Why Words Can Hurt You

This article is part of a package on the right-wing militia movement. For more, readA Conspiracy of Hate about the rise of the extreme right from the January-February issue of Utne Reader.

Hate is an incurable disease. The goal of organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center is to ensure it doesn’t morph into a plague. Founded as a small law firm in Montgomery, Alabama, the SPLC opened its door in 1971 to fight regional cases of racial discrimination. Today the nonprofit manages a multimillion-dollar budget and publishes Intelligence Report, an Utne Independent Press Award winner for investigative journalism that, like its parent organization, advocates tolerance and tracks hate groups from coast to coast (see “A Conspiracy of Hate,” in the most recent issue of Utne Reader).

Mark Potok, the quarterly’s editor, recently chatted with Utne Reader editor David Schimke about the SPLC, Intelligence Report, and the state of hate. What follows is a full, unedited transcription of the conversation.

David Schimke: How would you, as the editor of the magazine, define the mission of the Southern Poverty Law Center?

Mark Potok: The mission of the Southern Poverty Law Center, overall, really has to do with the fourteenth amendment. It is essentially seeking justice for the least among us–seeking equality in the treatment of our citizens, by the law. More narrowly, our purpose in my department, the Intelligence Project, is really to both exposes and to do battle with white supremacist groups and other formations on the radical right. We’re very explicit about the idea of we’re not simply there to document or monitor these groups. Our purpose is to destroy them or to politically nullify them.

DS: Did the need for the Intelligence Project emerge in a certain point in the history of the center? If so, why did it emerge or has it always been part of the mission?

MP: What the Intelligence Project really was once upon a time was a single investigator who worked for our legal department. So this was kind of the fact department. The guy went out and collected hard information (interviews, and so on) to support our legal cases. From that, it grew into… basically the idea is we need to inform law enforcement about what was then a resurgence of the Klan. This was in the late Seventies and early Eighties in the United States, especially around David Duke, more recently, beginning in the mid-to-late Nineties. When I got here, we had essentially expanded the mission to look at the radical right, in general. So that is really what we do, and the idea is not only to destroy these groups, like I mentioned earlier, and to track them–but also to battle their influence within the mainstream. In fact, that’s become a really important focus over the last four or five years.

Because at the end of the day, when you have neo-Nazis calling for death of the Jews, there are not that many people who are likely to join the group. That’s the kind of phenomenon that happens at the fringe of the fringe of our society. But when ideas are popping out of these groups and making their way into the mouths of people who have a real pulpit from which to speak to hundreds of thousands, millions of people, that’s a problem.

From my own point of view, Lou Dobbs has done much more to damage democratic discourse in this society than, say, the Aryan Nations.

DS: Did the magazine start in concert with when the Intelligence Project started?

MP: The magazine began around 1981, which was a few years after the work of the Intelligence Project–which was then called “Klan Watch”–began. Really, it was simply a newsletter to alert police officers, especially around the South, that in many cases they had Klan groups operating in their backyard, and often without any knowledge by them. Back then, it tended to not be analytic. It really didn’t say much about the groups, or the nature of the groups, other than that they were racist. It’s quite a different journal now, in that it tries to look at all kinds of things–trend stories, and motivations about Why do people get into this movement and how do they get out? You know, How is democratic discourse in the country generally affected?How do these outfits raise money? How do they survive? and so on.

DS: And how is the readership morphed in concert with that change of the depth and direction of the magazine?

MP: Well, the circulation bounces up and down, frankly, according to how many donors receive it. There’s some kind of formula that’s changed over the years but right now I think our circulation is a little bit shy of 400,000. And within that, I believe there are something like 45 or 50, 000 police officers. There are several thousand journalists, who are in some ways a really key part of the audience for us, because they, in effect, have the capability of amplifying the work we’re doing. And activists, people in positions of power, and simply the general public. And of course, what’s really become important to the magazine for the last 10 or 11 years is that we’ve put virtually the entire magazine on the Internet, which makes it free to everybody. And also has led to some very interesting developments in the way we’re able to use our journalism. 

