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Home » Clarion » 2011 » February 2011 » CUNY Prof Under Threat

CUNY Prof Under Threat

Frances Fox Piven

“Frances Fox Piven Rings in the New Year by Calling for Violent Revolution,” announced a December 31 post on The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s news and blog site, in an all-caps headline. Of course, Piven did nothing of the kind – but if you know even a little about Beck’s obsessions, you already know that in his world, this distinguished professor of political science and sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center is “fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system.” More recently, Beck called Piven “an enemy of the Constitution.”

As Clarion reported last May, Beck’s claim about Piven’s responsibility for our economic crisis is based on a 45-year old article that she and her late co-author and husband Richard Cloward wrote in The Nation titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.” In the retelling of Beck and others on the right, this article outlines “the Cloward-Piven strategy,” a master plan for the left to “hasten the fall of capitalism” by orchestrating fiscal crises.


The assertion that Piven is calling for “violent revolution,” comes from an equally fanciful reading of an article she wrote for The Nation in January of this year. In “Mobilizing the Jobless,” Piven, a lifelong scholar of social movements, takes note that the unemployment crisis in the US has not resulted in mass demonstrations, and she analyzes some of the preconditions, as she sees them, that would have to take place for an American protest movement of enough breadth and power to create change to emerge. “There is no science that predicts eruption of protest movements,” she writes. “We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom – and then join it.”

What Beck’s acolytes describe as a call for “violent revolution” is in fact a call for the mobilization of ordinary Americans acting in their own self-interest, perhaps the most fundamental definition of democratic action. The right’s rage at Piven stems precisely from her commitment to democracy. She has spent a lifetime of scholarship devoted to studying how ordinary people, particularly poor people, can and do fight for social change, and her work has underscored a basic truth: people can redress the imbalance of power and wealth in our society when they organize and disrupt business as usual.

That is the last thing Beck wants Americans to realize and it helps explain why he and others on the right are working overtime to create a counter-narrative, one in which a sinister plot hatched by two radical professors in the 1960s explains the subprime mortgage crisis and the recession – rather than the lending practices of banks, financial deregulation, and increased corporate power and greed.

Beck’s attacks on Piven have been going on for two years, but the recent spate of accusations has sparked an increasingly disturbing response, moving from nasty ad hominem comments to repeated death threats, with a heavy dose of misogyny along the way. Piven’s address has been published on right-wing blogs and comments on The Blaze have included exhortations to “blow up Piven’s office and home” and declarations like “Somebody tell Frances I have 5,000 roundas [sic] ready…. George Washington didn’t use His freedom of speech to defeat the British, He shot them [sic].” “ONE SHOT…ONE KILL!” one post said; another, “I’m all for violence and change Francis, where do your loved ones live [sic]?” And another: “Maybe they should burst through the front door of this arrogant elitist and slit the hateful cow’s throat.”

These threats have alarmed Piven’s friends and colleagues. At the CUNY Graduate Center, Piven is known as an extraordinarily dedicated mentor to her students. “It’s hard to find a scholar of her rank who works harder than she does for her students,” a former student reflected. “She gives so much of herself…and she does this with enormous generosity, humor and warmth.”

The concerns of Piven’s fellow academics have been heightened in the post-Gabrielle Giffords shooting era, when we are suddenly more conscious of the connection between violent rhetoric and violent actions – and many have rallied to her defense.

Articles, editorials, op-eds, petitions and more have circulated to challenge the Beck smear campaign and the thousands of personal attacks and threats against Piven.

The PSC, the American Association of University Professors, and the American Political Science Association have issued statements condemning Beck’s vilification of Piven. People for the American Way, and Care2 have taken up her cause, while the Center for Constitutional Rights has sent a cease and desist order to Fox News demanding an end to Beck’s false accusations. Piven herself has met with state police to alert them to the threats.


But none of this has stopped Beck’s attacks or his wild distortions of Piven’s words, nor has it stopped the massive right-wing online regurgitation of every anti-Piven blog post or the threats against her.

Those committed to the value of political dialogue and committed scholarship have a responsibility to speak out. What is at stake is not just the safety of one of our own, but the defense of American democracy. Beck and his would-be henchmen represent a politics that is antithetical to democracy; a politics of fear, smear, lies, scapegoating, raw intimidation and, in too many cases, violence. To the extent that these tactics go unchallenged and are accepted as legitimate, our democratic political institutions are weakened. As Barbara Ehrenreich put it in the Los Angeles Times, “When a congresswoman can be shot in a parking lot and a professor who falls short of Glenn Beck’s standards of political correctness can be, however anonymously, targeted for execution, we have moved well beyond democracy – to a tyranny of the heavily armed.”

Dorothee Benz has more than two decades experience as an editor, journalist, Web manager and communications strategist in the labor movement.

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