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How do you say something bad about a guy who sticks up for Jews and blacks?

With trepidation. But we’ll see.

Some years ago one of the several liberal magazines I subscribe to sold its list to the Southern Poverty Law Center. So for what seemed a long time they sent me their fund-raising letters -- each emblazoned with a grisly photograph of a young black man, his dead body lashed to a tree and twisted in several directions.

He was the victim of a Southern lynch mob. The fund-raising letter made it clear that lynch mobs were not a relic of history but a live threat to black people today, and if I didn’t want to stand by and let this go on, I should send some money.

Today Morris Dees, the co-founder-director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has expanded his field of operation.

In September he brought suit against Richard Butler, the 82-year-old leader of the Aryan Nation compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, based on a 1998 incident when members of Butler’s private security force chased and shot at a mother and son driving by in a car. The attackers were sent to jail; but Dees seeks to bankrupt the group and close it down, charging that the pro-Hitler rhetoric of old Butler inspired his goons to go on a rampage.

Dees’ conviction that “hate rhetoric” moves dangerous people to murderous violence inspires the new HBO documentary, “Hate.Com: Extremists on the Internet,” (to be broadcast Oct. 23). It was produced in association with the center.

There are, Dees says, now more than 350 hate sites -- some targeted at children. Being a child has become an increasingly perilous stage of life. When I was 12, the big threat was comic books. Today at 12 I’d have to worry about video games, rock and rap lyrics, R-rated movies, Internet porn, and now Web sites trying to seduce me into becoming a Nazi.

Dees focuses on a half-dozen hate groups and their leaders -- like Stormfront, Christian Identity, World Church of the Creator and readers of the race war novel The Turner Diaries. Dees attempts to demonstrate that some of the worst people of our lifetime were moved to their monstrous acts by clicking onto these Web sites.

Benjamin Smith, 20, who killed two minority persons and wounded seven in Illinois, was a follower of Matt Hale, 29, founder of the World Church of the Creator. Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the government building in Oklahoma City, and the white guys who dragged the black man James Byrd to his death behind a pick-up truck in Jasper, Texas, read The Turner Diaries.

OK. But what is the value of this HBO “documentary” as journalism? I fear that the producers simply brought this product to HBO, and HBO bought it because of its can’t-go-wrong thesis -- that Jews and blacks and gays are victims -- rather than for its journalistic quality.

There is no attempt to put any of its “evidence” in perspective or context. Were there no other bad influences in these killers’ lives? We can’t even read the evidence when the camera zooms in -- with spooky, ominous music in the background -- on an evil Web page. All we see is “I HATE NIGGERS!”

A standard network documentary would present historians, professors, lawyers from both sides, political scientists, other journalists and others to help us come to our own conclusions -- not whether “hate is bad” (we all agree on that), but whether the appearance of hate messages on the Internet is such a threat to democracy that we should rewrite the First Amendment to shut them up.

I asked HBO for a list of “350 hate sites,” and they referred me to The Hate Directory (www.hatedirectory.com), a Web site with a list of hate sites compiled by Raymond A. Franklin in Maryland. And it’s a long list. Heavy on Holocaust deniers, but including feminist groups like SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men). A third of the sites I tried weren’t there any longer. Only one site was listed as anti-Catholic.

HBO claims they got access to the “powerful but elusive” hate group leaders for interviews. Yet these “elusive” leaders are the type that will never shut up. An “anti-hate” site (www.hatewatch.org) has a 1997 interview with the Rev. Matt Hale of the World Church of the Creator, where he says stuff -- Jews look like rats, want to mongrelize the white race by promoting interracial marriage -- that demonstrates only one thing: He’s nuts.

As are just about all of the targets of Dees’ latest “investigation.”

His concept also demonstrates the most naive notion of what the Internet -- indeed all journalism -- is and how it works. The whole point of the First Amendment is that democracy is a messy business that must allow a thousand ideas to jump up, including those that are abhorrent to the rest of the society, so that the odd but good idea will have a fighting chance to be heard.

Why does this HBO “documentary” seem such a mishmash?

Part of the answer goes back to my visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., a few years ago, and to my visit with a reporter friend at the Montgomery Advertiser about the same time; and to conversations with journalists and lawyers active in the anti-death penalty cause; and to articles on Southern Poverty Law Center in The Progressive (July 1988) and The New York Times (Sept. 9, 1992), and to a Pulitzer Prize contender series on the center in the Montgomery Advertiser (throughout 1994), and the newsletter Counterpunch (May 15-31, 1996).

Morris Dees is not quite what he presents himself to be.

Since his college and law school years, he has been, above all, a genius not as a civil rights activist but as a direct-mail marketer. He sat out the civil rights movement and he made his first million dollars selling cookbooks and doormats in the mail.

In 1972 he worked for George McGovern and got his hands on his mailing list. With these new contacts, Dees’ newly founded Southern Poverty Law Center began to grow. As Gloria Browne, one of the few black attorneys to work at the center, told the Advertiser (Feb. 13, 1994), “The market is still wide open for the product, which is black pain and white guilt.”

He has built one of the richest charities in the nation, with assets (the Advertiser’s 1992 figures) of $48.1 million (compared to, for example, $3.2 million at the ACLU), and spends less than a third of the center’s annual income for its charitable causes. In response to critics, center co-founder and current president Joe Levin rejects the charge that that Dees keeps raising money the center does not need. He told me that all fundraising materials for several years have included a statement on the endowment, which has risen to $116 million, so donors know the charity is already well fixed. Of the $29 million raised last year, he says, $26.5 million was spent on programs and administrative costs.

Although Dees did civil rights litigation in the 1970s, since the 1980s he has pursued relatively few civil rights cases, preferring to chase high-profile, easy targets, like hate groups and the relatively toothless Klan, portraying his work dramatically in newsletters as if he and his staff were risking their lives.

One of his mid-1980s letters reads like a rough draft for the script of “Hate.com”: He describes the South as a region plagued by “armed Klan military forces [that] freely roam our wooded hills from Texas to North Carolina practicing with military-like weapons to ‘kill niggers and Jews’ in a race war they are planning” (Montgomery Advertiser, Feb. 13, 1994).

In 1992 he alienated most of the national civil rights leadership by backing Edward E. Carnes, an Alabama assistant attorney general known as the state’s chief defender of the death penalty, for federal appeals court judge.

Dees admitted to The Progressive in 1988 that “the Klan thing is winding down” and he was looking for new areas of influence, especially in education. In the 1990s he produced a series of videotapes, called “Teaching Tolerance,” which were distributed free to schools.

“Hate.Com” flows naturally from most of Dees’ previous career. He focuses on a real problem and packages it to suit his purposes. If the problem is nuanced, complicated -- for example, the limits we might put on free expression are seldom clear -- he provides a prism, based partly on fear, through which we can view the issue: The Internet is out of control; hate groups are poisoning the World Wide Web. His Southern Poverty Law Center, with your help, will save you.

So, watch the show. Check out the Web sites. But think twice before you send him any money.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is the Jesuit community professor of the humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000