You may have heard of the "Colbert Bump", that euphoric surge of popularity and prestige that — at least according to the man for whom it was named — follows anyone's appearance with that television tower of tendentious truthiness, Stephen Colbert.
Well, last week, we at the Center for Immigration Studies were introduced to a phenomenon at the opposite end of the pleasure-pain spectrum. It's a dysphoric dose of devilish denigration that I call the "Colbert Thump".
To understand how eager the faux right-wing newsman was to go over the top and off a cliff as he gave us our thumping, all you need to know is that the source for his story was the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
The SPLC is run by attorney and direct-mail fundraiser deluxe Morris Dees, whom liberal journalist Alexander Cockburn described as the "arch salesman of hate mongering". The Nation magazine called him "a millionaire huckster". Investigative reporter Ken Silverstein quoted a former Dees associate who called him "the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement".
Colbert's purpose last week was to mock a television spot based on a CIS study showing that once immigrants adopt American patterns of consumption their carbon footprint becomes much larger than it was in their native countries. The message was that environmentalists should be concerned about immigration, which is the principal source of rapid U.S. population growth.
You can trust this study because it came from the Center for Immigration Studies, which was founded by John Tanton, who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "has for decades been at the heart of the white nationalist scene", and "has met with leading white supremacists."
Now, relying on the Southern Poverty Law Center for information on the Center for Immigration Studies is about as journalistically responsible as it once was to rely on Sen. Joe McCarthy for information about communists in the State Department.
But when your goal isn't truth but sarcastic, straight-from the gut "truthiness", the SPLC playbook of distortion, half truth, guilt by association, and character assassination will do just fine. Why bother with the complexities of the immigration debate when Morris Dees wraps it up in a deliciously quotable package labeled: "Racism, Bigotry, and Nativism"?
As Jesuit priest Raymond A. Schroth wrote in the National Catholic Reporter, Dees "focuses on a real problem and packages it to suit his purposes. If the problem is nuanced, complicated … 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."
One of the reasons I came to work at CIS was that I wanted to expose the tactics of the SPLC in poisoning the national discussion of immigration.
We have described their work in detail. We have also described the astonishing tendency of some members of the press to accept SPLC propaganda without question. These reporters become complicit in the SPLC project to deify Morris Dees and hype his direct-mail fundraising from the well-intentioned but poorly informed.
We have also criticized John Tanton, who helped found CIS, but who has never had any role here. I have written about Tanton's "tin ear for the sensitivities of immigration". I have described his penchant for blunders that undermine not only his legacy of environmental accomplishments, but also the important work of CIS in making the case for reduced immigration.
One of the most prominent national figures who favored reduced immigration in order to limit population growth was the late Gaylord Nelson. A liberal icon in the U.S. Senate, Nelson was a staunch advocate of civil rights. He was also the founder of Earth Day.
But even Gaylord Nelson was a target of the campaign by the SPLC and others that scorned the call for population stabilization as the "greening" of anti-immigrant bigotry.
Nelson was dismayed at the success of the campaign in intimidating many erstwhile supporters into silence. "People have been silenced because they are scared to death of being charged with being a racist", he said, "but racism has nothing to do with it. It's a question of numbers."
Two years ago, when Colbert testified — in character — at a congressional hearing on immigration policy, he pretended to denigrate migrant farm workers with this zany observation: "We don't get our food from farms. We get it from the grocery store."
Well, last week many Americans got their information about CIS from Stephen Colbert.
I can hear Morris Dees laughing all the way to the bank.
I can feel the pain Gaylord Nelson knew so well.
And that's the Colbert Thump.