The Beck-Piven Controversy

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

In the January 10/17 issue of The Nation, Frances Fox Piven published an essay calling for a new protest movement in the United States aimed at redressing the situation of the poor and the unemployed. She wrote at one point in the essay:  

Local protests have to accumulate and spread—and become more disruptive— to create serious pressures on national politicians. An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees. 

The strikes and riots in Greece ended up destroying a great deal of property and costing lives. In one instance, protesters threw a Molotov cocktail through the front window of Marfin Bank in central Athens. Three people inside died from asphyxiation and four others were badly injured. There were other atrocities. I wrote about the student protests in England here.

Piven is a professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She is best known as the co-inventor, with her husband, Richard Cloward (1926-2001,) of a proposal for crippling the welfare state in order to force the adoption of a guaranteed annual income for the poor. Their outline of the idea was first published in The Nation in 1966 as an article titled, “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.” It became known as the “Cloward-Piven Strategy,” and was generalized by some, such as Peter Dreier, as an approach for disrupting the liberal state in a variety of contexts.

Piven has never been entirely out of the spotlight. After her work in welfare reform in the 1960s and 1970s, she and her husband turned their attention to voter registration and became key proponents of “motor voter” and other techniques for increasing minority voter registration. The sometimes openly avowed goal was to create class polarization by baiting Republicans to stand in the way of using welfare offices to register new voters. Motor voter was approved but the hoped-for reaction by Republicans never materialized.

The consistent theme of Piven’s work has been the desire to set Americans against one another in the hope that out of the resulting conflict will come a more organized and energized movement of the poor and disenfranchised. Thus Piven’s recent invocation of riots in Greece and protests in England is nothing especially novel.

Her views have also attracted a fair amount of criticism from both conservatives and liberals. Jim SleeperJohn McWhorter, and Ronald Radosh have over the years faulted her proposals. It was Radosh who drew attention to her recent article in The Nation. One source of the renewed interest in Piven is Stanley Kurtz’s book, Radical-in-Chief:  Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, which I commented on here.  Kurtz notes that Piven gave the plenary address at the 1983 Cooper Union Socialist Scholars Conference, attended by the young Barack Obama. Later Piven, working through her own organization, HumanServe, to advance the motor-voter cause, partnered with ACORN. Obama was ACORN’s lawyer in a suit aimed at enforcing the motor-voter law. Kurtz doesn’t claim a direct tie between Piven and Obama, but he establishes Piven’s broad influence over the socialist and community-organizing circles Obama traveled in.

But what has pushed Piven much higher in the realm of name recognition is that she has been singled out by the radio and television personality Glenn Beck, who in the last two years has named her as someone who wants “to intentionally collapse our economic system.” Beck’s repeated criticisms of Piven have in turn stirred up a polarized reaction. Some share Beck’s outrage; others are outraged at Beck for his subjecting her to this kind of attention.

This controversy might in principle have remained in the popular press, but it has in fact rather quickly become a topic of academic debate too. The Chronicle reported this week that Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, issued a statement saying that Piven is the victim of “what nearly amounts to an American Fatwa,” from Beck’s “virulent attacks.” Nelson says, “Amid these relentless tirades, Professor Piven has herself begun to receive threats of violence.” And he concludes by calling for—what else?—civility: “We join others in strongly urging those who are critical of Professor Piven’s writings to advance their positions in ways that foster responsible criticism and debate.”

“Responsible criticism and debate.” These are the cynosures of academic discourse. Who would be opposed?

Actually, it would seem, quite a few, perhaps beginning with Cary Nelson himself, who, by invoking the idea of “an American Fatwa,” indulged in the kind of rhetoric that can hardly be called responsible or conducive to debate. If you imply that someone is seeking to kill his opponents, you have pretty much ruled out the grounds for a respectful airing of differences of opinion.

For the record, I have been unable to locate any instance in which Beck called for Piven’s death or incited violence against her. As many others have pointed out, however, Piven herself has long extolled the value of civil unrest up to and including riots, which would seem to put her own academic discourse in a place other than “responsible criticism and debate.” Her belief in the salutary character of some kinds of violence is, of course, not an isolated case in academe.  Frantz Fanon’s book TheWretched of the Earth, long a staple in American college reading lists, luxuriates in the idea of the liberating quality of killing the oppressor. The academy has its share of men and women who theorize on the utility of revolutionary violence—and a few who have actually practiced it. On that scale, Piven is something of a moderate. She is attracted to the idea of violent social disruption but doesn’t apotheosize killing for its own sake.

Nelson is not alone in coming to Piven’s defense. Perhaps most notably, the American Sociological Association issued a statement on January 24 expressing “outrage at the attacks made on Professor Frances Fox Piven by Glenn Beck.” Like Nelson, the ASA folks enunciate their disappointment that disagreement with Piven has not taken a more elevated tone. They write, “Scholars of her caliber, intellectuals of her stature, and especially those who tackle social conflicts and contradictions, mass movements and political action, should stimulate equal levels of serious challenge and creative dialogue.” The ASA statement in turn attracted the attention of University of Wisconsin law professor and blogger Ann Althouse, who “fisked” the document.

Beck’s attention to Piven has driven much of the media interest in the story—but also much of the interest among faculty members, a great deal of which has been overheated. Cary Nelson and the American Sociological Association are no exceptions. They call sanctimoniously for “dialogue,” but ignore the body of scholarly criticism that already exists about Piven’s work. It is hard not to see a flag of convenience in this newfound interest in “serious challenge” and “debate” by those whose usual practice is to ignore those who dissent from progressive orthodoxy.

But what about Beck? Are his comments about Piven fairly characterized as having crossed some line into dangerous irresponsibility? I don’t see it. What Beck does on the air is certainly not scholarship. He isn’t drawing careful distinctions, seeking nuance, or searching for contextual understanding. He is, rather, engaged in polemic. This is, however, a form that requires some mastery of the facts and considerable ability to frame a persuasive argument. He or his assistants have done their research. I doubt that he has factually misrepresented Piven’s statements. He has, however, offered a strong interpretation of what those mean, and his conclusion is that she is a deep source of intellectual mischief in American life.

Those who are culturally or politically more or less on Piven’s side resent this picture of themselves, and some have responded hyperbolically. We are never really lacking in things to get angry about, and, as anger has increasingly become a way for Americans to actualize their identities, an affair like this provides an opportunity to soar on wings of righteous indignation.

I don’t think American life in general has been improved by this too-ready resort to histrionic anger, whether it comes from Glenn Beck or Cary Nelson. It abides on both the left and the right. Whether it abides more on one side than the other is a ticklish question. The left explodes in anger if you suggest it is the more rageful of the two. The right tends to laugh at the idea. But there is clearly enough anger-spiked tea to fill everyone’s cup.

Higher education has no special immunity from the angri-culture. On the contrary, it is a privileged haunt for those who delight in scorn, derision, and wrathful dislike of mainstream American culture. We cite academic freedom as guaranteeing our right to be vitriolic.

I don’t know of any simple remedy for that, but I do think it comes across to most Americans as hypocrisy. To claim academic freedom as a protection of one’s own diatribes while crying “no fair” when someone aims a diatribe back at you requires a clownish degree of self-regard. Unfortunately, what most Americans will take from this affair is that higher education has an abundance of that particular quality.

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