Radical call leads to death threats

Conservatives direct bile at academic who urged US jobless to protest. Matthew Reisz reports

January 27, 2011

A distinguished US academic in her late seventies has attracted death threats and an avalanche of abuse after she called for "an effective movement of the unemployed" similar to "the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England".

Some of the politer bloggers have described her as "Obama's long-lost father in drag", "a babbling old bitch" and as coming from "a long line of vampires".

Frances Fox Piven, professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York, has served as president of the American Sociological Association. She told Times Higher Education that she was a "radical democrat" who believes that "American representative systems are deeply flawed". She added that she had always championed "progressive social movements which have arisen from the bottom up".

She also founded an organisation to increase levels of voter registration among the poor, which eventually led to Bill Clinton's National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

But it was an article she penned for The Nation in 1966 with her late husband Richard Cloward that led to her becoming a hate figure for the US Right.

Titled "The weight of the poor: A strategy to end poverty", the piece showed that no more than half of those eligible for welfare payments were in fact receiving them.

It also suggested, she recalled, that, at a time of considerable racial tension, protest could lead to "federalisation of state welfare programmes and so a guaranteed income".

The article would have been long forgotten had it not been singled out by conservative critics as promoting a "Cloward-Piven strategy" to bring down the capitalist system through the use of an "orchestrated crisis".

One critic noted darkly that Barack Obama "attended a very important socialist scholars conference in 1983...addressed by Frances Fox Piven in its opening plenary".

Glenn Beck, the right-wing commentator, even produced a diagram that put her and her husband on a "Tree of Revolution" alongside Che Guevara.

So when Professor Piven's new article, "Mobilising the jobless", appeared in The Nation last month, it drew a rapid response from Beck's website, which unleashed a flood of bile. One poster suggested that somebody "should burst through the front door of this arrogant elitist and slit the hateful cows (sic) throat".

But why had an elderly and comparatively obscure academic been targeted in this way?

Professor Piven's friend Leo Panitch, professor of political science at York University in Canada, suggested that conspiracy theorists were desperate to depict "someone not well-known as pulling the strings behind Obama".

In light of the recent shootings in Arizona, he also noted "the insurrectionary language of those who speak proudly of using weapons for political ends".

Professor Piven added: "This is a big country with a lot of deranged people who can be triggered to be violent."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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