|The Dees Money Machine
by Alexander Cockburn
from "Wild Justice," The New York Press
I've long regarded Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center as
collectively one of the greatest frauds in American life. The reasons:
a relentless fundraising machine devoted to terrifying its mostly
low-income contributors into unbelting ill-spared dollars year after
year to an organization that now has an endowment of more than $100
million, with very little to show for it beyond hysterical bulletins
designed to raise money on the proposition that only the SPLC can stop
Nazism and the KKK from seizing power.
Gloria Browne, a lawyer who's worked with Dees' outfit, once told the
Montgomery Advertiser that the Southern Poverty Law Center trades in
"black pain and white guilt." He's the Jim and Tammy Faye Baker of the
civil rights movement.
In fact, Dees began the 1960's as an attorney in Montgomery,
representing a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer, Claude Henley, who had led an
attack on Freedom Riders at the local bus station. Dees has denied he
was ever personally supportive of the Klan or Henley, but his former
partner, Millard Farmer, has said, "We expressed openly our sympathies
and support for what happened at the bus station." For the rest of the
1960s Dees sat on the sidelines and got rich from marketing "Famous
Recipe" cookbooks with Farmer; he built a tennis court, pool,
high-quality stables and got a Rolls-Royce.
He founded the SPLC in 1971. In the end Dees and Farmer fell out, with
Farmer (who later gave away most of his money and started Habitat for
Humanity) saying bitterly, "If an issue isn't bringing in money, he's
off to the woods. He may believe [in civil rights] but he'll quit doing
the work if it doesn't make money." Farmer says of the Southern Poverty
Law Center that it's "little more than a 900 number."
Dees has always been alert to the paranoias of the hour. The center's
entire legal staff resigned in the late 1980s, in part because Dees was
reluctant to take up legal issues of real importance to poor people.
His obsession was the Klanwatch Project, a cash cow for the SPLC.
Literature from the SPLC portrayed the Klan as poised to take over
American and embark on an orgy of burning and lynching. This was at a
time when the major danger to poor people was going to be welfare reform
, a collusive project between the Gingrich Republicans and Clinton
liberals, among the latter being many fervent supporters of Dees. Dees
sits on a mountain of cash, but his courtroom forays are not profuse.
In the early 1990s, when the center's reserves were about half what they
are today- $52 million in 1993- the center (between 1989 and 1994) filed
only a dozen suits.
Recently Jim Reddin and Cletus Nelson sent CounterPunch, the newsletter
I coedit with Jeffrey St. Clair, and interesting account of Dees' latest
twist in moneygrubbing. In its most recent Intelligence Report
newsletter, the SPLC -in a "Special Report"- puts forth the preposterous
theory that far from being a glorious renaissance of the radical spirit
in American political life, the protest against the World Trade
Organization, most in evidence in Seattle and in Washington, DC, at the
start of last week, have been the nexus for a far-flung crypto-facist
conspiracy comprised of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan
members and other shock troops of the far right. The SPLC's anonymous
writer confidently states that the anarchists, socialists,
environmentalists and other left-wing dissidents who gathered in Seattle
at the start of last December were secretly infiltrated by
European-style "Third Position" fascists who mix racism with
environmentalism. "Right alongside the progressive groups that
demonstrated in Seattle- mostly peaceful defenders of labor, the
environment, animal rights and similar causes- were the hard-edged
soldiers of neofascism," the newsletter excitedly warns.
No documentation is offered to substantiate this allegation. The
newsletter doesn't name a single right-winger who has infiltrated Direct
Action, Food Not Bombs, Greenpeace or any of the other groups that
organized the Seattle protests. Dees' pretense is that he stands for
civil rights, but of course the newsletter entirely ignores the civil
rights abuses committed by the Seattle police against the protesters,
even though the ACLU has filed a civil rights suit over the "no protest"
zone" declared by city officials.
The attack on the anti-globalization movement marks a significant shift
in the SPLC's policies, suggesting to us that Dees sees material
opportunity in attacking a popular radical cause. As part of its
scourched-earth policy, the organization has declared war against
grassroots environmental activists. "They pine for nations of
peasant-like folk tied closely to the land and to their neighbors," the
newsletter observes disdainfully.
Some who've followed the FBI's recent disastrous predictions about Y2K
terror attacks from right-wing militias suspect that both the SPLC and
the Anti-Defamation League (which helped fuel the FBI"s Y2K predictions)
are hauling water for the bureau, essentially acting as subcontractors
performing tasks of defamation that in the old COINTELPRO days would
have been performed by the bureau itself. The worrying fact for
fundraisers like Dees is that there is a distinct shortage of terrifying
specters with which to coax the money out of the pockets of the suckers.
How long can you raise the alarm about a fascist takeover, when the
legions of the ultra-right are a few beleaguered platoons camped around
Hayden Lake, ID?
The Nation, Mother Jones, and kindred liberal publications have the same
problem. If the fascist/Gingrichian bogey isn't out there in the
darkness, prowling round the campfire, maybe people will start
concluding that real enemy is all too unidentifiably roosting in
Washington in the two-party system. So the new strategy of the Dees
crowd, the SPLC and ADL, is to point tremulously to such signs of
realignment as the Antiwar.com conference, "Beyond Left and Right,"
about which I reported a couple of weeks ago, and raise the alarm,
saying -as the Dees Intelligence Report does- that the left is being
duped and captured by the far right and that realignment is a
neo-fascist strategy. And of course they're strains in the
anti-globalist, anti-free trade movement that can buttress such a
charge. It's not hard to go to a gun show and scoop up a pamphlet
attacking the New World Order along with the UN, the big banks, and the WTO.
American, populist culture has crank patches, as do all political
cultures. In American environmentalism there's a Malthusian element
that goes back to the racist speculations of Harvard professors a
century ago. One task for us left greens has always been to identify
this element and attack it. Going "beyond left and right" doesn't mean
abandoning basic positions on racism, Malthusianism and the like, it
means trying to forge alliances on issues such as U.S. Interventions and
wars, or on the Bill of Rights - and keeping one's powder dry. The
attack from Dees on the anti-WTO forces won't be the last.