jimsleeper.com » Glenn Beck Knocks a 78-year-old Radical — and Me

Glenn Beck Knocks a 78-year-old Radical — and Me

By Jim Sleeper – January 22, 2011

No good prosecutor would posit a legal connection between the un-wired delusions of Tuscon’s crazed assassin Jared Loughner or the routinized delusions of the Senate candidate Sharon “Second Amendment remedies” Angle. But it’s true that deranged loners such as Loughner, although separated from us in many ways, are sometimes tuned in to our subconscious hatreds and fears more intimately than the law can acknowledge and than most of us care to admit.

Fox News’ Glenn Beck is surfacing those subconscious hatreds and fears, as demagogues have done since Thucydides’ time, poisoning public deliberation despite pious and sometimes weepy claims that he’s rescuing it. One of his targets is Professor Frances Fox Piven, as the New York Times reports. When Beck started in on Piven last year, the clever, sad writer John McWhorter did, too, as did the right-wing provocateur David Horowitz.

Piven’s ideology makes her plausibly guilty of the charge that she has wanted to bring down the capitalist system. But Beck rants at scapegoats precisely because he can’t acknowledge his own obeisance to the casino-finance, corporate-welfare capitalism that’s destroying conservatives’ cherished values and communities faster than any leftist could. That’s what his demagoguery is for: to deflect attention from the fact that he and most conservatives can’t square that obeisance with their moral and cultural claims.

Since I was an early critic of both Piven and this kind of capitalism, most recently here and on NPR, let me reiterate what I think is at stake in all this.

In March The New Republic sounded one of these alarms about the curse supposedly cast on African-Americans by Piven and her late husband Richard Cloward, who were said to have tried to bring on the Revolution by flooding the welfare rolls in the 1960s.

The purveyor of this long-exhausted half-truth at TNR was McWhorter, a young black linguist-turned-conservative racial bargainer. He cast Piven and Cloward among the crackpots he’d love to erase from public memory: “Rarely in American history have people with such a destructive agenda [as Piven and Cloward] had such power over the lives of the innocent….., helping to ruin the lives of, for example, some of my relatives.”

Such power? Wow! McWhorter was certainly on-message with thunderings against Piven and Cloward by Beck and Horowitz, everyone’s source on the horrors supposedly perpetrated by the two radical professors. But there’s a wrinkle: Horowitz’s own source on them was me — in The Closest of Strangers, Chapter 3, “The Politics of Polarization.” Horowitz himself told me this. And thereby hangs a tale and, with it, a sobering lesson.

Many on the left in those years were in thrall to an ideology about American capitalism’s dependence on racism that carried an immense burden of truth. But it needed some deconstruction, as I showed in my Chapter 3 and on pp. 159-162, drawing on long immersion in inner-city Brooklyn. In 1990, soon after it was published, Horowitz, whom I did not know, called to tell me that he loved the book and that he has a black in-law who could testify to its profound truth.

Easing myself off the phone with a polite “Thanks, but no thanks,” I didn’t realize that I was about to learn the danger of racial truth-telling in polarized times. The Closest of Strangers was slammed by the Piven-oriented left and showered with sloppy wet kisses from neo-cons.

I soon understood how George Orwell felt when he tried to tell the London left what was really going on within the anti-fascist struggle in Spain, which wasn’t as pure a social movement as some young idealists believed — and as cynical Stalinist operators wanted them to believe. For telling a more difficult truth, Orwell was promptly accused of giving aid and comfort to Franco and Hitler.

A lot of leftist ideology was similarly disingenuous in presenting black disruptions of America’s postwar bourgeois and white working-class paradise as the cat’s paw of revolutionary change. Most of America had, indeed, consigned blacks to a “reserve army of the unemployed,” making their resistance a humane and liberal as well as progressive imperative.

But Piven and Cloward’s call for a racialized “Politics of Turmoil,” which they celebrated in a book by that name and excerpted in The Nation in 1966, held no solutions for American political culture, unjust and hypocritical though that culture often was. It certainly offered no sound strategy for a socialist agenda by relying on a politics of racial paroxysm.

Neither, however were Piven and Cloward and their admirers the powerful, malevolent conspirators they’re now being made out to be. They weren’t the reasons why the liberal capitalist welfare state, such as it was, damaged its supposed beneficiaries.

The Closest of Strangers shows all this, as it does some deep, formative, and tragic reasons why many on the left still cling to overly racialist strategies for tackling broader structural problems that, we now see, are engulfing millions of whites as well as blacks. Some on the left dismiss, as neo-liberal mystifications, Obama’s reliance on less-confrontational approaches to race like those I’d been commending since the early 1990s.

Obama’s successes (such as they are), including his 2008 election, are maddening to white racist losers. So was the demise of segregation, which drove them to flail at liberals and to bomb black churches. But that was no reason for those who were winning, however painfully and slowly, to behave like the losers, as some racial protest artists did. Piven’s rhetoric sometimes made her seem one of them. That’s why Beck makes her a scapegoat, not for anything her welfare strategy actually accomplished.

