At Your Beck and Piven: A Call for More Public Sociology
You’ve probably heard something of the situation by now – Glenn Beck, a Fox news ‘commentator’ is trashing Frances Fox Piven, using the kind of hateful language and accusations that have come to mark American political discourse, taking all the ‘civil’ out of it. Throw in the joys of the internet, and the level of the conversation has degraded to “Die you Cunt!” messages arriving in Piven’s email. Commentate that! I’m not absolutist about a lot of things, but when it comes to free speech and the first amendment, you’re not going to find a lot of stronger advocates. I spent my teenage and young adult years listening to late night ‘listener supported’ radio, listened in tears as stations were attacked by right-wing, pro-war forces, felt my eyes fill as the Pacifica station reopened with the rousing chords of “Let the Sun Shine In” after a bombing. Oh those 1960’s! And in the years that followed, I watched early feminist attempts to control deeply misogynist pornography backfire, the laws quickly being used against feminist free speech.
These days, I spend a fair amount of time in Berlin, a city so overfilled with its own monuments that it requires stumble stones, engraved brass cobblestones to show you where people were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. I became used to it, stumbled, sighed, nodded and walked on. But the memorial that brought tears to my eyes, the one that truly made me stumble, was the book burning memorial. In front of Humboldt University, at the law school no less, there is a memorial marking the spot where the Nazis burned piles of the books they found offensive. You stand on a square of thick glass in the plaza and look down into a small white room lined with empty white bookshelves. I stood there and cried – the books! So what with one thing and another, I’m not going to ask for laws to cut down on freedom of speech. Not even Glenn Beck’s. I am going to defend his right to be stupid and evil. But it does require that I – and we, SSSP members – be good and smart. We have to address these vicious, personal attacks designed to silence not just Piven, but any of us who critically assess the system and dare to publicly advocate for the poor, the unemployed or the foreclosed.
An unfortunately large part of the media response supportive of Piven that I’ve seen makes a point of mentioning that Frances Fox Piven is 78. Well, as an old white woman myself, I kinda resent the assumption that one look at us and anyone can see that obviously we’re not dangerous. Partly it’s the ‘ageism’ in that, but more it’s the kind of privilege that allows some people to say things like “Do I look like a ______?” shoplifter, terrorist, radical rabble-rouser? Thus reinforcing the idea that some people – young black or Middle Eastern men for example-- do look the type. And just what is the type in question for Beck here? Piven, a past president of our organization and of ASA, a colleague and a truly remarkable and wonderful scholar and person, may well be a model member of an intelligent minority. Beck has named her among nine people as the ‘intelligent minority’ who are also the nine most dangerous people in the world. I think I would take some comfort from a world in which the most intelligent were also the most dangerous – it would imply more power associated with intelligence than I’ve observed. But be that as it may, I’m having a hard time seeing Piven as one of the nine most dangerous – and thus in some way powerful -- people in the world. If she were, this would be a much nicer world.
It’s been noted that 8 of those 9 people Beck pointed to are Jews. Intelligent minority? We’ve been called worse I suppose. Did Beck really and truly, deliberately do a display of anti-Semitism? Is this a Goebel-like attempt to tell the big-lie, name the scapegoat, sow division, and let the people connect the dots? Or, like Sarah Palin’s recent misuse of the phrase ‘blood libel’ did he just demonstrate an appalling lack of, uh, intelligence? Or at least knowledge of history, sense of the political landscape, basic common sense or what my mother would call ‘seichel’?
So here’s what Beck says makes Piven so dangerous – she’s a public sociologist (or public political scientist - - pity but the media do consistently give them rather than us credit for her) who has recently wondered why the unemployed in America these days are not protesting, rallying and marching, why they are going so quietly into that jobless night. She compared that silence with other protests and disruptions, including the recent Greek strikes and riots. Well, people died in Greece, so it follows logically a la Beck that Piven is calling for violence.
But that’s rather minor in her list of sins. Really what she’s responsible for is the financial meltdown and – now you’ve made even me angry Frances -- the housing crash! It seems that what really caused the economy to crash was an article Piven and Cloward wrote 45 years ago that suggested that ‘poor people claim their lawful benefits from the welfare system.” Piven and Cloward thought perhaps that would bring us to a system of guaranteed income. It didn’t actually do that, you might have noticed. But 42 or so years later, that article caused the markets to crash and that explains why I couldn’t sell my house! I am so relieved to finally understand what happened with all that. OK, I will take a deep breath and try again to deal with this seriously. Frances Fox Piven is getting death threats, and no, that’s not funny and it is terrifying. Defending her right to enter the public discourse and try hard to steer it intelligently does not really open up ways of shutting Glenn Beck up. If she has a right to be smart, he’s got one to be stupid. But there are a lot of us, and maybe we better get out there in that public discourse too. Surely there are more members of the intelligent minority (goys welcome!) who can raise our voices alongside of Piven’s, make our calls for justice, for decent social policy, for an end to racism, an end to poverty, our calls for a better world, and make it harder for just one or two of us to be picked off, ‘selected,’ shall I say, for smearing.
BKR offers a particular thank you to Eileen Moran for her ongoing writing help.
Barbara Katz Rothman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Sociology at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
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