Beck and Piven, II

The ballad of the pundit and the professor continues to add verses as the story of Glenn Beck’s demonization of Frances Fox Piven hit the blogs, professional and activist networks and mass media.  It raises interesting questions about what a vigorous and honest political debate could look like.

As we’ve discussed recently, Beck has pointed to two of Piven’s articles, published forty-five years apart, to identify her as a great enemy of the Constitution and America more generally.  This new exposure has led to a rash of electronic insults, and scarier: detailed threats on her life.

Many of the mainstream reports have noted Piven’s age, as if to emphasize Beck’s hyperbole.  And she is, after all, a professor, so get a grip, such reports suggest.

Academics and others have called Beck out on tone.  An online petition directed to Fox News head, Roger Ailes, demands that the network rein Beck inThe American Sociological Association issued a statement with a similar appeal, although (thankfully) not emphasizing her age.  The academics call for a better informed and more civil debate.  (Of course, this isn’t the strong suit of cable news programming.)

Meanwhile, some conservatives have pitched in on another side, agreeing that she’s really awful, and her supporters are too.  Ron Radosh, a conservative historian, remarks with snark:

The editors of the leftist magazine The Nation, where Piven’s writings have appeared consistently since the 1960s, call her “distinguished professor, legendary activist, writer and longtime contributor to this magazine.” The last characterization is the only correct one, although, I’m sure she is “legendary” in their circles.

But this is nonsense.  “Distinguished professor” is Piven’s job title at the City University of New York.  “Distinguished” is surely a fair adjective anyway for someone who has been elected Vice President of the American Political Science Association and President of the American Sociological Association, and someone who has published many articles and books is certainly a writer.  C’mon.  The ad hominem (ad feminem?) stuff is ridiculous.

In the old days of network news, anchors and networks sought mass audiences, and policed themselves rhetorically for fear of alienating a large segment of the market.

The economics of cable are completely different.  Beck can make a lot of money for Fox News and for himself by serving an audience of around 3 million–a tiny fraction of the American public.  There’s no fiscal reason to temper the rhetoric–and every incentive to steer away from an informed discussion (bor-ring!).  Going after Piven (or random and marginal bloggers, as Bill O’Reilly often does) is a way for Beck to lean into his most aggrieved polemics without worrying that his audience might have an alternate understanding of the target.  And working politicians and commentators with other media outlets can get a lot of attention for themselves when they hit back.  In this way, his recurrent attacks on Woodrow Wilson–a former president of the American Political Science Association, as well as the United States, make a lot of sense.  Wilson is, uh, dead.

An academic, even a visible and prolific one like Piven, starts with access to a much smaller audience.  Beck enjoys the freedom to define her mostly unchallenged.

But do we want to shut down a debate on Professor Piven’s work in general or on her recent writing on the politics of unemployment? Piven has been trying to influence public debate and public policy for the better part of the last fifty years, at least.  Getting broad discussion–even vigorous argument about–and arguing about–the ideas she advances–is what she’s been after.  And, as they say in Boston, politics ain’t beanbag.

Mostly, however, the politics has dropped out of the discussion, and this is actually far more interesting and important than the bullying blowhard versus the pedantic professor.

The unemployed march in Minneapolis, 1934

Barbara Ehrenreich tries to bring back the issues in a piece in the LA Times, asking why it’s okay to call people into the streets to protect gun rights and the extraordinarily expensive hybrid health care system in the US, but not to advocate for policies that promote employment.

I’m going to be waiting on the answer to this one.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Beck and Piven, II

  1. olderwoman says:

    Nice post. I’ve been chewing on these issues myself. I do remember the days when it was the left that was unruly, and Piven herself has been trying to emphasize the political debate and the attempt to intimidate the left, rather than unruliness per se.

  2. Pingback: Social change at Princeton (and everywhere): slowly, then suddenly | Politics Outdoors

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