The racket Frances Fox Piven heard in the middle of the night last weekend sounded like someone pounding on the front door of the small, isolated house she calls home in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City. Startled and awaken from her sleep, Piven, who had plenty of reason to feel on edge, pondered her next move.
A City University of New York professor and scholar of grassroots activism, the 78-year-old Piven has been the target of relentless Glenn Beck attacks. For an entire year now the Fox News talker has been pushing a tangled conspiracy theory that puts Piven, and her late husband, fellow academic Richard Cloward, at the center of an all-powerful left-wing movement to "collapse" the United States economy and government -- a devious collapse designed to allow President Obama to radically transform the country, according to Beck.
The talker's basis for the dark attacks date back to a Nation essay Piven and Cloward wrote 45 years ago. And as part of his misinformation campaign, Beck has repeatedly demonized Piven, denouncing her as an "enemy of the Constitution" and someone who wants to "destroy America." Piven has become a star player in Beck's rogue gallery of treacherous, all-powerful (often Jewish) liberals, seeking to eliminate the American way of life.
Beck's fans have recently taken notice of Piven. On a website Beck runs, The Blaze, which also traffics in the Piven smear campaign, readers began posting lurid threats against the elderly academic. "ONE SHOT...ONE KILL!" announced one. "Why is this woman still alive?" asked another. And this particularly shocking threat: "Maybe they should burst through the front door of this arrogant elitist and slit the hateful cow's throat."
The warnings prompted the Center on Constitutional Rights to write Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, urging him to stop Beck from portraying Piven as a terrorist, and falsely accusing her of advocating political violence. "You can stop the reckless endangering of the safety of Professor Piven," the Center wrote.
Through it all, Piven has watched with a growing sense of amazement, as well as guardedness. "It only takes one person who is a little deranged to take such rhetoric and make it real," Piven told Media Matters in an interview. "It's a big county and there's all kinds of people. And there are also right-wing guerilla groups who have a kind of culture, or code, of death and it may prod them into action."
The paranoid theories Beck is pushing have a "frightening potential," she warns, coming as they do against the backdrop of the Tucson gun massacre.
This past weekend, Piven returned to her remote, Hudson Valley home for the first time since the steady stream of death threats began appearing online. But this time Piven brought a friend along with her. Since Piven has been elevated to public enemy status, companionship is now considered a must. "There are no other houses around. There's no loving soul," she explained.
Piven has been in contact with law enforcement about the threats to her life and on Friday she met with New York state troopers who were made aware of the situation and promised to have police cars circle by the widow's house from time to time.
All of that was on Piven's mind when the loud noise outside her home suddenly woke her in the middle of the night. "My first impulse was to run into the room where my friend was sleeping. But I thought that's silly," said the professor. "So I came downstairs and I checked all the doors and there was nobody at the door. I finally realized a very large icicle had crashed down. My reaction to that crashing sound, by immediately thinking it was a banging on the door, was certainly influenced by all the of the death threats."
The violent taunts ("We should blowup Piven's office and home") have made Piven "wary," but she remains unbowed. "I think what the death threats are intended to do is extort silence from me. Although I think there is danger out there. I think most of them are simply ridiculous."
Piven's troubles began in 2009 when Beck zeroed in on her work from four decades ago and held it up as proof of how radical liberal forces had been unleashed with Obama. Since Piven doesn't watch much cable television (her taste runs more towardMasterpiece Theater,) it was the professor's students who informed her about Beck's increasingly agitating commentary, and the far-flung conspiracies she was supposedly fueling. At first, the attention was almost humorous. In fact, Piven's students taped a copy of Beck's Tree of Radicalism and Revolution chart, which featured Piven, to the door of her university office, as kind of a joke.
"My first reaction was that it was a paranoid fantasy in a way so bizarre and so unreal that it was comical, that I was I was collapsing the economy and was responsible for Barack Obama's election, and ACORN, and the Cloward-Piven strategy had caused the financial crisis? Those are crazy theories, but they're handy theories," she said. "They make sense to people who find the world very confusing."
"Why did he pick me?" she still wonders. "He seems very attached to me. There are so many other potential targets, people who are further to the left than me, more inflammatory than me, or more important to movements than I am."
Indeed, even if you read portions of Pivin's half-century of work on political movements and protests in America and interpreted it in the most sinister way possible, as Beck would prefer, that still doesn't explain the talkers's almost 18-month–long obsession with a social scientist.
Meaning, regardless of her writings, Beck has never come close to explaining how an elderly and relatively unknown college professor would warrant the type of breathless, and at times, hysterical warnings he's issued about Piven's supposed villainous, all-consuming power.
As for the current culture of fear and persecution that pervades the right-wing movement, it reminds Piven of the McCarthy era. But she notes today's craze is different in one key way -- it's almost entirely media-driven. It's a handful of right-wing pundits who are crusading against Piven, not politicians.
What's similar though, is the trademark fear. "Paranoia, and paranoid theories of the sources of our troubles, has been a recurrent staple of American politics," said Piven. "I think the toxicity of the Tea Party poison is a reaction to the election of Barack Obama, but it's also true the country is turning darker and the demographics of the country are changing."
As for Beck's incessant demonization of an elderly, semi-obscure private citizen, Piven, a proud liberal, doesn't think his rants should be silenced. "We have to allow somebody like Glenn beck to say that. But other alternative explanations have to be generated and be given the kind of publicity that his craziness gets. I don't think we can stop him from spinning paranoid theories. Although maybe we can stop him from running a blog that doesn't take down death threats. " (The Piven threats were eventually removed.)
What Piven really wants though, is to get back to work; to get back to her writing. The Beck attacks though, take up her time. "I would like to work, but if this continues I won't be able to because I'm not going to just duck and ignore it."