Frances Fox Piven at Messiah College

I don’t seem to remember last year’s Messiah College American Democracy lecture being like this.

The speaker was Emory University historian Patrick Allitt and the venue was a large tiered classroom on campus that held 110 people.  The hallways outside the campus were not swarming with campus police, high-level campus administrators, and college public relations staff.  I did not have to sit in an “overflow” classroom where the lecture was shown on closed-circuit television.

Things were different this year because the speaker was Francis Fox Piven, a political scientist and activist who back in January was attacked by radio and television host Glenn Beck for her liberal views on a host of issues related to the voters rights, the alleviation of poverty, corporate America, health care, and civil disobedience.  Her most significant article, written with her late husband Richard Cloward in 1966, proposed that, to quote the New York Times, “if people overwhelmed the welfare rolls, fiscal and political stress on the system could force reform and give rise to changes like guaranteed income.”  Beck was also not happy with a January article in The Nation that encouraged unemployed people to stage mass protests. 

Messiah College took a lot of heat for inviting Piven to speak. Conservative alumni could not understand why a Christian college would invite her to campus.  Those who represent the college’s historic commitment to peace and non-violence could not understand why Messiah was inviting someone to campus who favors violent protest as a form of social change.  And then, on the day before the event, which also happened to be an admissions open-house day in which the college was filled with hundreds of prospective students and their families, the college administration removed posters advertising Piven’s talk.  This decision drew criticism from liberal students on campus and was featured on the front page of the local newspaper.

Frankly, I thought Piven’s lecture last night had some historical problems, but it was generally OK.  Some of the things she said were controversial, and her gratuitous swipes at the Tea Party (she called them racist, susceptible to propaganda, and unable to cope with change) took something away from her argument, but in general she was trying to channel a vision of American life that has been around for a long time.  If Glenn Beck had not made a big deal about her views, and if she did not get death threats from Beck’s followers, this event would have been similar to last year’s talk by Allitt.

Let’s look more deeply at what Piven said last night.  She began by defining democracy.  Democracy, she argued, requires universal suffrage, the right to organize and defend individual rights, a government that must respond to the voice of the people, and a commitment to all votes being equal regardless of race, class, gender, wealth, etc…  I am not sure how anyone could understand this theoretical definition of democracy to be controversial.

Democracy, Piven said, is about “personhood.”  For my Messiah College readers, this idea of “personhood” is quite compatible with the notion that we are all created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  In fact, Catholic social teaching uses very similar language to describe the “human person.” (Although they do not advocate violence to defend such personhood).

Piven then took us on a journey through American history, arguing that democracy has always been contested and has always posed a threat to propertied elites in power.  While I don’t buy her progressive view of the American Revolution as an economic civil war (there were a few times where I thought I had gone back in time and was listening to Charles Beard giving a lecture on The Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), she is right to state that many propertied elites at the time of the American Revolution feared democracy and did what they could to limit it.  This is why John Adams called Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (which called for a democratic-republic) a “poor, ignorant, malicious short-sighted, crapulous mass.”  In fact, Piven sounded a lot like Paine–America’s first true “radical.”  (Pedagogically, her talk was wonderful!  I had just taught Common Sense the day before!)

Piven’s interpretation of the relationship between the newly created states and the United States Constitution was lifted directly from Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic.  (In fact, she cited Wood on at least one occasion).  She mentioned the radical, democratic nature of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 (although she failed to mention that this so-called “radical Constitution” also limited office-holding to those who were Protestant and believed in the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testament–a problem that progressive historians who sing the praises of the Constitution have yet to confront) and then showed how the framers of the United States Constitution attempted to squash the democratic fervor of the states by limiting the role that the “people” would play in electing Senators, choosing a president, and selecting Supreme Court justices.  At times I thought Piven was stealing lines from my United States History survey course in which I make the exact the same argument.  (I trust my job is still secure, although I hope that Glenn Beck is not reading this post).

She then argued that the election of 1896 was the turning point when the Republican Party joined the robber barons and leaders of industry to disenfranchise African-Americans and working-class ethnics.  Echoing historians like Philip Foner, she suggested this unholy alliance between Republicans and industry was the reason why the United States was never able to establish a strong democratic-socialist or labor party.  (Just before publishing this piece a colleague reminded me that it was actually the progressives themselves who did the disenfranchising).

In conclusion, Piven railed against corporate interests and the Tea Party.  She challenged her audience not to be taken in by media propaganda.  And she endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement, of which she has participated.  During the Q&A session she called for the elimination of the Electoral College, talked about the Tea Party’s “uneasiness” with demographic changes taking place in America, and claimed that she believed in non-violence but sympathized with mass movements that responded to the “violence” of losing their homes and being hungry.

