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Violent Threats Against a Political Scientist

- January 22, 2011

As I argued in “my post last week”:https://themonkeycage.org/2011/01/atmospheric_politics.html people should not leap to the conclusion that a general atmosphere of violent rhetoric is causally responsible for specific violent acts without good evidence. But this obviously does not mean that rhetoric is always and everywhere causally unrelated to violence. The “New York Times”:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/business/media/22beck.html has a story about 78 year old CUNY political scientist and sociologist Frances Fox Piven.

bq. Her name has become a kind of shorthand for “enemy” on Mr. Beck’s Fox News Channel program, which is watched by more than 2 million people, and on one of his Web sites, The Blaze. This week, Mr. Beck suggested on television that she was an enemy of the Constitution. Never mind that Ms. Piven’s radical plan to help poor people was published 45 years ago, when Mr. Beck was a toddler. Anonymous visitors to his Web site have called for her death, and some, she said, have contacted her directly via e-mail.

bq. In response, a liberal nonprofit group, the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote to the chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes, on Thursday to ask him to put a stop to Mr. Beck’s “false accusations” about Ms. Piven. “Mr. Beck is putting Professor Piven in actual physical danger of a violent response,” the group wrote. Fox News disagrees. Joel Cheatwood, a senior vice president, said Friday that Mr. Beck would not be ordered to stop talking about Ms. Piven on television. He said Mr. Beck had quoted her accurately and had never threatened her.

I have no doubt that Fox News is correct in saying that Beck has never directly called for violence against Piven, if only because we would surely know if he had. But if some crazy person does decide to try to murder Piven, it will probably be caused in large part by the rhetoric of Beck and others like him. If it were not for Beck and other, less successful demagogues, Piven’s name would only be familiar to those who read the _Nation_ or who have a historical interest in left wing politics. The Tides Foundation was similarly obscure until it became a target of Beck’s rhetoric. This indeed appears to be a source of pride for Beck. As the _Washington Post_ “reported a few months back”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/30/AR2010073003254.html

bq. When California Highway Patrol officers stopped him on an interstate in Oakland for driving erratically, Byron Williams, wearing body armor, fired at police with a 9mm handgun, a shotgun and a .308-caliber rifle with armor-piercing bullets, Oakland police say. Shot and captured after injuring two officers, Williams, on parole for bank robbery, told investigators that he wanted “to start a revolution” by “killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU,” according to a police affidavit. His mother, Janice, told the San Francisco Chronicle that her son had been watching television news and was upset by “the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items.”

bq. But what television news show could have directed the troubled man’s ire toward the obscure Tides Foundation … A week after the incident, the mystery was solved. “Tides was one of the hardest things that we ever tried to explain, and everyone told us that we couldn’t,” Fox News host Glenn Beck told his radio listeners on Monday. “The reason why the blackboard” — the prop Beck uses on his TV show to trace conspiracies — “really became what the blackboard is, is because I was trying to explain Tides and how all of this worked.” Beck accuses Tides of seeking to seize power and destroy capitalism, and he suggests that a full range of his enemies on the left all have “ties to the Tides Center.” On Monday, he savored the fact that “no one knew what Tides was until the blackboard.” 29 other mentions of Tides on Beck’s Fox show over the past 18 months (two in the week before the shootout) according to … Media Matters. Other than two mentions of Tides on the show of Beck’s Fox colleague Sean Hannity, Media Matters said it was unable to find any other mention of Tides on any news broadcast by any network over that same period.

It is not a good idea to make broad claims about how an atmosphere of violent rhetoric is causally responsible for this or that specific incident without good evidence. However, where there is good evidence of a more specific causal relationship between particular speech acts, and particular outcomes, it’s a very different matter. There is good evidence that Beck’s targeting of the Tides Foundation very nearly helped cause a major tragedy. There is also good evidence that his targeting of a political science professor is causing death threats and sundry other forms of nastiness. I hope that Piven doesn’t suffer anything worse than the (doubtless pretty horrible) forms of verbal assault that she is now undergoing.

Update: see “Peter Dreier’s piece”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/glenn-becks-attacks-on-fr_b_812690.html?page=1 for further information.