Some Thoughts on Piven, Beck and the Blogosphere

As readers of this blog likely know, there has been a bit of a flare-up of hostile rhetoric surrounding Fox’s Glenn Beck. It must be a day ending in Y! … More specifically, Beck has been targeting prominent sociologist France Fox Piven in pieces like this one: Cloward, Piven and the Fundamental Transformation of America and Piven has begun to receive serious threats. Beck accuses Piven (and her late husband Cloward) of arguing for an overthrow of the system and thus has labeled her an “enemy of the constitution”. The Nation gives the chronology as follows:

This fusillade was evidently set off by Piven’s recent Nation editorial calling for a mass movement of the unemployed [“Mobilizing the Jobless,” January 10/17]. But Beck has had Piven in his cross-hairs for some time. In the past few years he’s featured Piven, along with her late husband, Richard Cloward, in at least twenty-eight broadcasts, all of which paint them as masterminds of an overarching left-wing plot called “the Cloward-Piven strategy,” which supposedly engineered the financial crisis of 2008, healthcare reform, Obama’s election and massive voter fraud, among other world-historical events.

And here is the NYTimes’ take. I think the Times does a good job of summarizing one of the key points in the whole fracas: who is calling for violence against whom?

Ms. Piven came under additional scrutiny when she wrote in the liberal magazine The Nation this month that unemployed people should be staging mass protests.

Her assertions that “an effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece,” and that “protesters need targets, preferably local and accessible ones,” led Mr. Beck to ask on Fox this week, “Is that not inciting violence? Is that not asking for violence?” Videos of fires in Greece played behind him.

“That is not a call for violence,” Ms. Piven said Friday of the references to riots. “There is a kind of rhetorical trick that is always used to denounce movements of ordinary people, and that is to imply that the massing of people itself is violent.”

You can read the linked articles for yourself and decide whose rhetoric goes too far, if anyone. But, as far as I can tell (and commenters please correct me if I’m wrong!), Piven’s essays seem to call for the sorts of mass protests and mobilizations we positively associate with the Civil Rights movement (or contemporary protests spreading across the Middle East!), rather than with say an outright, burn the city to the ground riot.

Similarly, while Beck’s rhetoric is vitriolic as usual, I can’t find a “specific threat” so to speak, or incitement to violence. Rather, what bits I’ve picked out seem to have Beck arguing that Piven wants to overthrow our economic system and thus she is an enemy of that system. As vile as Beck may be, I’m not sure he’s wrong about that – Piven does want some fairly radical changes in the direction of promoting economic equality, and she believes that the poor will have to mobilize en masse outside of standard political channels to get them. As an anti-systemic movement, it would be a fairly benign one, but it’s not entirely unfair to characterize it as a threat to the current economic order. That’s kind of the point. It’s just not a violent threat, at least in some meaningful sense of calling for specific harm to specific persons. Beck’s rhetoric, as usual, flirts with such calls, but I have not seen a “smoking gun” quote in my searching through the articles surrounding the debate. I don’t want to exonerate him, just to note that he is savvy and the deniability here is, as usual, quite plausible.

The academic blogosphere has taken up this topic vigorously, especially following the denunciation of Beck by the American Sociological Association. The ASA’s arguments are problematic, but they are in a tough situation: how do you condemn someone who is very careful in just how far he takes his demagoguery, managing to use incredibly superlative language without directly calling for violence? Here’s some of the ASA text*:

Despite its lack of substance, Beck’s attacks have resulted in a flood of hate mail and internet postings attacking Professor Piven, including a series of death threats. While it is true that death threats are generally only a form of extremist rhetoric, they indicate an overheated emotional atmosphere that researchers on collective violence call “the hysteria zone.” It is a zone in which deranged individuals can be motivated to real violence against those targeted by demagoguery. History tells us that such things as the attempted assassination of Representative Giffords that resulted in six deaths in Tucson, Arizona can be examples of how abundant, polarizing rhetoric by political leaders and commentators can spur mass murder.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” Thus, the right to free speech does not ever include rhetoric that encourages violence against one’s opponents, especially in the current atmosphere of heated political mobilization. We call on Fox News and other responsible media to set the appropriate standards of accurate and honest debate.

So here we have a ton of messy issues – what counts as violence? What counts as incitement versus an unintended consequence? Is there a difference between Beck and Piven in more than just their political aims, but also their methods? Moderate-to-conservative (according to wikipedia) law prof and blogger Ann Althouse argues that the ASA has erred in so vigorously attacking Beck, and especially in conflating what happened in Tucson with this situation:

Linking the Tucson massacre to hot political rhetoric was a rash mistake made by demagogues — you want to talk about demagogues?! — demagogues who were slavering over the prospect of a right-wing massacre that would prove politically useful.

Piven called for riots. She wrote:

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….

When did Glenn Beck call for violence?