DS: Can you talk about that a little bit?

MP: What I’m getting at is the idea that we’re able to do some shaming-type expose work that can really be destructive to these groups. To give an extremely rapid example, there was a group called The Knights of Freedom. It was a neo-Nazi group being run by a sophomore out of his dorm room at Wofford College in Spartanburg, North Carolina. The guy’s name was Davis Wolfgang Hawk. He was very much a dress-up Nazi. He’d get into SS uniforms and play German martial music and talk about the Jews and all that kind of thing. Come to find out, Davis Wolfgang Hawk was not really his birth name. In fact, the young fellow’s name, before he had changed it in a court of law, was Andy Greenbaum. He was Jewish. Whatever psychological issues the kid may have had, and clearly he did have some, the fact remains we were able to show in a very public way that this Nazi group was led by a guy who was Jewish. That had the effect of completely obliterating, almost literally within a matter of minutes, this one particular group.

DS: You mentioned that since you’ve been with the magazine, you guys have expanded out to include right wing groups, or a broader agenda. How long have you been with the magazine and why did you make that decision?

MP: I came here in the middle of ’97, and my own background was such that I had been a reporter for 20 years, but I came after a rash of covering the radical right–the Waco events, the militia movement that had grown out of that, the Oklahoma City bombing, the trial of McVeigh afterwards. In fact, I remember when I gave my notice to USA Today I was literally standing at a roadblock at a standoff in east Texas with a group called The Republic of Texas, who were facing off with the Texas Rangers.

I got here and it just seemed like the publication was narrower than what we could really do. And we had been, at times perhaps, superficial in our handling and examination of certain groups. There was also, I feared, sometimes a little bit of an element of hypocrisy in the sense that for instance we wrote extensively about anti-abortion extremists who targeted individual doctors and their helpers by doing things like printing their names and home addresses and pictures of their children, and what car they drove to work, and that sort of thing. But at the same time we said nothing about groups like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front, which are not right-wing groups in any sense, but employed exactly the same kind of tactics–that kind of targeting of individuals, holding them up for real, physical assault.

And then there were areas that were not much covered at all, but really did deserve coverage. Things like the tax protestor movement. You know, certain sectors of the militia movement that were not much understood–common law courts, sovereign citizens, and so on. Basically, I wanted the magazine to be everything it could be, and I certainly was not alone here. We wanted to create a magazine that essentially would become the magazine, the definitive publication covering the American radical right.

DS: Are there any groups or sorts of things that you don’t track that one might confuse with what you do??

MP: Well, the big hole, if it is a hole, is that we don’t really cover radical Islam. Now, we do in a sense. We’ve always covered black nationalists, which have always considered part of our bailiwick. And what I’m talking about is what I’ve always considered right black nationalists. In other words there are these groups like the New Black Panther Party, which talk about whites being evil and gay people being evil, and they’re into the Jews, as well, and so on. So we cover that narrow band but we didn’t cover radical mosques in Jersey City and that kind of thing.

And that became a real question for us after 9/11 when it became obvious, you know, “Why don’t we cover these groups?” And ultimately we’ve decided still to stick with the kind of narrow slice of that world–black nationalists, black Muslims, radical black Muslims–because there were so many other groups that had real expertise in groups in the radical Muslim world. And because historically we have only covered only domestic groups, and our groups, although they have some relations with foreign radical right-wing groups, by and large, they really are American formations. That was less true when you looked at some of the radical mosques in this country. They were much more connected to a movement abroad that we really had no expertise in.

DS: Have you guys taken any heat for that from the outside?

MP: From time to time. You know, we’ve had to explain it, both to potential donors, or donors, and to the outside world at large. And my sense is that, by and large, people understand it. Although, my God, we have a lot of enemies, so this is an easy way to say, “See, they don’t care.” Or worse, we’re in the service of Osama bin Laden, or whatever.

