Before Heidi Beirich began working at the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1999, she was a left-wing ideologue preparing for a career in the academy. She was a graduate of UC Berkeley and had earned a doctorate in political science from Purdue, where she pursued her interest in the maladies of "white nationalism and neo-fascism". She was steeped in the ideology of postmodernism, which regards the history of Western Civilization — especially in the United States — as an endlessly dreary tale of oppression in the service of white supremacy. As Beirich told ABC News, "I think sometimes Americans forget that this country was founded on white supremacy."
Those of us who are now alarmed at the extremism of the SPLC should not forget that it once did heroic work against the Ku Klux Klan, winning lawsuits that drove several branches of the hooded fanatics into bankruptcy. From its base in Montgomery, Ala., its fundraising materials solemnly invoke a vision of "peace, respect, and understanding". That is the voice of the admirable SPLC.
Heidi Beirich has been instrumental in building the contemptible side of the SPLC, the side, which, as we reported in 2010, is marked by "a poverty of ideas, a dependence on dishonesty, and a lack of fundamental decency." She routinely engages in distortion, half-truths, cheap shots, smears, and character assassination. She is the SPLC's princess of darkness. She is the reason why National Review has written that while the SPLC was "once valuable", it has become "hateful and vile".
Beirich directs the SPLC's Intelligence Project, which oversees the Hatewatch blog, which monitors white supremacist and other extremist groups. She also directs the research for the SPLC's annual list of "hate groups". It is a well-publicized blacklist, a hall of shame, including some truly awful people like the Klan. But over the past decade Beirich has led an aggressive expansion of the list for the purpose of shaming mainstream socially conservative groups like the Family Research Council and the Center for Immigration Studies (whose staff also includes some moderate liberals like me who think the Democrats have lost their way by renouncing long-held concerns about illegal immigration). As Mark Potok, Beirich's long-time partner at the SPLC said, "[O]ur aim in life is to destroy these groups, completely destroy them."
Beirich applies the hate-group smear with all the precision and of a juvenile delinquent spray-painting obscenities on a schoolyard wall. She is equally reckless in her designation of extremists. As RealClearPolitics reported last year, "You can find yourself on the SPLC's 'hate map' if you haven't gotten fully aboard on gay marriage — or the Democratic Party's immigration views. In other words, the [SPLC] classifies individuals and organizations as purveyors of 'hate' for holding the same view on marriage espoused by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton until mid-2012."
Despite her record of reputational rampage, Beirich is highly regarded on the campuses of such elite institutions as Middlebury College. Last year, students at the Vermont school went on a tear after reading the SPLC's designation of conservative intellectual Charles Murray, whose first wife was Asian-American, as a white nationalist. Chanting insults, setting off fire alarms and shouting Murray down, the students drove him off campus. They also put Middlebury in the center of a discussion on the rise of intolerance for conservative ideas and free speech at colleges across the country.
Looking Behind the Curtain
Despite this record, Beirich and the SPLC are still treated as credible by some elite reporters, most prominently at the New York Times. But other, less ideologically invested reporters, have looked behind the curtain of tolerance at the SPLC's Montgomery, Ala., headquarters, which is so lavish that locals call it "the poverty palace".
"Is tough immigration control really a form of hate, or just part of the political conversation?" Politico's Ben Schreckinger asked last year. "At a time when the line between 'hate group' and mainstream politics is getting thinner and the need for productive civil discourse is growing more serious, fanning liberal fears, while a great opportunity for the SPLC, might be a problem for the nation."
Politico quoted this observation from Cornell law professor William Jacobson: "Time and again, I see the SPLC using the reputation it gained decades ago fighting the Klan as a tool to bludgeon mainstream politically conservative opponents. For groups that do not threaten violence, the use of SPLC 'hate group' or 'extremist' designations frequently are exploited as an excuse to silence speech and speakers. ... It taints not only the group or person, but others who associate with them."
