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Stephen Eric Bronner writes: "Hatching cracked conspiracy theories and labeling accomplished progressive intellectuals and activists as utopian fanatics has always been the tactic of the far right in America. What better way to discredit the attack on exploitation and disenfranchisement? Frances Fox Piven is not running from her record. She does not wish to present herself as some kind of centrist mistakenly portrayed as a liberal."

Frances Fox Piven. (photo: File, unspecified)
Frances Fox Piven. (photo: File, unspecified)

Vilifying Frances

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

28 January 11

Reader Supported News | Perspective


ull disclosure: Frances Fox Piven has been a close friend of mine for more than thirty years. She has served as President of the American Sociological Association, Vice President of the American Political Association, and as a leading figure in more than a dozen other associations. A Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the City University of New York: Graduate Center, she is among the most prominent progressive activists in the United States. With her late husband Richard Cloward, she also co-authored two classics of social science, "Regulating the Poor" and "Poor People's Movements," and has written various other works of inestimable value like "Challenging Authority." For all that, however, there is something curious about the palpable obsession of right-wing pundits with Frances Fox Piven.

The attack was begun about five years ago by David Horowitz, best known for his association with the spurious "Academic Bill of Rights," and his involvement in organizations like Campus Watch that attempt to monitor supposedly subversive professors. Any number of other right-wing luminaries and media pundits soon jumped on board, most notoriously: Glenn Beck. He has depicted her on his immensely popular television show as the source for both the collapse of the American economy and the ultra-radical (re: "communist," "socialist," anarchist," "Marxist," or whatever) policies of the Obama administration. Beck's attack has been ongoing and vicious. Other notable progressives have been targeted by his conspiratorial mindset as well. Another very old friend, Joel Rogers, Professor of Law, Political Science, and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, who is also a long-time activist, an engaged scholar, and an expert in public policy with impeccable academic credentials. Joel has often been castigated as a "wildly powerful man" and the evil "wizard" secretly plotting the urban energy policy of the Democratic Party from behind the scenes. Nevertheless, there is something special about Beck's treatment of Frances Fox Piven.

In "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty," which appeared in The Nation (5/2/1966), Frances and Richard called upon poor people to sign up for welfare benefits. Their aim was to foster the conditions that might bring about legislation to provide a guaranteed income. This article is now seen by right-wing media pundits as having caused the state to expand and the budget to bloat. Not deregulation of the financial industry, not corporate mismanagement, not the irresponsible lending of the banks, not capitalist disinvestment or capital flight, not the real estate bubble, not the shift away from industrial production, not the trillions spent on misguided wars, not the looting of social wealth by a miniscule elite, or a host of other structural factors associated with the capitalist production process, but Piven and Cloward's incitement to poor people more than forty- five years ago apparently created the conditions for the financial collapse of 2008. What's more: the insane policy proscriptions by these celebrated academics, which were obviously inspired by their nihilism, apparently set the stage for healthcare, the bail-outs of the banks, and other legislation by President Obama to destroy the capitalist system that elected him to office in favor of a revolution that would introduce socialism or communism.

All of this might seem amusing were it not for the hundreds of death threats and vile messages that Frances Fox Piven has recently received. There is nothing funny about that - though, by mocking the article in The New York Times that made these threats public, Mr. Beck apparently disagrees. Frances is 78-years-old and the perfect target for a self-righteous schoolyard bully with an ideological axe to grind. "Shoot them in the head" was a phrase used by Glenn Beck in talking about the measures required for dealing with believers in communism. With Frances, however, other possibilities present themselves: an intentional push to the ground, a quick blow, can serve the purpose as well as a bullet. Hate speech is becoming acceptable in the United States. Disclaimers of violence by reactionary media pundits come along with a wink to the most rabid of their followers. Free speech is being used to justify what Herbert Marcuse once termed "repressive tolerance." Of course, the ideological ranting by the political right has practical aims. The attack on Piven is clearly an attempt to inhibit the left. It also deflects attention from discussing the real causes of the current predicament - and progressive proposals to deal with it. Then, too, Piven symbolizes much of what is best about the 60s and the institution that reactionaries still consider their most implacable enemy: the academy.