So the issue for Althouse is that a call for riots is a violent one, while simply declaring someone an “enemy of the constitution” and one of the most dangerous people in the world is not a direct call for violence, and thus the ASA has erred in defending Piven and condemning Beck (because the ASA denounces “inciting others to violence” and Althouse argues that Piven, not Beck, is doing that).

Economic professor EconJeff echoes Althouse and goes on to condemn the ASA for producing a “negative externality” for academic social science:

First of all, death threats and riots are not reasoned political discourse and are not okay on the left, the right or (what seems to be less of a problem empirically) from (classical) liberals or libertarians.

Second, the ASA is generating a negative externality here by feeding the view among the public that academic social scientists are really just ideologically motivated social activists who happen to work at universities and not really serious scientists at all. Thanks for nothing on that one, ASA officers.

I think one crux of the disagreement between Beck and Piven, and between myself and EconJeff or Althouse, is the definition of poor people’s politics outside of “reasoned political discourse”. Beck, Jeff and Althouse characterize calls for riots, protests, sit-ins, etc. as generically calls for violent, anti-systemic action, while Piven (and myself) would not. Mass mobilizations are easy to characterize as irrational “mass behavior” or riots, but they have traditionally been one of the only kinds of political action available to many people, and they are often effective at raising grievances. I’m not sure what’s unreasonable about that, especially given all of the evidence about how politicians completely ignore the opinions of the lower third in the contemporary US (see Larry Bartels recent work). And given the United States’ long tradition of successful, non-violent mass protests, it seems quite a stretch to label Piven’s calls to action violent (the “rhetorical trick” Piven mentions in the NYTimes quote above).

Lastly, the entire debate raises excellent questions about the role of social scientists in advocating particular outcomes. This debate is as old as the modern social sciences, if not older, and it has been one fault-line between economics and sociology. I would argue that economists are much subtler in their calls for radical change, and simultaneously embrace a vision of an objective social science while advocating from a particular position. Even the national income accounts (e.g. GDP) encode a particular politics into our very metric for economic well-being – more or less a “one dollar, one vote” principal (for example, Kuznets [1933] notes that national income will count the same goods and services as being worth very different amounts to society in countries with different levels of income inequality. Many other problems with modern national income accounts as measures of welfare are discussed in Waring 1999, and Stiglitz et al 2009.) Sociologists, on the other hand, are more mixed about whether and how social scientists should take overt political stances. But this topic could be a whole dissertation, so I will simply end by saying that this controversy between Beck and Piven is not just about Glenn Beck being a demagogue who carefully inspires violence while keeping his own hands (mouth) clean, or Piven being a radical lefitst bent on overthrowing the economic order. Rather, this debate encompasses a whole history of debates about who is a legitimate speaker, what kinds of actions are legitimate political discourse or claims-making vs. illegitimate violence, and the role of social science in promoting particular agendas or visions of the future.

* I’m ignoring here some of the really interesting dynamics regarding what you might call ‘legitimate speech’ or ‘credible speakers’ that are somewhat explicit in the ASA’s announcement, and in the debate on the blogs.



  1. Jason Kerwin

     /  January 30, 2011

    It’s important to bear in mind the political implications of social science research, or really any research whatsoever. Those implications are not really mitigated even when we’re discovering objective truths about the world: new knowledge of any kind can alter the balance of power across society.

    We can argue about the extent to which economists are really discovering objective truths. I think there’s a lot of heterogeneity but for example the results of Miguel and Kremer’s 2004 “Worms” paper are hard to argue with. But there’s a world of difference between doing research with political implications (or making assumptions with political consequences) and open political advocacy by a whole discipline’s professional organization. There’s a role for that kind of thing but I see it as being appropriate only when there’s a total consensus about an important factual matter, e.g. anthropogenic climate change.

    For the record, although I haven’t seen the AEA put out statements like this one I really dislike the “list of N economists who support budget proposal X” type of shit that comes out every couple of years. Macroeconomics is the area of econ where we know the least and those sorts of statements undermine any faith the public might have in real research. We shouldn’t be pretending to be so certain about stuff like the stimulus package, either pro or con.

  2. A bit of chronology: the precipitating Piven and Cloward offense for Beck was a 1965 article in The Nation that advocated (as a thought experiment) poor people flooding welfare offices with legitimate requests that would overload the system’s capacity, with presumably transformative consequences. This thought experiment (in a low-circulation journal of opinion) was transmogrified by Beck into a blueprint for governmental collapse and socialist revolution that evidently still reverberates 46 years later. (Presumably Piven controls George Soros, the Trilateral Commission, and the Illuminati through articles long forgotten to the general public?)
    Beck has been alluding to the “Piven/Cloward strategy” for many months, resulting in hate mail and more for Piven. Piven’s later Nation article post-dated Beck’s on-air animus. One has to imagine that she wrote it just to yank his chain.