At times she sounded like Thomas Jefferson, especially when she said that democracy required “eternal vigilance.”  There were even some indirect references to Jefferson’s statement that every generation needs to engage in periodic revolution as a “medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”

In the end, Piven may be a “radical,” but there is nothing that she said last night that we cannot find somewhere in the American tradition.  In fact, her talk was pretty predictable. In this sense, her ideas were not very new or radical at all. 

You can agree or disagree with Piven’s politics, but a college campus–even a college campus like Messiah College–should be a place where her ideas should be discussed and engaged.  I enjoyed being part of that process and I look forward to today’s “talk back session.”

7 thoughts on “Frances Fox Piven at Messiah College

  1. The “Cloward-Piven Strategy” is an invention of the pot-holed minds of the far Right.

    It's only Wiki, but

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloward%E2%80%93Piven_strategy

    we have conservative Howard Phillips, chairman of The Conservative Caucus, was quoted in 1982 as saying that the strategy could be effective because “Great Society programs had created a vast army of full-time liberal activists whose salaries are paid from the taxes of conservative working people.”

    Left-wing commentator Michael Tomasky, writing about the strategy in the 1990s and again in 2011, called it “wrongheaded and self-defeating”, writing: “It apparently didn't occur to [Cloward and Piven] that the system would just regard rabble-rousing black people as a phenomenon to be ignored or quashed.”[7]

    and…

    In his 2006 book Winning the Race, commentator John McWhorter attributed the rise in the welfare state after the 1960s to the Cloward–Piven strategy, but wrote about it negatively, stating that the strategy “created generations of black people for whom working for a living is an abstraction.”[9]
    According to historian Robert E. Weir in 2007, “Although the strategy helped to boost recipient numbers between 1966 and 1975, the revolution its proponents envisioned never transpired.”[10]

    all before Glenn Beck in 2009.

    Further, although she may back away from it now [and it's not clear she is], the 1966 article is apparently what FFP owes whatever notoriety she has.

    If she doesn't want to defend this admittedly novel idea, it seems the rest of her act is boilerplate demonization and divisive partisan hackery with a helping of bad history, the sort you could buy anywhere—for less than what was no doubt a generous honorarium from Messiah College.

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  2. Where's “Part 2”?

    As to Part 1 — very informative, and provides some context. I am especially interested in how FFP herself understands her early work as part of her overall scholarly oeuvre.

    However, this comment doesn't explain how Fea's post consisted of an ad hominem attack. Maybe an uninformed / poorly informed / off-the-cuff assessment — but hardly a screed. Suggesting that someone's rhetoric works at cross purposes with their goal of fostering dialog or facilitating understanding doesn't quite rise to the level of a personal attack.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to Part 2.

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  3. Part 1

    Shall we continue this conversation here? My response:

    1) I was not at the lecture. The only clip of it I've seen has been on rightwing Internet sites like this one: http://www.breitbart.tv/college-audience-shouts-down-frances-fox-piven-for-calling-tea-party-racist/. And do check out the enlightened commentary. It's typical of the warped, misogynistic and violence-obsessed bluster of Tea Party followers. I also have an eye witness report – from Frances Fox Piven herself.

    2) On the question of the influence and significance of Cloward and Piven's Nation article from 45 years ago: you can read the article and what Piven has to say about it in Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven (The New Press, 2011), a great collection of her work. The article was an early draft of later much more important thinking – and I say important with respect to Piven's world of academia and politics. There is a back story about how it landed in Beck's lap which would talk too long to recite. I guess you could say it's been important as a tool of Glenn Beck, et al. in their propaganda efforts to whip up paranoia and rage in their followers. It appeared in The Nation, which at the time had a very small circulation. And it was written in dialogue with civil rights and community organizers in mind. It advocated not violence, not the collapse of American capitalism, but that poor women and children get the income assistance TO WHICH THEY WERE ENTITLED BY LAW, and were being systematically denied. The analysis of the dynamic relationship of movement activity and electoral politics was undeveloped here, but later elaborated in articles and books including Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977). Piven and Cloward's insights into the movement-electoral dynamic are among their many important contributions to scholarship in political sociology.

    As to what Piven thinks about the 1966 article – I quote from Who's Afraid: “I like this article, and I am glad Glenn Beck reminded me of it. It combines two kinds of analyses. One has to do with my developing theory of power. How could people at the bottom of our society exercise some power. How could they begin to realize the promise of democracy? In 1966 that theory was perhaps not yet fully developed, but it was the problem that preoccupied me.” (p. 18)

    The “Cloward-Piven Strategy” is an invention of the pot-holed minds of the far Right. Instead of following Piven and Cloward's evil, secret plan to take down America, the community organizers with whom Piven and Cloward worked on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s chose to build a new national organization, the National Welfare Rights Organization. This was not what Piven and Cloward recommended – and you can read about this story in Poor People's Movements. So, The Nation article was not so influential even with the constituency to whom it was directed.