DS: Right. Do you guys work in concert with the lawyers and organizations, or with the legal action they’re taking? How does that work? Do they just feed off of one another?

MP: We were originally, and still are, the investigative arm of the legal department, so our role will often be, “We’ve got a case going against the Imperial Klans of America. Run on up to Kentucky and find some ex-Klansmen who can testify for us in a particular case,” that sort of thing. The other responsibility we have is we’re always essentially scanning the world of hate groups looking for potential lawsuits for the legal department, and that’s not as easy as it may sound. We’re looking for a very particular set of circumstances, both a set where a suit will work, where we can actually prove that the leader of the group, as well as the perpetrators, of whatever criminal act may have occurred, can be shown to be civilly responsible. And there are other factors as well. If a group has absolutely nothing to take away from them, if there’s no point in winning a civil judgment, a money judgment against them, then we won’t proceed because it’s simply play-acting.

DS: Do you have investigators who do that work and then you guys craft it into the journalism, or do the journalists do the work? Or is it a hybrid?

MP: It’s a bit of a hybrid because we have a few people on my staff who are trained and certified law enforcement officers, so that same staff does the bulk of working with witnesses and investigative work on the cases. However, we do have writers that go out and work on stories, and often break stories. So in cases like that, the writer may end up working closely, at least for a short time, with legal to see if a case will work and perhaps to help out on that case.

DS: How many cases are there, usually?

MP: The vast majority of cases we handle these days have nothing to do with hate groups. Probably the bulk of them have to do with immigration law and essentially the rights of immigrants, and also juvenile justice in the deep South in particular. We’ve got a big project going which essentially aims to have vastly fewer kids sent in to the juvenile justice system and vastly more dealt with in community settings and other less punitive ways. So that’s most of the cases. We do a case maybe once every year or two, at this point, which involves a white supremacist group. Our last case was in November 2008 when we won a big multi-million dollar judgment against the Imperial Klans of America.

DS: I’m really interested in this idea that you have these fringe groups, and you guys cover these groups and what they’re up to, and what they’re saying. You out them. You try to embarrass them, and there’s all these different ways you’re working, but at the same time you’re also interested in how this stuff sort of trickles up into the mainstream media and informs the rhetoric there. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that–how you think that connection works. In other words, what ends up in the Intelligence Report and how that information can impact the broader dialogue among people and media people who aren’t necessarily going to that fringe?

MP: First of all, I should say our coverage of extremists groups–of real Klan and Nazi groups, and so on–is the foundation. That’s what makes it possible to do the rest. So we’re looking from the radical right and then in toward the main stream, rather than starting with the mainstream and looking and trying to find, “Are these ideas that Sean Hannity or a particular congressman or congresswoman are putting forward really their own ideas or did they originate in some surprising place?”

So an example of that is the idea that Mexico has been secretly planning to re-conquer the American Southwest–the so-called “Plan de Aztlan” or the “Reconquista”, as it’s often referred to, meaning “the re-conquering” in Spanish. As it turns out, and we know this because of the work we’ve done on the actual hate groups, this idea very largely originated in a little white supremacist hate group that was then based in California, called American Patrol. It couldn’t have been more than half a dozen members. But its leader, Glen Spencer, was very largely responsible for cobbling together this theory that Mexico had this secret plan that was all about getting the seven states in the Southwest to be a part of Mexico again.

It would have come to nothing but in the last five or six years we’ve had this very large anti-immigration movement spring up and that idea, the Aztlan conspiracy theory jumped out into the much larger milieu of the Minuteman groups, some 350 of them right now. After that, it was just a matter of a few weeks before this nonsense was being presented as fact on Lou Dobbs Tonight on CNN.

