The last time we checked in with activist sociologist Frances Fox Piven, she was being accused of inciting violence in a recent Nation magazine article, in furtherance of the legendary "Piven-Cloward Strategy" she first formulated back in 1966. Piven had called on the unemployed to unite in a protest movement and had, in fact, suggested that "disruptive" demonstrations like those seen recently in Greece and Great Britain might be necessary to shake politicians out of craven complacency. I'm still not sure why those futile protests should be models for emulation by anyone, but let's change the subject. Let's change the subject back to the topic of the month so far, the disputed relationship of militant rhetoric to public violence like the Tucson amoklauf. A few days ago, apparently, Glenn Beck tried to demonstrate that activists on the left were just as prone to violent rhetoric as right-wingers are alleged to be. Exhibit A was Frances Fox Piven's perceived recent call for violence. Not without some slight justice, Beck characterized Piven's article as an incitement to riot. But if he hoped by doing this to claim the moral high ground in the current debate, his fans undermined him. They've posted comments to his web site purportedly threatening Piven's life. It was a slow pitch, dead center in the strike zone, for the "liberal media" to swing at. Now Beck and Fox News are on the defensive again, with his alarmist characterization of Piven as a menace to the Constitution portrayed as the sort of militant rhetoric that might provoke violence. To make the scene more menacing or poignant, many accounts emphasize that the dreaded Piven is 78 years old.
If the debate of the month has had tragic implications, here it reaches the farcical level. Given that, to date, Nation readers have not taken to the streets to smash windows or tip cars, it would seem that rightists like Beck are, in fact, more likely to provoke violence than leftists, if only because they're more effective propagandists. Once again, rightists can cry that they're being punished for success. Looking at it from another angle, however, it seems that one audience is more receptive to provocative rhetoric than another. The problem may not be with any particular broadcaster or demagogue, but with an entire mentality, including people who might want someone like Piven dead without being prompted by anyone. But this may prove a momentary phenomenon. Forty years or so ago, Piven's readers were probably the ones more likely to be provoked into violence, or more likely to espouse a right to revolution. That might be so again some day, and history may eventually reveal a cyclical pattern according to which initiative shifts periodically from right to left. That possibility should be considered carefully by both those who feel a need to regulate rhetoric and those who want as many people as possible to have guns. Rhetorical and missile weapons alike fire in both directions.