s not an either–or proposition. (And in many cases, the plutocrats and hatemongers are one and the same: Steve Bannon was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs; the father-daughter duo of conservative billionaires Robert and Rebekah Mercer bankroll Breitbart; Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth; Richard Spencer comes from a rich family). Furthermore, he highlights the Republicans’ racism even as he pooh-poohs the threat of the “mainstream conservative” Family Research Council. If the Republicans are a threat, so are their think tanks, especially when their operatives have the ear of the President of the United States. The Family Research Council is the very epitome of suit-and-tie bigotry. Contemporary racism comes waving the American flag, but it also comes waving Confederate flags and swastikas.
It’s one thing to criticise the SPLC for its objectively abhorrent actions; it’s another to cover for bad-faith actors like Roosh and the Family Research Council. While Robinson has performed a valuable public service through his enumeration of the Dees-era SPLC’s faults, his attempts to speak for people of colour; co-optation of working-class narratives; and minimisation of the threats posed by the Family Research Council, Roosh V, and other far-right agitators, are ill-advised. This is irresponsible journalism that plays down the threat of far-right groups and online “thought leaders.”