So that’s a classic example, this kind of conveyor belt. Something moves out of a tiny group that’s completely discredited but it makes its way into a sort of larger fairly radical milieu and then you get some politician, pundit or preacher who picks it up and from a position of some authority, and on some kind of pulpit pronounces this is truth. We’ve seen an enormous amount of that–misinformation entering the mainstream, really, particularly, in the last five or six years. It’s been quite something.

DS: And I want to ask about that. What do you think has happened on a political front that has led to the emergence of this sort of rhetoric in the last five or six years?

MP: You know, we’ve seen a lot of it. I covered, as a reporter, the militia movement of the Nineties, which was unbelievably shot through with conspiracy theories. And of course, this ultimately all goes back to the idea of how Americans are so taken with conspiracy theories. Richard Hofstadter wrote about it, what, in the sixties, I guess–The Paranoid Style in American Politics. It is very different from other countries, particularly European countries, which I know really quite well. You know, why is it? Why has it come roaring back in such a big way? It’s hard to say. I mean, in the nineties, the militia movement was completely amped up with these theories so that we had thousands, and thousands, and thousands of people who not only believed that they were being followed around by black helicopters, but that there was a weather machine hidden underneath the city of Brussels in Belgium that was being run by “The Jews”, or some other malefactor, depending on which version you heard, with the intention of destroying American farmers.

So, like all of these things, these conspiracy theories are ways of explaining a complicated world in very black and white terms. Right? I mean American farmers aren’t failing because of globalization or complex things that are happening on the global scene, or even domestic price support law. But no, it’s because of the “satanic Jew”. So, I think what’s really happening right now, and began in the nineties, is our world, not the United States in particular, but the western hemisphere in general, is changing. And it’s changing really quite dramatically in a lot of ways. It reminds me quite a bit of the turn of the nineteenth century, when essentially you saw this huge move toward industrialization, toward women entering the political arena, and the move of Americans off the land. In other words, the country became primarily urban rather than rural. And around that time we saw a huge number of millennial movements that said, “Armageddon’s around the corner”, the “Second Coming”–all these ideas. This was all really trying to cope with the changing of the world around you faster than you know how to deal with it. I think that’s happening now. It’s a tough world out there.

When my father was in high school, he graduated with a degree and that was it. You know, you go out there and get a decent job in a factory. You could support a wife and a couple kids and you wouldn’t be a rich man, but you’d be fine. Then when you got old and gray you would have a pension to support your wife and children. It’s really different. Now that’s just not possible anymore.

DS: I’m backing up for a second, but things are tough all over, as you say, and they’re tough all over the world, but there’s something about the American character that makes us more fascinated by, or susceptible to, these sorts of conspiracy theories and this way of thinking. What do you think is the key difference?

MP: This is going to sound terrible, but in a way, I think it’s because we’re a less educated country. Europe has gone through a couple thousand years of really serious… All our development, in many ways, of Western Civilization, happened there. They went through The Enlightenment and these battles with religion, with myth and faith, as opposed to science. And you know, I think that battle was more or less definitively won by the secularists in Europe. Europe is not an overly-religious place. It’s very much less religious than the United States and at the same time very much less given to conspiratorial thinking. You can have people who think black people are going to destroy their country but they’re not thinking that they’re running weather machines that are going to do people in.

Over here, we seem to have this thing, as I said, I think there’s just a lack of critical thinking here and a lack of historical experience that seems to make Americans incredibly prone to going for these far out ideas. I think also, our culture in some strange ways honors a kind of proud ignorance. When we hear somebody went to Harvard or the University of Chicago, people say, “You’re an elitist,” you know. Or, “You’re an elitist snob. You don’t know anything about anything.” That is certainly not the attitude of most Europeans. So there’s a kind of anti-intellectualism very much ingrained in our culture and I think that became probably clear in the presidency of George W. Bush.

DS: Can you think of another time when the media, the mainstream media in particular, has been as friendly to, or as full of people who are willing to co-opt these ideas and present them as rational thought?

