Beck & Piven III

NPR’s All Things Considered has come to the Beck/Piven saga, a story we discussed  a while back [see (II) and (I)].  Maybe this is getting to the tale late; on the other hand, once crazy provocative charges reach a few crazy provoked people, the story can continue for a long time.

You’ll recall that Glenn Beck identified Frances Fox Piven as one of the 9 people who most threatened the Constitution of the United States.  A couple of those dangerous people are dead (Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays); eight of them are Jewish.  Oddly, this last fact hasn’t gotten much explicit attention.

A small slice of Beck’s audience has taken to making their own threats against those threatening people.  Active (and alive!) with easy-to-find contact information, Piven has received hundreds of appalling e-missives, some of them pretty scary.  And we all know it takes only one crazy person to do a lot of damage.

Beck’s charges focused on a willful misrepresentation of an article Piven (and her husband, Richard Cloward) published 40 plus years ago:  “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty,” originally published in The Nation on May 2, 1966.

Beck’s rhetoric is inflammatory, irresponsible, and ill-informed.

Unfortunately, much of the coverage has ignored the real politics Piven has pursued, sometimes effectively, over the past half-century.  The NPR story painted Piven as an obscure, old, and frail academic, and portrayed the 1966 article as an effort to organize welfare recipients in an effort to streamline the administration of welfare.

That’s not the way I see Frances Piven, and it’s not the way I read that old article, which explained:

A series of welfare drives in large cities would, we believe, impel action on a new federal program to distribute income, eliminating the present public welfare system and alleviating the abject poverty which it perpetrates. Widespread campaigns to register the eligible poor for welfare aid, and to help existing recipients obtain their full benefits, would produce bureaucratic disruption in welfare agencies and fiscal disruption in local and state governments. These disruptions would generate severe political strains, and deepen existing divisions among elements in the big-city Democratic coalition: the remaining white middle class, the white working-class ethnic groups and the growing minority poor. To avoid a further weakening of that historic coalition, a national Democratic administration would be constrained to advance a federal solution to poverty that would override local welfare failures, local class and racial conflicts and local revenue dilemmas. By the internal disruption of local bureaucratic practices, by the furor over public welfare poverty, and by the collapse of current financing arrangements, powerful forces can be generated for major economic reforms at the national level.

In seeking to emphasize how distorted Beck’s views are, the reporter flattened most of the politics and presence out of a consequential person and an important set of arguments–that extend well beyond that 1966 article.

But a little bit of the real Frances Fox Piven peeked out at the end of the piece, trying to redirect attention away from the crazy commentator to a crooked (and more consequential) political economy.  About Beck’s invective, Piven said:

It’s a lunatic story, but it’s a story that nevertheless is clear. You can get your hands around it. This woman is somehow responsible for the upsetting changes in your small town where the factory closed down. I don’t blame them for being upset. It is upsetting. But I blame Glenn Beck for telling them a factually untrue, crazy story about why those changes occurred.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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