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Why 78-Year Old Frances Fox Piven Isn't Sweating Over Glenn Beck's Attacks

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Glenn Beck has not threatened Frances Fox Piven with violence. But an alarming number of his fans have.

(Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.)

Piven, a distinguished professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of the seminal Poor People’s Movements, has written for decades about the disruptive power of social movements, and her work will be familiar to many progressives.

Beck has singled out Piven for over a year, placing her work within his bizarre conspiracy theories about the Left and perversely painting her as a purveyor of violence, owing to her advocacy of civil disobedience. Beck’s denunciations have led some of his supporters to threaten Piven with extermination. In wake of the Giffords shooting in Arizona, many have expressed fear that such threats could lead to an actual tragedy.

Matt Rothschild at the Progressive writes:

[Beck has] falsely accused [Piven] of being “an enemy of the Constitution” and an advocate of “violent revolution” and has listed her as one of the nine most dangerous people in the world.Since he started to air these attacks, Piven has begun receiving death threats.

“I got e-mails that said, ‘Die You Cunt,’ and ‘May cancer find you soon,’” she tells The Progressive. “And people are posting my address on the Internet with their messages that are really crude and ugly and violent.”

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, several death threats against her have been posted on Beck’s website.

Here are a few:

“Be very careful what you ask for honey… A few well placed marksmen with high powered rifles...”

“Maybe they should burst through the front door of the arrogant elitist and slit the cow’s throat.”

“Somebody tell Frances I have 5,000 rounds ready.”

“We should blow up Piven’s office and home.”

“Let’s go string her up.”

“Snap her little chicken neck. This pinko filth needs a long dirt nap.”

The Nation’s editors penned a similar editorial last week, noting:

In the hundreds of posts about Piven on The Blaze [Beck’s web site]... commenters seem at liberty to egg one another on: one poster pointedly noted that Piven lives in New York City and teaches at CUNY; another then linked to a website that listed Piven’s home address and phone number. “Why is this woman still alive?” asked capnjack. “Mainly because you haven’t killed her, I imagine. See, someone that really cares and has the courage of their conviction must actually DO SOMETHING,” responded Diamondback. And the calls for assassination are not limited to Piven. As Civilunrestnow put it in a post that perfectly captures the tenor of right-wing eliminationist fantasy, “I say bring it. 90 million legal gun owners with over 220 million legal firearms, MOST in the hands of people who claim to be center RIGHT. I think it’s time to reduce the surplus population of leeches, lay abouts, left wing nut jobs, the main stream media, liberal politicians and MOST defense attorneys.“

While this stuff is shocking, there’s only so much you can make of wackos posting comments on online message boards, which (on political web sites across the internet) are regularly home to flame wars and bullying language. But personal e-mails and targeted threats go beyond run-of-the-mill online nuttiness and raise legitimate concerns. On January 20, the Center for Constitutional Rights “ issued a written appeal to Fox News president Roger Ailes to help put a stop to the increasing threats” against Piven.

One thing that I think has not been adequately highlighted amid this fiasco is Piven’s own response: the professor has been calm, fearless, and articulate, providing a model of how a public intellectual should behave in such a situation.

As one friend pointed out to me, a fair amount of the coverage has noted Piven’s age (seventy-eight) and commented on how ridiculous it is for Beck to be targeting an elderly woman. This line of discussion is clearly evident in headlines like, “ Frail 78-year-old knitting grandmother, Francis Fox Piven, threatened by Glenn Beck fans.”

But Piven has shown no interest whatsoever in playing the elder victim. In an interview with the New York Times she said “that she had informed local law enforcement authorities of the anonymous electronic threats. But she added, ‘I don’t want to give anybody the satisfaction of thinking they’ve got me trembling.’”

Faced with personal attacks, Piven has fired back with sharp, systemic thinking. In an interview on Democracy Now on January 14, she expressed bemusement that she is the subject of such intense right-wing interest. She refused to fixate on Glenn Beck, turning her analysis instead on Rupert Murdoch and the moneyed interests behind media outlets such as Fox News. Piven explained:

I think that we haven’t given enough attention to and enough importance to what is really a very dominant propaganda network that has developed in this country. It is painful. There are different components to it. You can trace its beginnings in some of the Republican strategy—strategists of the late 1960s, who were trying to win over the working class by playing on the cultural divisions in the United States.It’s hard for people to understand what’s going on in a complicated society. Democracy requires that people have some understanding of what’s going on, of what their own interests are, who their enemies are. But it’s a very complicated society. And moneyed propagandists have taken advantage of that to create a demonology in which it is the left, the Democratic left, that is the source of many of our troubles.

And this is the most frightening development, rather than the kind of nutty death threats that you read a couple of. It’s a very alarming development, because it raises the question of whether a democracy can survive and reemerge with any kind of health in the face of these enormous propaganda capacities. And in that sense, it is Murdoch, not Beck, who is the more important target.

Piven’s most recent work is Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. I have no doubt that our democracy will be strengthened if the book gains an expanded readership.