Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Faux Pas at the John Locke Foundation: Racist and Homophobic but Totally Apologetic

by Nomad
In an example of the dangers of crossing that invisible line between mere poor taste and into something mean-spirited, and socially unacceptable, I found this news item from North Carolina.
The Meck Deck, an official blog of the Art Pope-funded conservative John Locke Foundation, this week published racially-charged and homophobic imagery of President Obama in a piece this on the president's opposition to North Carolina's proposed anti-gay marriage amendment. The post, which claims Obama is merely pandering to gay voters, is accompanied by an image of Obama in apparent drag while sitting next to a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In her defense, I have made my fair share of Photoshop-jokes and some of them might have crossed the line from amusing into poor taste. However, I can't recall any of my efforts that were quite as offensive as what appeared on that post.

Clearly the writer of the post, Tara Servatius, didn’t realize that she wasn’t speaking only to a selected like-minded audience, but to the entire Internet. (It's an all too easy but fatal mistake to make.) As the controversy quickly caught fire, Ms. Servatius -a one-time WBT talk show host and Creative Loafing columnist- resigned, and offered this weak excuse:
I am genuinely sorry my inclusion of the photo along with my blog post has caused controversy for the John Locke Foundation.

If it has offended anyone, I sincerely apologize for that. That was certainly not my intention. It was meant to illustrate Obama's Southern political strategy, nothing more. If you read the piece that goes with it, you will see that I actually think that holding the marriage ban vote this year is a bad political move in North Carolina because it could distract voters from the economy, which should be the main issue.

I also wanted to add that, at the time, I was searching for a picture of the president in drag to illustrate his Southern political strategy of courting young voters, a majority of whom support gay marriage. It was one of the first photos to come up on Google Images. Regrettably, I didn't think about the racial implications of the picture when I posted it. I simply don't think in those terms. Unfortunately some people do.

To me, fried chicken is simply a Southern cuisine. So the picture seemed perfect to illustrate Obama's Southern strategy. Thank you, Tara"
So, there. Ms. Servatius seems to be saying that putting a picture of the first black president next to a bucket of (So Good) KFC was not meant to be stereotypical or racist at all. Putting a image of the first president to support gay marriage in tacky drag is not meant to be a offense to gay Americans. 
See? Now, stop being so sensitive and accept the apology.

Hmm.. perhaps the problem here lies in the just the word "genuinely"? 

As with so many other Right Wing apologies, this is an illustration how to give reasons why she feels she is guiltless, not to ask for forgiveness, how not to take responsibility. The president of the Foundation seemed equally contrite. 

According to the Charlotte Observer:
In a comment on his Facebook page, John Hood, the president of the John Locke Foundation (JFL), said Servatius had resigned.
He also explained what happened:
"Earlier this week, a freelancer who blogs at the John Locke Foundation's Charlotte site posted a piece about President Obama's opposition to North Carolina's marriage amendment. It included an illustration that was offensive and utterly inappropriate for our blog or anyone else's. A reader brought it to my attention yesterday, and I had it removed immediately, but the damage was done."
A variation on the "one bad apple" defense. The use of the term “freelance” in the apology certainly sounds like a bit of legal butt-covering. (“And for pity’s sake, stop calling her staff”) I could be wrong but isn't there somebody making editorial decisions before posting. Anyway, can a freelancer actually resign? Wouldn't that be something of a contradiction?

Still, I don't suppose there was much else he could say.

Apparently all of her previous posts have been scrubbed from the website. As we all know, once you have been erased from the Internet, you are forgiven and forgotten. It's automatic.

