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In Glenn Beck’s Crosshairs: An Interview with Frances Fox Piven

April 7, 2011

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. 

Piven: 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?

Piven: 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.

Keep reading at Foreign Policy in Focus…

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