Again, there is something ... well ... curious about the supposed (conspiratorial) power being exerted by a brilliant radical woman who, whatever her fame among progressive activists and students, has little influence on the inner circles of the liberal establishment. No one in the Obama administration - at least to my knowledge - has, moreover, supported Frances in calling for a mass movement of the unemployed. Her work is actually far less concerned with political parties than with building grass-roots movements capable of pressuring them. Her recent article in The Nation (1/17/2011) that raised this idea, "Mobilizing the Jobless," set off a new series of attacks by Glenn Beck. He surely saw it as part of the "Cloward-Piven Strategy," now making its round on the internet, that places these two activist scholars at the epicenter of all progressive movements and organizations and their hidden conspiratorial workings of the last half-century. With this (ahem!) curious analysis, indeed, Mr. Beck and his friends present with all seriousness a conspiracy theory so Byzantine, gothic and lurid that it fits nicely into the paranoid tradition best exemplified by the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Hatching cracked conspiracy theories and labeling accomplished progressive intellectuals and activists as utopian fanatics has always been the tactic of the far right in America. What better way to discredit the attack on exploitation and disenfranchisement? Frances Fox Piven is not running from her record. She does not wish to present herself as some kind of centrist mistakenly portrayed as a liberal. Piven has frankly endorsed the need for civil disobedience in response to grievances that the establishment refuses to address; she is an advocate for reforming the imbalances of power in contemporary society; but most of all, she is someone who seeks to draw the implications of democracy. Even back in 1965, Piven and Cloward were actually doing little more than helping the unemployed and the poor, the economic victims of our system, to exercise their right to welfare benefits. A similar aim informed their decade-long fight for the "motor-voter" bill that so helped poor and working people exercise their electoral rights. The scholarly work and the political practice of Piven and Cloward always sought to empower poor and working people - and thus, translate formal into substantive democracy. Ironically, this is precisely what the right-wing media establishment now considers a crime. Enough fanatics among its audience wish to make Frances Fox Piven pay not merely with her reputation but possibly - who knows? - even with her life.

Stephen Eric Bronner is the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, as well as Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights at Rutgers University. His books include "Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement" (Columbia University Press) and "A Rumor About the Jews: Anti-Semitism, Conspiracy, and the 'Protocols of Zion'" (Oxford University Press).

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


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For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

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Founder, Reader Supported News

+36 # Lesabre 2011-01-28 12:28
I'm sure Beck doesn't do any of his own research much the same as a boxer doesn't chose who he will fight next. He is managed. The Old conservative think tanks are supplying the material and he just goes off on it. They have hundreds of scripts just waiting for a slow news day, and pre-arranged material on every Democrat that they can find, just in case he or she would speak out in some subject or get nominated to some post. They are all about character assassanation regardless of the issue.
+28 # DRA 2011-01-28 12:34
As much as it pains me to say it, I don't think we are going to be able to effectively counter the right-wing hate speech emminating from Fox News and similar sources until we are able to fight back in kind. When Glen Beck starts getting death threats, too, then maybe he'll censor himself. I've tried for years to be a sensible voice of reason, but it seems no one is listening to reason anymore.
+41 # Regina 2011-01-28 12:35
It takes a weird kind of ghoul to rake up an article published in 1966 -- nearly half a century ago! -- and generate death threats to its author. It takes a sinister psychopath to generate death threats at any time, but especially so at the remove of half a century. We no longer have political discourse in America -- we're degenerated all the way down to old cowboy movie mentality.
+44 # LeeBlack 2011-01-28 12:51
Progressives have given us minimum wage, fair housing, child-labor laws, food safety, social security and numberless other benefits. Yet the right has managed to portray progressives as anti-American.

Progressives are working for clean air, health care and climate change; yet even suggesting one is a progressive invites death threats.

What a topsy-turvy world.
+27 # Richard Schmidt 2011-01-28 13:02
We must keep in mind, as noted above, that Beck is an actor, paid to play the part of a delusional sociopath. He is paid by Rupert Murdoch to play that part. Rupert's people write his scripts and he recites them on cue. It is Rupert Murdoch and others of that ilk who need to be held accountable, by whatever means necessary.
+19 # Bob Conway 2011-01-28 15:12
It may only be a role, but it is taken seriously by millions of Faux Newz' "Nurse Betty" viewers who hang on Glenn Beck's every word and believe that he walks on water. Both Beck *AND* Rupert Murdoch must be held accountable.
+42 # Cathy 2011-01-28 13:17
I'm curious....what DOES qualify as a hate speech crime in the US? That Beck can go on the national airwaves and incite people to physically harm this woman - who has spent her life trying to help her fellow country men and women - SHOULD qualify for some sort of sanctions. I understand the concept of "free speech" but at some point a line has to be drawn when a person's well-being is threatened, IMHO.

