Glenn Beck has spent a lot of air time over the past year attacking Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished professor of political science at the City University of New York. Beck’s spotlight has brought Piven to the attention of a larger–and different–audience than she normally reaches: Fox viewers. Some small fraction of those who have heard Beck describe her as a threat to the Constitution have responded by issuing death threats.
Full Disclosure: I know Piven, not that well, but certainly much better than I know Beck. I’ve also read much more of her writing than his. In my, rather limited, experience, I’ve found Frances to be smart, committed, unfailingly gracious, and extremely kind. Many years ago, when I was finishing my first year of graduate school, she took the time to meet with me and give me some very good advice about academia–which I (foolishly) ignored. Over the years, we’ve occasionally appeared together on panels at sociology or political science meetings, and have disagreed about how movements work. What I’ve seen is her keen interest in engaging with people who disagree with her, as if she might learn (and/or teach) something through civil dialogue with people who have a different understanding of the world. It’s an old model of academia, one that is terribly attractive. I’ve also heard her praise the engagement of conservative academics who likely agreed with her on little beyond this model.
And I’ve always admired Piven’s willingness to take her ideas seriously enough to work with the activists she writes about. Unlike Glenn Beck, she’s appeared before all kinds of audiences without demanding large payments, and–to my knowledge–doesn’t travel with a paid security detail–as Beck does.
For more than a year, Beck has periodically described Piven’s work (much of it with Richard Cloward, her husband, who died nearly ten years ago), as an effort to bring down American capitalism in the service of a vision of “social justice.” [In Glenn Beck’s world, “social justice” is less a moral and political aspiration than codes words for a totalitarian state.] You can find Fox transcripts of some samples here and here.
In real life, Piven’s work has mostly been concerned with the politics of poor people. Her argument: government doesn’t do anything for the disadvantaged unless they represent a political threat to governing coalitions. She’s promoted activism in general and voter registration in particular, because when poor people have the potential of making a political difference to someone, she thinks they’re more likely to get attention when policies are made. This idea, that squeaky wheels are more likely to get greased, is hardly that radical. It makes sense to me, and is surely one reason that Glenn Beck organized a rally at the Lincoln Memorial last year.
Piven and Cloward have had more moments of political influence than almost all other political science and sociology professors, but there haven’t been that many of them. Cloward briefed Attorney General Robert Kennedy on juvenile delinquency in the early 1960s, inspiring some of the programs that became the War on Poverty. Piven worked hard–and effectively–to get the Motor Voter Bill passed in 1993, which allowed people to register to vote when they were receiving government services.
It’s hard to see comparable influence in the last decade and a half, a period that’s included President Clinton’s welfare reform, President Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security, and President Obama’s trade and business oriented efforts to address the recession and the deficit.
I don’t know whether there is more than a media strategy in Beck’s attacks on Piven, whether he intends to discredit other political figures by implication, or whether this just makes for good tv.
But words matter. Even though the overwhelming majority of Beck’s viewers know that his rhetoric of threat is theater, he knows that there are always people on the periphery who take things more seriously. The larger and more diverse your audience is, the more you have to think about how your message comes across. (Really: While most of Bill O’Reilly’s viewers may have seen his “Tiller-baby killer” diatribes as rooted in a clever rhyme, at least one took it seriously enough to murder a doctor at church services. I can’t imagine the language doesn’t haunt the speaker, years later, at odd moments late at night.)
In our current moment of ostensibly searching for civility, targeting a Professor Piven seems particularly ill-conceived.
Of course, it’s now all over the news and the web, with both charges and countercharges circulating, with more–and far less-civility.
Peter Dreier posted an excellent summary of Beck’s reports on two of her articles–and the actual content of those articles–at Huffington Post, as well as a disturbing collection of the threats she’s received.