Frances Fox Piven. Photo by Zach Roberts – zdroberts.com
Glenn Beck’s nightly tour through the terrifying political landscape of his paranoid imagination inevitably includes a detour into the shadowy precincts of liberal thought, unfriendly territory where conspiracies to destroy the United States are incubated in every university classroom, and enemies of the state lie in wait to hijack the American dream. A rotating cast of left-of center bogeymen haunts the narrative of Beck’s other America, infecting the brains of ordinary citizens with conspiratorial designs that, if not properly defended against, will ultimately bring about the structural collapse of the United States.
Over the past several weeks Beck has made a point of aggressively singling out Frances Fox Piven—professor of political science and sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center—as especially dangerous to American life and liberty. Beck accuses Piven and her late husband, Richard Cloward, of being the intellectual architects of a revolutionary plot to overthrow the United States government. The so-called “Cloward-Piven strategy,” outlined in a 1966 article published by The Nation, argued that a concentrated welfare enrollment drive could ultimately lead to a guaranteed national income. For Beck, Cloward and Piven are a particularly potent touchstone for kicking off feverish fantasies. They represent, in Beck’s mythology, “the roots of the tree of radicalism and revolution” that employ “fear and intimidation” to “overwhelm the system.”
What began as mildly amusing attention quickly turned worrisome as threats to Piven’s life began appearing on internet message boards and even in her electronic inbox after Beck’s website The Blaze posted an essay on New Year’s Eve entitled “Frances Fox Piven Rings in the New Year by Calling for Violent Revolution.” “I’m all for violence and change Francis,” one reader wrote, “where do your loved ones live?” Another chimed in that he had “5000 roundas [sic] ready and I’ll give My life [sic] to take Our freedom [sic] back. Taking Her life [sic] and any who would enslave My children [sic] and grandchildren and call for violence should meet their demise as They wish [sic]. George Washington didn’t use His freedom [sic] of speech to defeat the British, He [sic] shot them.” Still others warned Piven to “be very careful what you ask for honey… As I mentioned in previous posts…ONE SHOT…ONE KILL! …a few well placed marksmen with high powered rifles…then there would not be any violence.” One Beck supporter suggested that “We should blowup Piven’s office and home,” while another signed off by praying that “cancer find[s] you soon.” According to The Nation, a particularly succinct antagonist summed up his message in the subject line of a personal email: “DIE YOU CUNT.”
Concerns for Piven’s personal safety have since led to increased security precautions and an investigation by the FBI. Despite these unpleasant circumstances, however, Piven has hardly put her life on hold. Since the New Year, she has continued writing prodigiously, has appeared regularly on nationally syndicated radio and TV, and is currently teaching a class at the Graduate Center. IPS contributor Michael Busch sat down with Piven to discuss the ugly causes and consequences of Beck’s bilious targeting, as well as the recent attack on academic freedom at Brooklyn College, possibilities for a poor and working people’s movement in the midst of the US economic crisis, and the state of American democracy.
I was hoping we could begin with a brief discussion of what’s been going on: where it came from, how it has affected you personally, and what it says about our current moment.
Well, it started almost two years ago. I didn’t pay any attention to it, however, until last winter, when some of my students told me about it. Now, I don’t watch Glenn Beck very often. But they told me about Beck’s “tree of revolution,” and that Richard and I were at the trunk of this tree that has all these branches going off in different directions. My first reaction was that it was funny, because it was so fantastical. Who wouldn’t laugh if they were being given credit for the Students for a Democratic Society [movement], the Open Society Institute, ACORN, the election of Barack Obama, the financial crisis, and probably other stuff which I am forgetting right now?