Scratch a Little Deeper
In any case, with a little more probing into the Servatius’ background, we find even more to question about the sincerity of her apology. As a local blogger noted, Tara Servatius has attended and (if the photo is anything to go by) has spoken at a meeting of an organization called League of the South.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 29 hate groups in North Carolina. 4 of these are League of the South groups located in Charlotte, Durham, Wilmington and Burlington.
The League of the South is a White Supremacist Organization that advocates the destruction of the United States of America and the US Constitution.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center “The League of the South is a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by “European Americans.” The league believes the “godly” nation it wants to form should be run by an “Anglo-Celtic” (read: white) elite that would establish a Christian theocratic state and politically dominate blacks and other minorities.”
Perhaps this is one of the hidden risks of remaining in the closed bubble of your group. It is very easy to go too get carried away. Undoubtedly, her friends at the League would have found absolutely nothing wrong with a made-up photo of the president made up like a tranny prostitute. (We shall ignore Servatius’ lame heart-felt excuses) 

Her friends at the League would have seen nothing insulting about alluding to the “well-known fact” that all black people like fried chicken. They might have just wondered why there wasn’t a slice of watermelon too. In that environment, her racist illustration wouldn’t have been given a second thought. The problem for Ms. Servatius was when she attempted to take her message into the mainstream. 

Even the mainstream as defined by North Carolina radio listeners- might have had a problem with the message she was promoting.

Nearly exactly one year ago, on May 27, 2011, Ms. Servatius’ contract with WBT - where she hosted an afternoon drive time radio show- was abruptly canceled. It was announced that the contract would not be renewed but according to RadioInk it was slightly more abrupt:
With her contract set to expire in two months the station notified Servatius yesterday was her last day and showed her the door. Plans are for the news/talk station to go “in a totally different direction.” The statement from the company was short, but not so sweet for the afternoon host: “WBT AM/FM will not be renewing its employment agreement with Tara Servatius. We are grateful for Tara’s contributions to the station, and we wish her the best.” She’s a former investigative reporter who focused on local issues in the Charlotte market.
After seven years at that radio gig, it must have been quite a career crash. With this latest mess at the John Locke Foundation (JLF), it looks like Servatius is just about ready to appear on Fox and Friends. It's one place where poor judgment and bad taste is generally rewarded.

In the Name of John Locke
“To love our neighbor as ourselves is such a truth for regulating human society, that by that alone one might determine all the cases in social morality.”
These fine words come from the English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704) - not to be confused with the character on the TV series, Lost. If Locke the philosopher could be revived in our age, he might be startled and embarrassed by the way his name has lately been used by a Right Wing organization. 

In an excellent investigation (unrelated to the controversial Servatius article), writer Sue Sturgis explains a little more about this free market think tank based in Raleigh, N.C
The Locke Foundation was founded and is largely funded by Art Pope, a North Carolina millionaire and leading conservative benefactor. As a national director of the free-market advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, Pope has close ties to the Koch brothers, the billionaire owners of the Kansas-based Koch Industries oil and chemical conglomerate and leading funders of global warming denial efforts. The Koch Family Foundations have also contributed at least $70,000 to the Locke Foundation.
All roads lead to Koch, it seems. But who is Art Pope? According to the succinctly-named website, ArtPopeExposed. com:
Art Pope is one of the most powerful political operatives in North Carolina, with growing national ambitions. Despite his growing influence, the public knows little about who he is or what he does. Pope’s fortune comes from his inherited family business, the discount retail chain Variety Wholesalers, Inc. ...
An Institute for Southern Studies investigation revealed that the John William Pope Foundation, which Art Pope chairs, supplies 90 percent of the income of the leading right-wing groups in North Carolina. He also sits on the board of many of the groups, giving him an unusual level of purse-string and organizational control.
Pope has spent millions of dollars to influence elections. In 2010, three groups backed by Pope -- Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC -- spent 75% of the outside money that flooded into two dozen North Carolina legislative races. Combined with the $252,000 Pope family members spent supporting Republicans in those races, their money fueled the GOP's historic capture of the state legislature.
(The site also makes a fairly good case in showing how it was Pope’s influence that sealed the success in Amendment One, which formally outlawed gay marriage in North Carolina.) Here's a diagram of the many connections to Art Pope, courtesy of Muckety.

