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How a 77-Year-Old Visionary Author Became the Target of a Far-Ranging Right-Wing Conspiracy Theory

The bizarre tale of how Frances Fox Piven came to be seen as the author of a blueprint for a radical takeover of American society by paranoid conservatives.

Sociologist Frances Fox Piven often gets requests from students who want to interview her about her political theories and activism. So when Kyle Olson phoned her in January, told her he was a college student in Michigan, and asked if he could videotape an interview with her about her recent book Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America, Piven agreed.

Temporarily housebound and recovering from an auto accident, the 77-year-old Piven invited Olson to her New York apartment. On February 1, Olson and a friend arrived from Michigan with a video camera. Piven offered them something to drink. Then, for about an hour, she and Olson sat at her round dining room table and talked about everything from the founding fathers to Fox News, while the friend taped them.

After Olson and his friend left her apartment, Piven didn't think much about the interview. "This was so commonplace," she said later, "that it didn't strike me as especially important." She recalled thinking that, "Students these days use cameras to 'write' term papers. It didn't seem unusual that he wanted to use a video."

Two weeks later, Piven, a professor at the City University of New York and former president of the American Sociological Association, learned that about eight minutes of the taped interview appeared  in three segments on Big Government, Andrew Breitbart's conservative news website. The same outlet achieved national prominence last year when it published James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles' highly edited but hugely destructive hidden-camera recordings of ACORN employees. And the same website became infamous when O'Keefe was arrested in January for allegedly trying to tamper with the phone system in Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office as part of another "investigation," while on Breitbart's payroll. Now, Olson and Breitbart have employed these same "gotcha" tactics on Piven.

Olson is not a college student. He is a 31-year-old Republican Party operative, conservative activist, and would-be journalist. He runs a Michigan-based conservative advocacy organization, the Education Action Group (EAG), which primarily attacks teachers unions.

The real reason for Olson's interview with Piven was a 1966 article in The Nation magazine that she co-authored with Richard Cloward, "A Strategy to End Poverty," which has become the centerpiece of a right-wing conspiracy theory. Olson no doubt hoped to trap Piven into saying something outrageous to confirm the Right's view that the article is the blueprint for a radical takeover of American society.

The segments of Olson's video interview with Piven posted on BigGovernment featured no major revelations about America's imminent mass socialist uprising. In one snippet, Piven remarks that Thomas Jefferson "would be stunned by the oligarchical character of American society." She also comments that when wealth and power become too concentrated, society needs a "corrective period of people rising," as they did during the Depression and the 1960s.

In another segment, Piven remarks that the current wave of foreclosures could trigger mass protest. Most families facing foreclosure and eviction leave their homes, Piven explains, but if "millions of people refuse to go along with foreclosure procedures and refuse to pay off those mortgages that are under water," and do it with "pride and audacity," political leaders would have to respond by making it harder for banks to evict families, as happened during the Depression. Spliced between Piven's observations is footage of ACORN activists removing locks from a foreclosed home and moving the evicted family back in.

In the third video clip, Olson asks Piven about Glenn Beck's persistent attacks on her Nation article, which the Fox News host regularly blames for many of America's problems, including the current financial crisis. "Can you think of anything sillier than to attribute the financial crisis to an article in a low-circulation magazine in 1966?" She calls Beck's efforts to find an easy "scapegoat" for the country's troubles typical of "right-wing ideologues."