Last night I had dinner with Morris Dees, the legendary founder and head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group that essentially put the Ku Klux Klan out of business. Not many people know this, but Dees is in Michigan fairly often these days.
He married Kathleen Kalahar, a high-powered Detroit lawyer, a year or so ago, and the couple split their time between Detroit and Alabama. You might say the definition of true love is voluntarily leaving Alabama to spend weeks in Detroit in January.
Dees, the son of a sharecropper who managed to go to law school, was a pioneer in fighting hate groups. He founded a successful book publishing and marketing business long before the internet and Amazon, sold it, and used the money to start the SPLC. For years, I've shown students a program he did for HBO called Hate.com, showing how the emergence of the internet has enabled such groups to reach and inflame troubled people.
The Southern Poverty Law Center isn't without critics, but it is generally agreed that Dees and his colleagues came up with an innovative strategy that essentially destroyed the power of the Klan and other hate groups like the Aryan Nations. They won judgments against these groups, and then used the courts to seize their assets – buildings, land, whatever – in lieu of payment.
But last night, Dees told me fighting modern hate groups is a lot harder.
"They don't have buildings; they just have a website. You win a judgment against them, and they just close down the website and start another one."
For years, he's said the internet has been a bonanza for such groups to find and recruit alienated, unhappy people who might not be caught dead at a Klan rally, and probably wouldn't have any idea how to find one. But thanks to the world wide web, they were able to attract a huge gathering of neo-Nazis and their ilk to Charlottesville, Virginia last August.
Dees doesn't think such an event is likely again, that what is more likely is violence committed by lone wolves.
And the problem is that neither he nor anyone else knows what to do about it. After the internet became a universal medium, news media, including Michigan Radio, began encouraging readers and listeners to post comments and observations (though Michigan Radio ended the practice in August 2016).
My own thought was that this would be good for both journalism and democracy, that it would help keep people like me on my toes while allowing citizens to participate in what we do.
Occasionally, that happened. Someone would give me new information, persuade me to look at something in a new way, and sometimes change my mind. Sometimes they would catch me in minor errors, which was both embarrassing and good for me.
But for every comment like these, there were many more obscenity-laced tirades calling me a "liberal snowflake." One apparently deranged homeless man emails me faithfully nearly every day to accuse me of participating in unnatural acts with former Senator Carl Levin.
This is slightly dismaying, from the standpoint of humanity. Free speech is our most cherished right. But it seems clear that the anonymity of cyberspace is coarsening our discourse and perhaps our souls.
If anyone has any ideas about this, I'd love to hear them.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.