MP: No! I mean, in my life I’ve certainly never seen anything like that. And that’s another piece of this, is that by chance essentially, the same as that we’re going through all the rest of these matters, we’re seeing the disintegration of the traditional media, not to mention its set of ethics and morays. That’s very much the world I came out of, where you really knew what something meant by objective journalism. I’m not going to claim it was all perfectly objective, but the reality was that there was a real set of ethics and the people I grew up with in the newspaper world were wonderful people. It was a wonderful world. People were very, very serious about trying to tell the truth, and as deeply as one could. Obviously that’s all fallen to pieces.

Newspapers are failing everywhere. I think last year there were 16 or 17 thousand reporters who were fired or laid off. Investigative journalism is collapsing and then, of course, obviously, we have the Internet at the same time, which, along with cable has had this incredibly obnoxious blending effect on opinion and journalism. It’s become very difficult to sort out what is actual journalism, as opposed to what is merely opinion.

DS: Seeing a snapshot of this moment in time, and I want to talk about Obama, specifically, but before we get to that, just more generally, how would you describe where this nation’s at when it comes to discussions about race and race relations?

MP: I would say, first of all, overall in the very long run of history I think we’re moving forward and really moving forward. I never believed in my lifetime that we would see a black man elected president of this country. I think that’s quite astounding and it’s worth remembering we are a country that went through 250 years of slavery, a century of Jim Crow, and then 40 years later, tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of white Americans were willing to, and in fact, were voting for a black man. No, we’re not going back to 1954.

That said, I think what’s really going on right now is we’re living through a backlash and that is the way history moves. Women get the right to vote, slaves are freed, a whole lot of Catholics come to this country–whatever the incident is, or the development in the law is, you get these great leaps forward and then you get very large leaps backward, as well. Sort of two steps forward and one or two back. I think that’s what we’re seeing. All that said, it’s been pretty bad out there. I mean, we have seen a 54 percent growth in the number of hate groups going back to 2000. That we are not quite sure yet because we haven’t completed the counts but that seems to have accelerated with the election of Obama. I think the factors driving that acceleration, driving this growth in groups has been non-white immigration, since last October, the economic situation, and now very much the appearance of the rise to power of a black man to the White House. We’ve also seen other kinds of groups coming back–militia groups, we’ve seen a rapidly-swelling anti-immigration movement, and we’ve seen over the last year what looks to me to be a real state of domestic terrorism, or attempted domestic terrorism, almost every case of which is in some way linked to rage at the rise of Obama.

DS: Are you surprised? I think we all expected some sort of backlash. Are you surprised at the severity of it?

MP: Yes and no. I was a little taken aback right after the election. It started right before the election with the shouts of, “Kill him!” and, “Terrorist!” at Palin rallies and then continued to four or five weeks after the election when we saw this really remarkable backlash, not from Klan groups or Nazi groups, but from very much mainstream Americans, and this before healthcare or saving the banks or saving the auto industry. In other words, before Obama had done anything that could arguably instigate rage on the part of the citizenry. In that first four weeks, you probably remember, there were an enormous amount things like effigies burned, Obama supporters being beat up. For me, it was all kind of captured in the really amazing case of the second and third grade schoolers in Idaho who were riding their school bus on the way to school and chanting, “Assassinate Obama!” It was just an incredible moment. So, I think what happened, was all of a sudden, very much like David Duke, the ex-Klan leader predicted, Americans woke up on November 5th, and to some of them it was a rude shock indeed. There was this black guy and he was going to be their president and by God, he was going to take his wife and kids too, and move into the White House.

DS: And how do you think the extremity of the backlash has affected the discussion that takes place at this moment in history. It’s sort of this interesting time where, like you said earlier, we all thought, “My God, a black man is president,” and we’ve made this progress, but at the same time, because of this extreme backlash, there’s all this stuff swirling around out there that’s not being analyzed.

