Crazy Talk and American Politics: or, My Glenn Beck Story

Photo_10229_landscape_large Frances Fox Piven in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Most academics probably paid little attention at the end of January when Glenn Beck explained to his listeners that the protests in Egypt would lead to the establishment of a Muslim caliphate that would engulf Europe while China would extend its domination to New Zealand and, curiously, the Netherlands would fall to Russia. But there is a sense in which we should have.

Glenn Beck claims about two million daily viewers on his TV show, and that in addition to a three-hour radio program, best-selling books, and an Internet “news” site known as The Blaze. True, for more than a year his ratings have been falling from their peak of three million daily viewers. But millions continue to turn to this Fox News personality for an interpretation of their world, and the interpretation they get is lunacy.

Propaganda and its place in American politics is not my academic specialty. But I have been prodded to think about it a lot in recent months because I have been made into a central character in Beck's stories about the evils that have befallen America.

According to Beck, I—together with my husband, Richard Cloward, with whom I frequently collaborated before his death—am the proponent of a theory of “orchestrated crisis” that lies behind an array of threats to American society, including the emergence of Students for a Democratic Society, Acorn, George Soros and the Open Society Institute, the New York City fiscal crisis, the election of Barack Obama, and the recent financial meltdown.

The plan for all that is said to have been laid out in an article we published in The Nation magazine in 1966 and, according to right-wing blogs and those who post on them, the influence of our plan is evident everywhere in American politics and public policy, but especially in the Obama administration.

Online posters eagerly identify the connecting threads that depict me as puppet master: I taught at Columbia University when Obama was a student there, and I probably taught him. I spoke at a conference in the 1980s that he probably attended. I was on Obama's transition team. Obama's policies, and especially health-care reform, are obviously a plan to implement my crisis strategy.

None of that is true, of course. So what was this strategy that excites such paranoid imaginings?