Frances Fox Piven has more intelligence and thoughtfulness contained in her (left) baby finger than Beck and his like have combined in their entire bodies. It sickens me to see the discourse in the USA (a country I have always admired from afar) sink to such degrading, denigrating, disgusting levels. It's very sad.
+10 # CECILE 2011-01-28 17:11
Quoting Cathy:
I'm curious....what DOES qualify as a hate speech crime in the US?

It is called "stochastic speech" and is be impossible to prosecute: by fanning the flames of hatred, he and his ilk greatly increase the probability that someone will act on these statements while cowardly hiding behind a tenuous but legal "I didn't do it", and of course the Freedom of Speech, which we all cherish. It is very much akin to yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Will the people trample and kill others in their panic or will they calmly check the facts? They could do either, yet the probability that they will try to escape, thus trampling others is greatly increased. (Stochastic statistics) You increase the possibility of an event without actually causing it. (unlike a cause & effect relationship There is such a thing as "hate crime"on the books, but not Hate Crime Speech. Probably in protection of the 1st Amendment. Possible actions: sink to his level, but then we lose the moral high ground, do him harm, but that is a hate crime. Alternately, we can google "sponsors of Fox News and write them all a letter refusing to use their products until they remove him from the air for good.
+11 # Regina 2011-01-28 18:17
So Murdoch & Co. are immune from prosecution when they stochastically yell "FIRE!" in the proverbial crowded theater? Yammering is speech, but death threats signal forthcoming action. They must be taken seriously, averted, and prosecuted. The First Amendment guarantees us free speech, but not free murder.
+23 # fredboy 2011-01-28 13:42
Cathy raises a key point: Does urging others to harm or kill individuals constitute a crime? Especially if those suggestions are then carried out, as was the case in Arizona.

One problem with Horowitz and Beck is they have never been poor or know people who were poor and thus they never developed any concept of empathy. They instead developed fear and hatred of the poor, based on their misunderstandin g of the condition. What is most shameful is there are so many Americans who join them. I fear the process of karma, so evident throughout history, will prompt all such heartless souls to be visited by the conditions they most fear and hate.
+22 # herb rosenbaum 2011-01-28 13:53
The attack on Dr. Piven is a sure sign of the dementia that seems to have overtaken extremists of the political "right". I trust that Dr Piven will not let herself be intimidated by this. As has been said above, she has more sense in her smallest finger than any of her attackers.
+11 # Capn Canard 2011-01-28 14:19
I would go so far as to suggest that our adversarial political system is the major problem with all this BS. The RIGHT is financed by BIG FINANCE, OIL, COAL, etc. The Left gets the crumbs in the way of funds and financial support. Effective policies are not defined as Effective unless one of those big MAJOR Industries gains in PROFIT. The RIGHT has sold it's soul to short term gain, the Left is retarded if they think this bicameral system is beneficial to most citizens. I have lost all faith in the freedom for American citizens.
+6 # Cathy 2011-01-28 14:28
Thanks for raising the "empathy" word, fredboy. It's refreshing to see that it is still used from time to time (as President Obama did during his speech in Arizona).

I wonder if Beck would be able to use it appropriately in a sentence?
+4 # sebouhian 2011-01-28 15:59
Yes to all of the above, with one addition: why is the administration so quiet when many of us see and hear the thunderous terror threatening our way of life and targeting some of the best voices directing us to compassion and empathy, to knowing and addressing our failures? Why such silence? (It's getting lonely here.)
+10 # Jane Gilgun 2011-01-28 16:29
Egyptian young people are standing up to their repressive government. The Tunisian people set the example. I am thrilled that there is grassroots insistence upon democracies in these two countries. The poor in the United States are powerless. Frances Fox Piven wants them to organize so that can take part in peaceful democratic processes. The poor have Constitutional rights to organize. The poor in the US want nothing less that the people in Egypt and the people in Tunisia want. As far as i know, there is no Constitutional right to character assassination. Those who attack Frances Fox Piven distort reality to serve their own short-sighted ends. These demagogues will come to an end, and I hope it is soon. May decency and common sense take the place of hate speech.
+3 # granny 2011-01-30 08:27
It's time for our leaders to set the example. Merely tearing up in sentimental shows of love of country is the coward's way. Standing for legislation to control weapons of mass destruction, like sub-machine guns and semi-automatic rifles, etc., would take more courage than the HELLNO Boehner/Cantor/ McConnell/McCai n crowd can muster. But that's what's needed. Beck's words rile people up - and then those PEOPLE take up their GUNS and do his bidding.

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