    See Part 2

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  4. Lori: Thanks for reading my blog. I am glad you found this post and glad that you felt moved to respond. Let me also say that this blog does not represent the views of the Messiah College administration.

    Let me try to address your concerns about my post. I am writing under the assumption that you were not at the lecture.

    First, I think it is horrible the way that Piven has been maligned by Glenn Beck. I hope my post did not suggest I was endorsing such behavior. In fact, if you read MY entire body of work (as you have encourage me to read Piven's), you will know that I have been critical of Beck's use of American history to promote his political agenda.

    I did, however, think that Piven's tone and condescending remarks toward the Tea Party (of which I am not a member)did not contribute to civil dialogue. Does she have “every right” to take a swipe at Beck's followers? Yes–by the standards of the American democracy she so defends. But I am not sure that such a swipe did anything to help her opponents in the room understand her position any better and, frankly, it really took away from the main argument of her talk.

    I would be happy to stand corrected about the “importance” of the 1966 article. Would “influential” be more appropriate? You seem to be suggesting that the Cloward-Piven Strategy was unimportant until it was resurrected by Glenn Beck. Does Piven feel this way about her work?

    Was the very brief quote that I used from the New York Times an inaccurate description of the 1966 article? If so, I am happy to admit my error.

    I am glad that Piven “cleared her schedule” to come to Messiah College. As I suggested in my post her visit was good for the college. Students on campus today are still talking about it. There is a nice intellectual buzz in the air and I hear students from both sides of the aisle discussing her visit in the hallways and on the sidewalks. Could we hope for anything less at an academic institution?

    But I might also add that your caricature of Messiah College as a place dominated by “conservative Christians” who are not open to civil dialogue with people with whom we disagree suggests that you do not know Messiah College very well. In fact, you may be guilty of the same lack of understanding that you have accused me of in your comment.

    Yes, there are many faculty and students who disagree with Piven's political views. But there are also many faculty and students who are in general agreement with many of her views and are willing to find ways in which her concerns with democracy, “personhood” and social justice might be compatible, at some levels, with Christian faith.

    Yesterday we had a “talk back” session in which the kind of civil dialogue we hope to promote at Messiah College was on display. Faculty, students, and community members of various political persuasions came together to ask questions, discuss, and reflect on Piven's talk.

    Finally, I am not sure how my post did not show Piven “generosity.” I pointed out what I thought to be a few flaws in her historical argument (but also noted where she was on the mark in her historical analysis), connected her talk to a larger American tradition of liberalism, and suggested that her visit was good for Messiah.

    Once again, I appreciate your comment. Thanks.

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  5. Most people who read this blog or who have heard about Frances Fox Piven probably do not know the extent to which she has been so viciously and falsely maligned for over two years by followers of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party. She has every right to take more than a swipe at them – do a little research, it's not hard to see this with your own eyes. Go onto The Blaze, Glenn Beck's website, search her name and read the thousands of crude and ignorant rants against her by people who will not or can not think for themselves. Perhaps they can't read, either, because it's clear from what they say that none of them have read any of her books or scholarly articles. They believe what a charlatan has said about her and what does that say about them? Moreover, Professor Fea, calling an article she co-wrote for The Nation in 1966 “her most significant article” reflects the same ignorance. If you had read her many books and articles or you knew anything about her work or the academic disciplines in which labors, you would know that this is a ridiculous thing to say. By quoting from the New York Times to tell us what the article says – and they distort the argument contained there – you give yourself away. That Nation article, written just before Piven got her first academic job as an Assistant Professor in the Columbia School of Social Work, is far from the most important contribution she's made – and no one but Glenn Beck and his minions would point to it. In fact, pointing to it only means you can speak the code of the nut-jobs who villify her. When she was first apprised of Glenn Beck's weird obsession with her and this article, she had a good laugh. These days, however, her friends, like me, advise her to turn down invitations to speak – as I did when Messiah College invited her to clear her schedule to take two days of her life to spend some time with them – she really doesn't need the honor of being your American Democracy lecturer, though I'm sure she appreciated the effort to reach out. Given the association of the far Right who hate her with conservative Christians, I could not understand why she would bother to waste her time – she has lots of other things to do than set herself up for another round of hate mail. She can't open her mouth publicly and speak her mind without being set upon by an faceless Internet mob of misogynist cowards – these are the same people who blather on about sanctity of the Constitution, which the last time I looked still included the First Amendment. But Frances really likes students and was genuinely curious about students at a Christian College, so she accepted the invitation – and told me that she was glad she did, showing more generosity, kindness and colleagiality toward you and your school than you've shown to her in this blog post.

    Lori Minnite

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  6. Sounds like a good lecture that would have been hard, but good for me to hear.

    On the other hand, it makes me sad that people resort to calling others racist to try and win the culture war. Demonizing the opponent without letting their ideas dictate the battle is just wrong, and unfortunately happens way to much, from both conservatives and liberals.

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