Anyone who wants to consider these arguments more seriously than a blog post can do should read The Closest of Strangers, Chapter 3, in which I assess the racialist preoccupations of certain progressives and certain black conservatives such as Shelby Steele and, by implication, McWhorter.

I rather admired Steele’s The Content of Our Character, published in 1990 just before The Closest of Strangers. I quoted observations of his that were and remain profoundly right. Real life is like that.

I rather admired McWhorter’s Losing the Race, too, in a review for The Washington Monthly. But I cautioned McWhorter then against becoming the conservative-movement water-carrier he is now.

Especially so soon after Tuscon, the dangers of conspiracy mongering about Piven should give McWhorter and other conservatives pause. And no decent liberal can hope that the fires being stoked by them will illuminate progressive virtue and wake up everyone to the real dangers facing the country.

But just as George Kennan was right to urge containment of the Soviets rather than a desperate, nuclear-armed “rollback” of the Iron Curtain, we keepers of the American civic-republican faith had better develop wise ways to stand strong against the racist and capitalist abuses without lashing out histrionically and widening William Butler Yeats’ gyre. Kennan rued the fact that his call for “containment” was taken up by ranters who made him feel as if he’d dislodged a boulder from the top of a hill and had no choice but to watch it smash its way down the slope, setting off lethal avalanches.

The morning after I posted most of these observations here in April, a fragment of my post was quoted to Piven on NPR’s New York Station, WNYC, by show host Brian Lehrer. In response, Piven did an old-left dodge, calling me a “wobbler” between “the liberal left and the conservative right.”

She’s still at it. She’ll never understand that, as a civic-republican, I am occasionally scathing of both left and right, not because both sides are equally bad but because Piven’s left plays inexorably into the hands of the more-powerful right. They do it every time, and they know not what they do.

Someone who does understand what’s at risk here posted a comment on the WNYC site. “Jimmy of Staten Island,” a part of New York City where many “Archie Bunkers” live, isn’t fodder for Beck, but neither will he ever be reached by people who think as Piven does or write him off as a racist or “enabler” of racists. Read what he says below. He is our best answer to both Beck and those who make themselves easy scapegoats for Beck. He writes:

“Still a Democrat, still Union, but Lord Almighty, folks like Ms. Piven do little but alienate the folks in my local, and weaken their allegiance to the Democratic Party.

“Her ‘strategy’ to cause rifts within the voting blocs that make up Municipal Democratic Parties, ostensibly to force LBJ’s hand, did nothing but bring about Nixon-Reagan, and the long-term kneecapping of the greater, national Democratic party.

“To still spout that ‘rights’ without ‘responsibilities’ is ‘humiliating’ is just sad, and does nothing to retain a cohesive Democratic majority.”

I rest my case — against Piven & Co. for being so hapless, but, even more, against Beck et al for trying to make political hay out of leftist radicals supposedly holding “such power over the lives of innocents,” as McWhorter puts it.

All Beck is doing is shifting the blame away from where it really belongs: the corporate-welfare, casino-finance system that is strangling the American republic. Only perversely hypocritical conservatives — and perhaps a deranged loner or two — would fall for phony indignation like Beck’s.

Late note: — That’s why, as Michael Tomasky made clear in The Guardian, referencing this column, even those of us who think that Piven was thunderously wrong have to take heed and speak out against the thunder from Beck and Fox News.

A Comment by Michael Tomasky on this post:


Comments re: WNYC clip [15]

jim sleeper from nyc

I’m not sure of the protocol here on the WNYC website, and since I’ve carried on this kind of discussion in dozens of posts over at TPM and in several daily newspapers (Washington Post “Outlook” and chat session, Boston Globe, etc.) I’ll d refer Chris Malone and others to those columns, posts and the comments. They’re all at www.jimsleeper.com under “Latest Work”. The comments that others have posted in the past day at TPM about my Piven-Cloward column have drawn a number of responses from me, so you can go right there and see them, and if you’d like, join in.

Here let me just say that Piven was more than a little too slick on the show yesterday, claiming twice that she wasn’t presuming to challenge capitalism, while, at the same time, her defenders here emphasize how wrong it is to accuse her of racialism because she’s really going after the big structural issues (as, of course, she is). Anyone who reads my TPM posts (for example, three on corporate “speech” and the Supreme Court’s ruling on it, one of which was tweeted by Katrina Van den Heuvel as a ‘must read’) will decide that I’m more far more scathing of corporate capitalism than the disingenuous Piven who appeared on the show yesterday. So I’ll leave her and her celebrants to untangle themselves

For my own part, I’m all for strong social and political movements from below. But if I were a religious person, I’d get down on my knees and pray that none of them will ever again be like the National Welfare Rights Organization, whose demonstrations were so sadly similar to the Tea Partiers’ “town hall” meetings last summer that it’s no wonder Piven tried to sanitize it more than a little on the air.