MP: I think what it’s really done is forced Americans to face the… I mean, I don’t think anybody with two brain cells to rub together anymore can have fairytale dreams about living in a post-racial America, right? I mean, that’s clearly not possible. Electing a guy with skin of a certain darkness–surprise, surprise–did not cure the last 400 years of our history. Things just don’t happen that way. They don’t happen that quickly.

There is what they sometimes call “compassion fatigue” on the part of a lot of whites. They’re sick of hearing about the problems of black people, or people of color, or whatever it may be. And so I’m sure that huge numbers of Americans really resent the fact that the conversation is still going on, but I at times think that for a very large number of Americans, surely this has been pressed on them that we’re not post-racial–that there are people out there willing to blow up buildings full of other people because that’s how upset they are about whites losing their privileges and so on, at least relative to other people. So, I guess it’s a good and a bad thing but I do think the events of the last year or so have pretty much made it indisputable that this is a conversation that hasn’t been finished and in some ways has barely begun.

DS: I have often thought that one of the things that the right-wing media did a good job with was laying the ground over the last ten years with that very thing that you talked about–that it’s okay to say that you don’t want to talk about race anymore, that you’re sick of it. I feel like that’s the sort of Limbaugh approach to all of it. “I’m sick of being called a racist. I’m sick of having this conversation, so let’s move on.”

MP: Right.

DS: Given your tenure and what’s happened at the center, how dangerous is this? Can you rate the danger level, just in terms of how violent these groups are capable of being and are we really in a position now where things are more dangerous out there?

MP: I think the danger is that a lot of people have bought that Limbaugh line–hook, line and sinker. In other words, they really do think it’s over, right? That has allowed a large number of people to feel that anyone who says, “I’m the victim of racial profiling,” or a certain community is poorly treated because of its class characteristics, anything like that is not merely whining, it’s a clamoring for free welfare checks. It’s trying to rip the rest of us off. It seems to me that that’s the danger–more and more white people feel that, “Dammit, it’s over and if you don’t quit your whining about it, at some point I’m going to join the real white nationalists on the other side.” So, I guess that’s the danger. I don’t see race war or anything like it around the corner but that’s the scary thought.

DS: Going back to this idea of conspiracy and our tradition of that in this country, do you have any sense that this current spate of conspiracy theorists are a little bit more in the mood to actually get into the fight?

MP: I don’t know about that because… Yes, it’s remarkable that these tea parties and some of the town hall meetings, and so on, how often you hear the language of “revolution”. They sound like a bunch of leftists from 1968. You hear all the time this Thomas Jefferson paraphrase, “The tree of liberty must be watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” What people don’t realize, or don’t remember, is that those are the words that were on the back of the t-shirt that Timothy McVeigh wore when he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of that language out there and I don’t know how much more extreme one can get in attacking the president and calling him a Stalin, a Nazi, a Hitler–all words which have been said by people like Glenn Beck on Fox News to an audience of three million people. You know, what’s he gonna say now? Plus, he runs concentration camps, right?

DS: Do you think he and, in particular, the Michele Bachmann’s of the world, and people in concert, they know what kind of fire they’re playing with?

MP: I don’t know. If Michele Bachmann, if she doesn’t know, then she’s even more of an idiot than I thought she was. She comes from a part of the country that has seen a lot of this rhetoric and the form of the militia movement of the nineties, but she gets out there and says things like, “Obama is setting up political reeducation camps, where they’re going to force every one of our kids to become little socialist robots.” She really ought to know better. Maybe she is simply a ruthless woman who is certainly willing to pander to the most extreme elements in her base, simply in order to be elected.

DS: Is this about votes or is this about something bigger?

