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Tyler O’Neil ’12 recently released a book exposing the cor­ruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Courtesy | Wiki­media Commons

Tyler O’Neil ’12 makes a con­vincing case that the Southern Poverty Law Center hustles donors and should not be trusted to determine what a “hate group” is in his new book, “Making Hate Pay: The Cor­ruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center.” 

The book gets its name from an article pub­lished in the New Yorker by Bob Moser, a former writer at the SPLC. In the article, Moser accuses the SPLC of por­traying itself as an under­funded orga­ni­zation rep­re­senting the poor to solicit dona­tions from wealthy lib­erals, despite having an endowment of more than $450 million.

“We were part of the con, and we knew it,” Moser wrote in that article.

O’Neil picks up where Moser left off and gives the topic the book-length treatment it deserves. The history of the SPLC, briefly covered in Moser’s article, is given in more detail and is more damning in O’Neil’s hands.

O’Neil dives into SPLC founder Morris Dees’s back­ground as a mail-order cake salesman and vividly por­trays him as a man des­perate to get rich by any means. The best support for O’Neil’s char­ac­ter­i­zation of Dees came from Dees’ own mouth. O’Neil includes a blurb about the time Dees told a reporter that at the SPLC, “We just run our business like a business. Whether you’re selling cakes or causes, it’s all the same.”

O’Neil gives a short account of the good work done by the SPLC fighting for civil rights in the 1970s and against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s, which resulted in SPLC offices being burned by the Klan. He argues the SPLC made the tran­sition from upstanding legal non­profit to par­tisan attack dog when it began focusing on “hate groups.”

The book is at its best when it is skew­ering the SPLC’s annual list of hate groups. Con­ser­v­a­tives have fre­quently crit­i­cized the list for being biased against them, and these sec­tions of the book offer them an intel­lectual harbor from which to launch their attacks on the SPLC and its list.

One problem O’Neil found in the list was how inflated the number of hate groups is. In two mem­o­rable examples, O’Neil found that the SPLC listed an antiques shop and an indi­vidual with a website as hate groups. O’Neil’s pre­sen­tation of these errors under­mines the cred­i­bility of the list.

A more serious problem with the list is its bias against con­ser­v­a­tives. O’Neil describes an instance where Housing and Urban Devel­opment Sec­retary Ben Carson was labeled an “extremist” by the SPLC for his stance on gay mar­riage. The SPLC later retracted the cat­e­go­rization and apol­o­gized. 

O’Neil also points out that the FBI defines a hate group as an orga­ni­zation that’s primary purpose is pro­moting hos­tility against a pro­tected group. He reviews the doc­trine of some right-wing orga­ni­za­tions and argues that having tra­di­tional ideas about sex and gender does not make them hate groups.

“These ideas may be wrong, but they are not enough to prove that an orga­ni­zation is a ‘hate group,’ espe­cially when the SPLC lists such groups along with the Ku Klux Klan,” O’Neil writes.

O’Neil argues this bias is dan­gerous because the stated purpose of the list is to destroy the orga­ni­za­tions on it. He proves this assertion by quoting Mark Potok, a spokesperson for the SPLC, who said, “Some­times the press will describe us as mon­i­toring hate groups, I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, com­pletely destroy them.”

These argu­ments make it impos­sible for any con­ser­v­ative to read “Making Hate Pay” and not be filled with indig­nation. Unfor­tu­nately, the book’s message gets watered down by a lack of focus.

One silly diversion the book explores is a professor’s claim that the SPLC might hire actors to portray members of hate groups at protests to increase interest in their hate group list. Con­trary to most of the book, this tale is not fleshed out by any reporting what­soever. O’Neil doesn’t even bother to vouch for its veracity. It was a poor decision to include an unfounded accu­sation more suitable for an Alex Jones broadcast in an oth­erwise fact-driven book.

Another diversion is the section titled “Fighting Back,” which includes a history of defamation cases filed against the SPLC. This part reads like an ency­clo­pedia. 

Despite these mis­steps, “Making Hate Pay” makes the important point that the SPLC is not unbiased, and that serious people should not parrot their cat­e­go­riza­tions. Everyone who wants to have an edu­cated opinion about the SPLC should read this book.