But as it’s gone on, I have been forced to think about it a little more seriously. I think it is dangerous in and of itself, and also because it’s a symptom of serious problems in American democracy. It’s dangerous because our political culture includes a tradition of violent extremism, and also because there are always some loose nuts out there who are provoked by this kind of ranting. But it’s a symptom of a bigger problem, I think. The bigger problem is that there are a lot of people in the United States who are anxious, discontented, who are nostalgic for “the way things were,” who don’t understand the big changes that have occurred including deindustrialization and the decline of American power, or the increasing diversity of the American population, or the election of a black president, or changes in sexual and family patterns. These are very hard developments to decipher, to analyze, to explain. They’re hard for academics to explain! It’s also difficult to understand the government policies that are justified as dealing with these problems, or dealing with the economic recession.
That’s a situation that I think creates a sort-of available space for propaganda. That’s why Glenn Beck and company are dangerous: because they are propagandists. They tell a nutty story about what is happening in the United States instead of trying to understand what’s happening, trying to understand who’s responsible. Instead, they point at me and say, “SHE’S RESPONSIBLE!” Well, think how ridiculous this is. They also keep reiterating, “She is 78 years old!” And I’m responsible? This is paranoia.
Think about what we understand to be the elemental requirements for democracy. People are supposed to assess their circumstances, the circumstances of their community, to discuss those circumstances—why they occurred, what government can do about it—and then vote accordingly. But, if these crazy stories are poured into what you might call the public mind or segment of the public’s mind, it blocks the possibility for this kind of democratic discourse.
How do you make sense of the violent threats against you, especially in light of the Gabriel Giffords shooting, and the Beck-inspired assassination plots of Byron Williams? Is Barbara Ehrenreich correct to suggest that the possession or use of guns themselves have come to represent political action to some Americans? And if so, do you see a concerted effort by the far right to mobilize around this sense of “civic engagement,” for lack of a better way of describing it?
Well, I think that guns have always played a role in American political culture. That role perhaps grows and contracts, but there have always been extremist groups that have turned to guns and especially to forms of violence that play a dramatic symbolic role, like lynchings. So I’m not sure that this is new. It may be surging right now—maybe because of a black president and the economic downturn—but it’s not new. What is new, I think, is the potential power of propaganda in American life. And that’s in part because of the media, and the role of big money, and who owns the media. After all, it’s not Glenn Beck, it’s Rupert Murdoch—let’s face it. Glenn Beck is an idiot: an overweight, neurotic character who hit on this way of building an audience and making a lot of money. But FOX News gave him his platform.
Why do you think Beck has fastened on to you? How did you and your late husband end up at the trunk of the “tree of revolution”?
Why does he fasten on me? Partly it is accident: one of way or the other, he came into contact with David Horowitz, Fred Siegel Jim Sleeper and other annoying people who made the move from the far left to the far right in the 1970s, because the pay was better on the other side, or whatever. They, along with Thomas Sowell, have a line which is very familiar that ordinary people themselves never rise up and make trouble on their own, it’s always outside agitators that instigate them. And they say that Richard and I were the agitators that were responsible for the welfare rights movement and later the effort to get liberalized voter registration. Thomas Sowell said we were for the responsible for the demand for affirmative action—“black people didn’t want that!”
Still, they could have picked on lots of others, so it’s accidental that they picked on me. They could even have picked on one of their own! Just take a look at what ran in Ramparts magazine when David Horowitz was still an editor! But I think that what’s not accidental is that they’re turning to someone who was an advocate for expanded democratic rights for poor and minority people in the United States, and expanded political rights for poor and minority people in the United States—that’s not accidental. The Sixties movements drive them crazy. Actually, the Thirties movements also drive them crazy! But the Sixties movements have a kind of special edge to them because they did play a role in the election of Barack Obama, who is easily vilified and demonized because he is African-American.
If it’s true, as you say, that Glenn Beck’s narrative gains traction because of the complexity of American politics, what’s the remedy, what’s the way forward? In other words, what are the prospects for reinvigorating a working class movement in American politics?