That of course, was the point of two recent SPLC stunts that prodded two Democrat members of the House of Representatives into demanding that officials in the Department of Homeland Security cancel interviews with the Center for Immigration Studies' Jessica Vaughan. The interviews, part of the CIS Newsmaker series, were held at the National Press Club, where they were open to the press. They were a June event with ICE acting director Tom Homan and one last week with USCIS director Francis Cissna.
New York Rep. Joseph Crowley and Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer expressed outrage that the officials would meet with a "hate group". Their protests were shameless, sycophantic exercise in political cowardice. Crowley, who objected to the Homan event, still lost his Democratic primary race a few weeks later, taken down by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But Hoyer, a 79-year-old facing criticism from young guns in his party who say he's too old and tired to be part of the Democratic leadership, is clinging to power. His vulnerability has made him eager to please the activists who have pushed his party over the immigration-policy cliff by attacking last week's Cissna interview.
A Case Study of Beirich's Flagrant Distortions
If you want to understand the nature of Beirich's effort to reduce the national immigration debate to a shambles, a battleground of character assassination and tribal warfare, a good place to begin is the show of jaw-dropping mendacity that SPLC came up with to prod Hoyer to parrot Beirich's hate-group designation of CIS.
This stunt involved a flagrant distortion of a 2008 CIS Backgrounder written by David Seminara of CIS. Seminara's paper detailed the widespread use of sham marriages to obtain a green card, the visa that signifies the right for permanent residence and a path to citizenship.
Seminara was certainly qualified to write about the problem. He had learned about various types of visa fraud during his service as a consular officer in Hungary, Macedonia, and Trinidad. His report included these bullet points:
- An overwhelming percentage of all petitions to bring foreign spouses or fiancés to the United States ... are approved — even in cases where the couple may only have met over the Internet, and may not even share a common language.
- [M]arriage fraud for the purpose of immigration gets very little notice or debate in the public arena and the State Department and Department of Homeland Security have nowhere near the resources needed to combat the problem. Attention to fraud is not just for the integrity of the legal immigration system, but also for security reasons. If small-time con artists and Third-World gold-diggers can obtain green cards with so little resistance, then surely terrorists can do (and have done) the same.
Seminara's report was a fine piece of investigative reporting. It identified a serious problem that had received little public attention. The issue of marriage fraud leaped into headlines last year when the sister-in-law of one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack that killed 14 and injured 22 was convicted on charges that she had helped arrange the marriage of a couple who had never had a marriage ceremony and never even lived together.
Seminara's report was a public service. But not to Heidi Beirich, who saw it as an assault on immigration. In her moral universe, to speak unkindly of those who engage in visa fraud is hate speech, an intolerable offense against inclusivity and diversity. And so the SPLC's condemnation of last week's CIS interview uncorked the accusation that CIS "staffers and leadership have referred to immigrants as 'Third-World gold-diggers.'" (Emphasis added.)
It was a distortion based on the cynicism and contempt for basic standards of honesty and decency that are standard procedure for Heidi Beirich and her Hatewatch comrades.
I used to think of Beirich as a culture-wars version of "Saturday Night Live's" Church Lady, a comic caricature of piety who always had her nose in the air, sniffing for the presence of Satan. But Beirich's influence with liberals makes that relatively benign assessment impossible. Her hate-group attacks have provoked normally well-intentioned people not only to despise those of us who want to limit immigration, but also to donate millions to support the SPLC's campaign to drive ideological foes out of the forum of public debate. With her latest stunt, Beirich has reduced two members of Congress to the level of the students who brought shame to Middlebury College.
Now I have a much darker view of Beirich. Her dirty work has convinced me that her historic soulmates did their work for the notorious French revolutionary tribunals, the bloodthirsty zealots who sent infidels to the guillotine. Now she is limited to the dark but bloodless pleasure of issuing hate-group decrees and watching her stooges rise in furious protest at those who dare to suggest that immigration should not be unlimited.