On Death Threats, Pushback, and the Hounding of Frances Fox Piven

zach Roberts

Frances Fox Piven
February 10, 2011

As much of the world recently watched footage of assaults on journalists and protesters in Egypt, America's academics received word of a danger to their own free expression. Frances Fox Piven, a professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, was getting death threats from followers of Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator.

Although Mr. Beck has never directly urged his followers to menace Ms. Piven, he has frequently been subjecting the leftist scholar to tirades on Fox News and his widely syndicated radio show. He has called her an "enemy of the Constitution" and one of the "nine most dangerous people in the world," and accused her of trying to destroy the economy and incite violence. The anonymous threats that his followers made against the 78-year-old scholar took the form of since-deleted posts in the comment field of one of his Web sites, The Blaze.

Commenters wrote: "I am all for violence and change Frances: Where do your loved ones live?"; "We should blow up Piven's office and home."; "Maybe they should burst through the front door of this arrogant elitist and slit the hateful cow's throat."

Like those who have sought to link the recent shootings in Tucson, Ariz., to the right's harshest rhetoric, many prominent academics have declared that the threats against Ms. Piven signal that the level of debate in America has deteriorated so badly, and grown so uncivil, that other scholars are in jeopardy, and academic freedom is at risk. Calls for Mr. Beck and Fox News to disavow violence and tone down the commentary have been issued by leaders of the American Association of University Professors, the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

Sally T. Hillsman, executive officer of the American Sociological Association, said her organization plans to release next week a second statement in defense of Ms. Piven, signed by more than 20 academic groups. The new statement will argue that America's academic community, having often expressed support for persecuted scholars in other nations, is obliged to speak out when those in the United States face attack.

In an interview this week, Ms. Piven said she also has received obscene or otherwise vitriolic e-mails and phone calls. But it is the threats against her that drew the attention of newspapers such as The New York Times and The Observer of London, and that have been cited by those declaring that Mr. Beck has gone too far. In one statement issued this month, Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, characterized Ms. Piven as the victim of "what nearly amounts to an American fatwa" as a result of Mr. Beck's "virulent attacks."

Trading Accusations

For his part, Mr. Beck has denied any responsibility for the threats against the scholar. In a response to a New York Times story on the controversy, he said on one of his shows, "Let me just say this: I am against violence in all cases." He reiterated his view that Ms. Piven herself has used violent rhetoric by, for example, recently writing an article for The Nation calling for a protest movement by the unemployed that, to be effective, would have to look like recent student protests in England (which have turned violent), or "like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union."

Fox News has similarly denied culpability. In response to a letter from officials of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil-rights organization, that accused Mr. Beck of "recklessly endangering" Ms. Piven with an incendiary "campaign of misinformation," Dianne Brandi, Fox News's executive vice president for legal and business affairs, wrote back that Mr. Beck denounces violence, defends the free-speech rights of Ms. Piven and others, and has based his criticisms of the scholar on her own words. Noting that the center had publicly disseminated its letter via a news release, Ms. Brandi said, "we doubt this is a sincere effort on your part to stop hostile public speech, but rather an attempt to create ill will for our company."

The scholarly association leaders rallying around Ms. Piven seem disinclined to let Mr. Beck or Fox News off the hook. While emphasizing that they strongly support the free exchange of ideas, they argue that reasonable debate requires tolerance and civility, and cannot occur where people are personally vilified.

In the statement they issued last month, officers of the American Sociological Association accused Mr. Beck of engaging in "plain demagoguery" rather than any serious discussion of issues. "While it is true that death threats are generally only a form of extremist rhetoric," the statement said, "they indicate an overheated emotional atmosphere that researchers on collective violence call 'the hysteria zone.' It is a zone in which deranged individuals can be motivated to real violence against those targeted by demagoguery." The statement invoked the shootings in Tucson as an example "of how abundant, polarizing rhetoric by political leaders and commentators can spur mass murder."

Occupational Hazard?

It is worth noting that Ms. Piven is hardly the first American academic to get a death threat over scholarship or ideas (as opposed to threats from people with some sort of personal grudge).

Among the many others, the renowned philosopher Herbert Marcuse felt compelled to call the FBI and flee his home after getting a threat signed "Ku Klux Klan" while teaching at the University of California at San Diego in 1968. Ward Churchill reported receiving more than 100 death threats in response to controversial statements he made about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks while an ethnic-studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Murray Sperber, now a visiting professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Berkeley, got death threats for criticizing Bobby Knight, the basketball coach, while working at Indiana University. Many scholars involved in controversial research, such as that involving live animals, soon discover that death threats come with the territory.

It is also worth keeping in mind that not every reported "death threat" to a scholar actually is one. Many scholars have reported getting death threats based on hearing statements like "I hope you die an early death," which, while uncivil, hardly amount to explicit warnings of intent to do bodily harm.

The last time the AAUP issued a statement denouncing threats was in defense of Salman Rushdie, in 1989. Considering how often American scholars have previously reported death threats without a public outcry, a question arises: Why are academic associations speaking out against such intimidation now?

Technology might be a factor. As Carole Pateman, president of the American Political Science Association, noted in a letter sent to Mr. Beck and his bosses, "In an era of electronic communication, insults, intimidation, and threats are easy to broadcast." Besides making it easier to send anonymous threats, the Internet is distributing provocative scholarly speech to millions who had little access to it before, including those with little training in civil discourse.

Ms. Piven's prominence in academe also might have played a role in generating support for her. Of the scholarly groups that have issued statements on her behalf, she is a past vice president of the political-science association, and a past president of both the sociological association and the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

She has gone on the offensive, frequently discussing her situation in the news media. In an interview last month with The Guardian, she characterized the uproar surrounding the threats as "an opportunity to rein in Fox News and Glenn Beck" and "to assert the value of the politics we stand for." Asked this week to elaborate, she said she wanted to see Mr. Beck pressured to practice journalism more responsibly, but she is mainly out to do something about "the way the right-wing media has demonized advocates of the poor."

Barks and Bites

Ms. Piven reported the threats against her to the local police and the FBI. Security guards have been posted in her classroom. It is unclear, however, just how much danger she is in.

Although it is rare for American scholars to be physically attacked for their ideas, it happens. David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, was almost killed in 1993 by a mail bomb sent by the Unabomber, who was motivated by opposition to technology. Richard Flacks, a research professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was an associate professor at the University of Chicago in 1969 when someone apparently opposed to his support for leftist student protesters walked into his office and beat him so savagely that he has never fully recovered from the injuries.

Neither Mr. Gelernter nor Mr. Flacks received threats before the assaults on them, however. In fact, about the only scholars who have been attacked by people who previously threatened them for ideological reasons are those whose research is opposed by radical environmental or animal-rights activists. And so far, it has been their property, and not their persons, that have been attacked, although the activists' use of arson certainly risks causing bodily harm.

Aries W. Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland at College Park and an expert on terrorism, says people who make death threats on their own seldom act on them. The threat itself usually is how they lash out, he says. The people who make good on threats are generally those associated with groups of like-minded people, who reinforce their thinking and offer them support.

J. Reid Meloy, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego who has extensively studied attacks on public figures, says a 1995 Secret Service study of post-1950 assassination attempts in the United States, as well as his own similar study in 2007 of attacks on public figures in Europe, found that none of the targets were threatened by their attackers beforehand. "Typically, hunters don't threaten," he says.

Thus the good news for scholars who receive death threats is that the threateners are unlikely to act. The bad news is that any attack on them is likely to come without any warning.