Well, there is the potential. Some of the conditions are right. We have a president who’s not a champion of such movements, but who would nevertheless be vulnerable to them and forced to be responsive to them. We have a clear villain in the financial sector, a villain that is not only similar to the economic royalists that Franklin Delano Roosevelt ranted against, but who are patently illegal in many of their actions. And we have a lot of people who are losing their homes, we have people suffering under mountains of debt, not just credit card but student debt. A lot of people are unemployed and many more have taken big wage cuts.
But at the same time, I do think there a lot of organizing problems that we have to solve. Here’s what I’ve come to think we should do. We have to work on the organizing problems—how to bring people together; how to transform what is for many people a kind of humiliation—they’re debtors, or they are unemployed—we have to figure out how to transform this humiliation into indignation; we have to figure out how to identify targets for their indignation and their anger; how to shape local actions that have some muscle that can be brought to bear on the centers of power. Of course, there are people working on this, but the stuff that’s happened so far has been very small. Still, I see no reason that it can’t be much bigger, that it can’t get much bigger.
Can you talk a bit about the recent events at Brooklyn College: specifically, how you view what happened there, and what ways, if any, you see its connection to Glenn Beck’s targeting of you as part of a larger right-wing attack on the American university?
Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s quite right to suggest that my situation is linked to what happened at Brooklyn College. As to that situation, I think that administrators at CUNY—and I include the president of Brooklyn College here— are very sensitive on the issues of Israel and Zionism, and that’s partly because of the larger political environment of New York. It’s also because of the history of CUNY. There have historically been a lot of Jews at CUNY, there are lots of Jews on faculty. And it’s because Jewish politics—and by that I mean the politics of American Jews—has itself been very distorted, I think, by Israeli policy. And so, you have a sensitivity that leads to the events at Brooklyn College. I remember another: the Graduate Center graduation a few years ago in which a trustee—invited to give his blessing to the graduates—used the occasion to launch a kind of tirade against any anti-Zionist sentiment in the institution.
It’s true that David Horowitz, who is one of the gang promoting the idea there is a Cloward and Piven theory of orchestrated crisis to bring down capitalism, did work with Campus Watch a few years ago, and a lot of neo-cons are hyped-up on the issue of Israel. In that sense, maybe there is a connection [between the Brooklyn College and Glenn Beck fiascos]. However, the university is the one institution in the United States that hasn’t been completely swamped by the march to the right in the country. When the American Sociological Association’s three most recent presidents issued a statement defending me, they got an incendiary response from somebody called “Shadow Merchant.” Randall Collins, one of the presidents, emailed Shadow Merchant to ask him how he had gotten the statement so quickly. In response Shadow Merchant laid out a big plan—I think Shadow Merchant is a probably some right-wing professor emeritus—but Shadow Merchant said, and I’m paraphrasing of course, “this is the counter-revolution and one of the things we’re going to do is mob every lefty professor.” And he concluded his tirade by heaping praise on Senator Joseph McCarthy.
So, I think that the Right will target the universities, and that we have a responsibility to stand up to this kind of Right, and we especially have a responsibility to stand up to the propaganda of the Right. Lunacy is not good for democracy.
Speaking of which, what do you make of the state of our democracy look like at present?
Well, democracy—understood as electoral representative democracy—is in a lot of trouble. Now, some of that comes from the growing role of business in American politics: the concentrated resources that business interests groups bring to bear on campaigns and candidates as lobbyists, as big-money contributors, and the influence they have on the parties, as well.
But some of the trouble also comes from the influence of propaganda in a society that is very difficult to understand for the ordinary citizen. One has to have explanations for what happens, and the role of government in what happens, in order to do one’s democratic duty as a citizen and as a voter. American politics is hard to understand. The fact that it is so dense, so complicated, so opaque and turgid opens the way for lunatic propaganda. And sometimes not so lunatic! The right-wing propaganda campaign that has now been going on for forty years—a campaign that is sometimes referred to as the politics of distraction—to try to wean the American working class away from New Deal policies and the Democratic Party by raising cultural issues that largely have to do with race and sex. This larger campaign is perhaps not lunatic, but neither is it a contribution to democratic discourse.