Annual Report Cites Rise in Hate Groups, But Some Ask: What Is Hate?

Patrik Jonsson, Christian Monitor, February 23, 2011

Even as the Southern Poverty Law Center points out that the number of US hate groups has topped 1,000 for the first time, the civil rights organization is receiving flak from critics on the right who say an overbroad definition of “hate” vilifies innocent people and stifles vigorous debate about issues critical to America’s future.

Tension erupted recently between the SPLC and a slew of Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota (who tops the SPLC’s “militia enablers list”), who protested the SPLC’s listing of the conservative Family Research Council as a hate group. The SPLC said the Family Research Council is knowingly pushing falsehoods about gay people.

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The Montgomery, Ala.-based SPLC, which became well-known for civil lawsuits that weakened the KKK and other white supremacist groups, is careful to note that organizations on its list don’t necessarily advocate violence. Its definition of a hate group and “ideologues” includes groups and people who suggest that an entire group of human beings are, by virtue of class characteristics, “somewhat less,” says Mark Potok, the editor of the SPLC’s Intelligence Report, which published its findings Wednesday.

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Driven by fears about changing demographics, the first black president, and a harrowing economy, “[the] three strands of the radical right–the hatemongers, the nativists and the antigovernment zealots–increased from 1,753 groups in 2009 to 2,145 in 2010, a 22% rise,” the report says. “That followed a 2008-2009 increase of 40%.”

Neo-Nazi-like hate groups grew by nearly 10 percent since 2009, to 1002; anti-immigration vigilante groups grew by 3 percent, to 319; and antigovernment “Patriot” groups–defined as “conspiracy-minded organizations that see the federal government as their primary enemy”–grew by 60 percent, to 824. {snip}

Potok notes that the slowdown in the increase of the number of so-called “nativist” anti-immigration groups is probably related to the enactment of tough new measures against illegal immigrants, such as in Arizona. But while legislators in states such as Virginia and Montana have proffered a slew of antifederal legislation this year, the mainstreaming of hard-right issues hasn’t dramatically “taken the wind out of the sails” of Patriot groups, he says.

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While the SPLC’s investigations and studies are used by some law enforcement agencies concerned about domestic terrorism, its overall work, its critics on the right say, has taken on an overtly political dimension by giving ideological cover for attacks primarily on white conservatives and by turning the word “patriot” into a euphemism.

In December, 22 Republican lawmakers, among them Speaker Boehner and Representative Bachmann, three governors, and a number of conservative organizations took out full-page ads in two Washington papers castigating the SPLC for “character assassination” by listing the conservative Family Research Council as a hate group.

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“They really need to explain what they mean by hate and how in the world [Loyola economist Thomas] DiLorenzo or myself could be associated with something called hate,” says Livingston [Donald Livingston, an Emory University philosophy professor]. “We don’t hate anybody.”

In January, Mr. DiLorenzo was called out on the House floor for being a member of the League of the South. Mr. DiLorenzo says he’s not a member, but Loyola University in Baltimore is investigating.

Livingston, who describes himself as a former supporter of the SPLC, questions whether the organization’s “hate group” reports are primarily tied to its fund-raising activities. He also notes that many of those listed by the SPLC take it as a “badge of honor,” much as tea party activists took to wearing “I’m a right-wing extremist” T-shirts.

Nevertheless, he says, “it’s time for some reality check on this sort of thing, beginning with the very concept of hate. The SPLC has a political agenda and they vilify people, that’s what they do. There’s very little in the way of an empirical examination of groups that might pose a threat to civil order. There’s almost nobody left in the Klan, so what they do is they find respectable groups or high-profile people and they say, ‘X is linked to Y, who is linked to a hate group.’ That’s what McCarthy did.”

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