On the afternoon of January 6, Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished professor, legendary activist, writer and longtime contributor to this magazine, received an e-mail from an unknown correspondent. There was no text, just a subject line that read: DIE YOU CUNT. It was not the first piece of hateful e-mail Piven had gotten, nor would it be the last. One writer told her to "go back to Canada you dumb bitch"; another ended with this wish: "may cancer find you soon."
Piven was unnerved but not surprised. These are not pretty e-mails, but they appear positively decorous compared with what has been written about her by commentators on Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze, where she’s been the target of a relentless campaign to demonize her—and worse. There, under cover of anonymous handles, scores of people have called for Piven’s murder, even volunteering to do the job with their own hands. "Somebody tell Frances I have 5000 roundas [sic] ready and I’ll give My life to take Our freedom back," wrote superwrench4. "ONE SHOT…ONE KILL!" proclaimed Jst1425. "The only redistribution I am interested in is that of a precious metal…. LEAD," declared Patriot1952. Posts like these are interwoven with ripples of misogyny, outbursts of bizarre anti-Semitism and crude insults about Piven’s looks (she’s actually a noted beauty) and age (she’s 78).
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 (see Richard Kim, "The Mad Tea Party," April 12, 2010). Cloward and Piven, Beck once argued, are "fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system." In his most recent diatribe against Piven (January 17) he repeatedly called her "the enemy of the Constitution." In Beck’s telling, because Piven and her comrades on the left support civil disobedience in some circumstances, it is they—not the heavily armed militias of the radical right—who threaten Americans’ safety.
It’s tempting not to dignify such ludicrous distortions with a response. But in brief: Piven, throughout her career as an activist and academic, has embodied the best of American democracy. It has been her life’s work to amplify the voices of the disenfranchised through voter registration drives, grassroots organization and, when necessary, street protest. The way economic injustice warps and erodes our democracy has been a central preoccupation. But passive lament has never been her game. Recognizing the leverage that oppressed groups have—and working with them to use it—is her special genius.