One further interesting allegation about Pope sheds a bit more light on the offensive illustration:
Pope's groups have partnered with some of the most controversial elements of the Tea Party, including Tea Party Express -- a group which had to fire its director for making racially-charged statements and has been at the center of other controversies. When Florida doctor David McKalip forwarded an image of Obama as an African witchdoctor in 2009 to protest "Obamacare" -- a move McKalip admitted was "completely inappropriate" -- Tea Party Express didn't condemn the act; they invited McKalip to be a featured speaker. Yet Americans for Prosperity still went on to partner with Tea Party Express at events across the country.
Tara's faux pas seems like a fairly common misjudgment among the people Art Pope hangs with. It’s all starting to make more sense now.
Beyond Bad Taste and Apologies
Something about both apologies intrigues me. In both of the apologies, from the president of the Locke Foundation and from the writer, we see the writer say
...I actually think that holding the marriage ban vote this year is a bad political move in North Carolina
and the president of JLF said:
….a piece about President Obama's opposition to North Carolina's marriage amendment.
According to its website:
The John Locke Foundation is a 501(c)(3) research institute and is funded solely from voluntary contributions from individuals, corporations, and charitable foundations.
However, according to the IRS
To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.
Aside from the photoshopped illustration to the Servatius article, the entire piece is an attempt to influence the gay marriage legislation and it is certainly against candidate Obama. The predictable response would probably be the words “as a substantial part” but this is not the only example.

The John Locke Foundation puts out a newsletter to its members called Locke’s Letter. In this publication are numerous example of opinion pieces promoting a right wing agenda on state legislation. Taking just one newsletter as a sample, the Locke Letter from last summer, we find this article:
Within days of the November election that gave Republicans control of the General Assembly for the first time in over 100 years, the John Locke Foundation outlined 11 action items we hoped the new legislative leadership would address during the first 100 days of the 2011 session.

Lawmakers left Raleigh after completing their 87th legislative day June 18, and reconvened in mid-July for a redistricting session.

A September session is planned to consider constitutional amendments. Legislators filed 1,721 bills. More than 400 became law. Some of those bills addressed JLF’s suggestions for action, says JLF Vice President for Outreach Becki Gray. “A course correction was sorely needed, and the new leadership certainly made progress in key areas. In other areas, however, we’ve seen only small steps toward reversing decades of government intervention and overreach at the hands of progressives,” Gray says. “Overall, I give them a grade of B on the issues of prime importance to those of us who believe in limited, constitutional government.”

Gray urges North Carolinians to stand with the Locke Foundation and hold legislators’ feet to the fire. “It’s going to take a while to turn back a century of big-government policies, but this is a good start.” [Emphasis mine]
This is followed by a report card with letter grades on various items under review by the General Assembly of North Carolina, such as a Repeal Corporate Welfare Laws (“Politicians still don’t seem to understand that government doesn’t create jobs; the free market does.”)

This article is followed by JLF Director of Education Studies Terry Stoops writing legislation on education, specifically citing Senate Bill 8 and House Bill 344. (They hand out titles at JFL like paper plates at a July picnic apparently.)

Okay, one newsletter doesn’t necessarily show a pattern, does it? 

So let’s move on to the next edition, Fall of 2011. On page 8 we see a list of draft bills in the North Carolina legislature, and while the text adjoining the list is careful not to advocate a position, one does have to question the purpose of printing such a list unless to influence. 

While I am admittedly no expert on tax law, JLF’s publication certainly appears to stretch the definition of a “charity organization” eligible for a tax exempt status. I am sure a millionaire like Art Pope and billionaires like the brothers Koch can afford to sponsor right wing organization without any help from the loopholes in tax law.

If John Locke, the philosopher were with us today, he might remind both the brother Koch and Art Pope what he had written back in 1690:
As usurpation is the exercise of power which another hath a right to, so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to; and this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage.

In part two of this investigation, we will look at how this tax exempt status is routinely abused not merely by The John Locke Foundation but by countless right wing organizations.