Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Glenn Beck's Obsession with Frances Fox Piven

Much as I try to ignore him, and I do try, this is one of those times when Glenn Beck's views are so foolish, though dangerous, that good people need to rise up and call him out.

Specifically I refer to his characterization of Frances Fox Piven as something close to a violent revolutionary for suggesting simply that poor people ought to access the government benefits to which they are entitled. Along with Richard Cloward, she once argued that many Americans who were eligible for welfare were not receiving benefits, and that a welfare enrolment drive would create a political crisis that would force government to enact legislation establishing a guaranteed national income.

Learning at the knee of famous community organizer Saul Alinsky, they suggested that the rules of the game be implemented to the letter in order to expose a contradiction in the system that would benefit a constituency in need.

In my neighbourhood we call that smart politics: helping citizens understand their interests and assisting them in mobilizing as they access, through legal and legitimate means, political power.

Beck’s endless rant about the so called “Piven-Cloward Strategy” always focuses on the disaster that will result if the poor should ever demand their due. Apparently this would usher in a totalitarian state where freedom is trampled underfoot, with jackboots and straight armed salutes everywhere. Not sure of the logic, but I recognize red-baiting when I see it.

In truth, what he doesn’t like, what so many on the right don’t like, is the thought that previously marginalized communities "want in" and may find a way to get there. This has always been a large part of what scares the hell out of the right and makes them worry about the security of their privileged perch.

Piven is one of the great progressive minds of our age (and yes Glenn, you jackass, I said “progressive,” a term many of us embrace unreservedly).

I have always considered it a wonderful experience to have spent a term in a small graduate seminar at the City University of New York, a very long time ago, with Professor Piven. I learned a great deal, which I am pleased to say I have put to good use over the years. I also got to know, if only briefly, a very passionate and effective advocate for people who are so often on the outside looking in.

Her crime, as far as Beck is concerned, is that she has had the audacity to advocate on behalf of the poor in America, educate us about their circumstances, and, here is what galls the “great man” the most: work with the poor to help them gain a stronger voice in the political process.

Before being slandered by Beck, Piven was best known for combining academic work with political action as she did when she co-founded Human SERVE (Service Employees Registration and Voter Education), an organization whose stated goal was increasing voter registration by linking it to social service program delivery and Department of Motor Vehicles use.

Human SERVE was later taken up by the Clinton Administration and made into the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also called the "Moter Voter Bill."

One of the very important things that this kind of work did was to put more poor Americans on the voter’s lists by giving them the chance to register to vote when they came in contact with necessary bureaucratic processes like getting a driver’s license or accessing social services. The point is that poorer Americans are frequently disenfranchised and do not easily interact with voter registration mechanisms unless it happens through other processes with which they are more comfortable.

Piven is also well known, not coincidentally, for writing about how poverty policy and practice have historically helped employers access a cheap supply of labour or kept poor people from expressing too much outrage about their condition. See Regulating the Poor, written with Richard Cloward.

When poor people stand up for their rights, stand up against power, that power has always been very good at pushing them aside and, not infrequently, crushing them. American history is full of examples of poor people and poor workers destroyed by power. Call it class warfare if you like.

I can only imagine how well Beck and his coterie of haters would receive the idea of more poor people voting. On its face they would claim no foul, but I don’t buy it. The poor are not welcome at Glenn Beck’s tea party. This much is clear.

What we have here is a war on the poor. And the right wing has cleverly twisted the truth to make their case. Health care reform is well on its way to being successfully re-branded as another entitlement program for a slothful underclass. The Republican leadership talks about unemployment insurance like it’s a reward for laziness amongst the needy. The sub-prime mortgage crisis is explained as poor people wanting a life to which they are not entitled (instead of the result of unscrupulous banking practices). Tax cuts for the uber-wealthy are taken to be a reward for obvious virtue, while the “have-nots” are assumed to deserve their meagre lot. And lastly, opposition to progressive immigration reform is clearly a part of this narrative.

So, if you really want to get the attention of the wacky right in America, all you have to do is be successful at helping poor people stand up for themselves, at helping them be heard, at showing them how to get in the game. Saul Alinsky knew it in his day, ACORN more recently, and Frances Fox Piven knows all about it now. Class warfare indeed. Bring it on.