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Sally T. Hillsman,
In the past few weeks the American Sociological Association and its officers have issued statements regarding the verbal and written attacks by Glenn Beck and his followers on Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of sociology and political science at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. More than 20 organizations have signed a joint statement with the ASA supporting Piven (see the statement on the ASA website). Separate statements have been released by the American Political Science Association, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and the American Association of University Professors as well as many other statements by individual sociologists in newspapers, online news outlets, and blogs.
In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education addressing Beck’s targeting of Dr. Piven, Peter Schmidt lists some of the threats and physical attacks on professors that have occurred in the United States since the 1960s (February 10, 2011), One of those attacks, in 1969, was so severe it could have easily killed sociologist Richard Flacks, who was an associate professor at the University of Chicago at the time. Schmidt notes that the last time the AAUP issued a statement against threats to an academic was in 1989, in defense of Salman Rushdie. In light of this history, he asks "Why are academic associations speaking out against such intimidation now?"
For nearly two years, Glenn Beck has been suggesting on his Fox News show and his syndicated radio show that former ASA President Frances Fox Piven is part of a plot to overthrow the government.
Beck’s vitriol reached a new level after a December 22, 2010, article in The Nation, in which Piven asked why the 15 million officially unemployed people in the United States have not joined with the additional 11.5 million people who are out of full-time work but do not fit the official definition of "unemployed" to protest the lack of government action on their behalf even as financial institutions that were at the center of the economic collapse of 2008 enjoyed bailouts and executive bonuses.
In the weeks since then, Beck has made Piven the target of irate, sustained, and unsubstantiated tirades.
For some time Piven has received hate mail referencing his comments or within comments on his blog. But since Beck’s responses to her December 2010 article, the number, tone, and content of those threats has reached a new level.
Schmidt notes that one reason academic associations may be responding to the threats against Piven is because the Internet is the medium for both the claims against her and the threats that have followed. It is true that the Internet has changed the reach of threats by exponentially increasing both the speed of delivery and scope of the audience. Richard Flack, now an emeritus professor of sociology at University of California-Santa Barbara, told the ASA that "the amplification of the blogosphere" allows what would otherwise be marginal views to gain an unprecedented level of attention. He called on sociologists to study the unique social milieu created by the blogosphere, and the particular characteristics and motivations of the people who write anonymous and violent comments within it. Flack said that "the dynamic of anonymity may be central, perhaps in ways quite similar to role of anonymity in 19th century lynch mobs."
The Chronicle article asks whether Piven’s prominence might explain the level of support that the attacks have generated for her. The ASA Council’s statement and press releases state that Dr. Piven is a renowned professor of political science and sociology; that she is considered one of the foremost commentators on America’s social welfare system; that she has held a leadership positions including President of the ASA, Vice President of the American Political Science Association, and President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. These facts are important for the general public because they indicate the level of respect her peers have for the intellectual quality of her work, but they are not the reason for the level of support she is receiving.
When I read Schmidt’s question about why professional organizations are speaking out against intimidation now, my immediate response was "apparently you haven’t noticed, but this is what the ASA does."
When Richard Flacks was viciously attacked in his office at the University of Chicago, the ASA Council passed a resolution. In September of 2010, a general resolution was passed stating that "The Council of the American Sociological Association (ASA) stands firm in its support of sociologists worldwide who are endangered by their sociological writings and ideas." It reiterated the association’s commitment to working with other organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Sociologists without Borders, and Scholars at Risk to defend the academic freedom, freedom of speech and personal safety of sociologists both in the United States and abroad. In 2003, when Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and a human rights activist, was imprisoned in Egypt, the ASA wrote publicly in support of his release and wrote again and again. When Muhammad Reza Jala’ipour, an Iranian PhD sociology student, was arrested and detained for engaging in a peaceful protest, the ASA wrote directly to Ayatollah Sayyid ‘Ali Khamenei to defend Jala’ipour’s academic and personal freedom. ASA Council has also passed resolutions in support of academic freedom in Cuba and the need for free movement of scholars and scholarship across national borders.
The American Sociological Association stands in defense of rigorous science, passionate debate, and intellectual and academic freedom. These are fundamental building blocks for a healthy democracy. Intimidation by threats of physical violence against one scholar, whether it is followed by action or not, has a chilling effect on all scholars who research and publicly discuss their work especially on issues that are, or appear, controversial to at least some portion of the audience. That is why the ASA is speaking out against the attempts to intimidate Piven now, and why it will continue to speak out for sociologists, both here and around the world, whose academic and personal freedom to speak and our personal freedom to hear is threatened.
Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA.
She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.