MP: I don’t know and one can ask the same question about Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck. Do they really believe these things or is it just that they need the audience share? I guess where I’ve come to in all of this, just for my own personal self, is it doesn’t matter. I don’t care if Lou Dobbs is personally a racist or just a guy who feels like this is the populous thing to do and if he’s going to beat O’Reilly, opposite him on The O’Reilly Factor on Fox, this is what he’s got to do for ratings. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter at all, except perhaps in the tactics of people like me. Am I going to go out there and call Dobbs a racist, or simply say, as I have been saying, “Look, whether he’s a racist or not, who cares?”

The point is, he says things that def

ame an entire racial group, in this case a group of 12 million plus people, and says they are these terrible things. “They are all bringing leprosy to this country. They are all sexual criminals”–the whole Dobbs-ian list. The reality is whatever Lou Dobbs is personally, in terms of other races, or Latinos in particular, the fact is, in my opinion he helped unleash a wave of criminal violence directed at Latinos in this country. In the very years when he was taking off with that show–2003 to 2007–which is the latest year we have statistics for, there was a 40 percent rise in anti-Latino hate crimes, according to the FBI. That’s something real and concrete, and I think Dobbs has some responsibility in that.

DS: What have you learned in this time? I know you’ve spent more time talking with the media, and congratulations on reaching that level of exposure. As you’ve been on these shows, as you’ve been having these dialogues and flat-out arguments with people, what have you learned about tactics? How have your tactics already evolved?

MP: The more you try and take on the effects of hate groups in the mainstream, the more you’re gonna be attacked. There was a time five or six years ago when I would go on shows like The O’Reilly Factor and I would be treated very well because I was essentially a technical expert. I would go up there and say, you know, “The Klan has risen 11.3 percent in the last year,” and that was kind of my role. Since I started doing some of the bigger shows, the MSNBC shows like Hardball and Countdown, it’s quite different because, first of all, you are called on to be more of a personality than an expert. So it’s not merely your technical knowledge. You might get asked whether you like your eggs sunny-side-up or not–things that you really weren’t expecting to talk about at all. Also though, and more to the point, I think the reason why I’ve gotten on those shows more recently is we have been more critical of the Lou Dobbs, and the Glenn Becks and Sean Hannitys of the world. What I would say about that is that the reaction sometimes is unbelievable. I was on Hardball once a couple of months ago, and I said unpleasant things about Rush Limbaugh–some comments he made about segregated school buses, and so on–Limbaugh went after me the next day on his radio show for a long time, 11 or 12 minutes. The reaction was quite amazing. We were literally flooded with hate email, phone calls–it went on for days.

DS: Is that a good thing or a bad thing, or do you not know yet?

MP: From the point of view of our security department, it’s a bad thing but in the real world it’s a good thing.

DS: In terms of your mission, why would that be a good thing?

MP: Well, it’s hard to say and it’s an interesting question, right? Does criticizing people change any minds at all? And I think one can argue with some reason that a lot of the cable news television stuff is essentially entertainment. People see you up there and the people who are on my side clap for me and applaud when I make a good point, so it becomes a cheering match–very much like Crossfire used to be on CNN. Nobody’s mind was changed. Nobody was educated.

What I hope, of course, and the reason why I go on these shows as a matter of our program objectives is that you hope you are changing some people’s minds. Our magazine in particular has been very pitched, since we really expanded it over the last ten years, to the middle. Meaning, I don’t want to write simply to the readers of The Nation because it doesn’t do me any good to convince the readers of The Nation that racism is bad–they know that already. In the same way, it doesn’t do me much good to write simply to the neo-Nazis or the hard right of the Republican Party; they already think I’m an evil person anyway, working for evil agents. The magazine has very much tried to include law enforcement in its readers. We want to defend policy. We want cops to be decent human beings out there because they’re where the rubber meets the road. The same is true for politicians, activists, and so on. That’s very much what we want to do is to, in a sense, drag the middle–which seems to me over the last 30 years has moved consistently to the right–back to somewhere closer to where we think it ought to be.

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