Sunday, February 27, 2011

Words Matter

A woman who wrote an article who wrote an article about helping the poor back in the 1960s is getting death threats now after Glenn Beck blamed her paper for leading to the current economic crisis.

Piven is a professor at the City College of New York. Back in 1966, she and her late husband, Richard Cloward, wrote an article for The Nation outlining a plan to help the poor of New York and other big cities to get on welfare.

In their research, they found that not all the poor who were eligible to receive welfare actually did. They advocated that all the nation's eligible poor should apply. They felt such a strain to city budgets would force Washington to address the poverty problem.

Forty-five years later, Beck took to the airwaves of Fox News and his own radio program, warning the public about the obscure article.

"Let me introduce you to the people who you would say are fundamentally responsible for the unsustainability and possible collapse of our economic system. They're really two people," he said, "Cloward and Piven."

For about the last three months, week after week, Beck's been hammering away at Piven and her husband. From their 45-year-old article, he sees a vast conspiracy to overthrow the American financial system.


Soon after Beck made her infamous, Piven says hundreds of death threats poured into her e-mail account and conservative blogs. Things like, "'May cancer overtake you soon!'" Piven says. She ended up asking the FBI and state police for help.

While Piven acknowledges that Glenn Beck has never advocated violence against her, she still feels Beck's screeds led directly to the threats against her life.

Words matter. Words have an impact. If they didn't we wouldn't be reading Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare hundreds or thousands of years after they were written. Of course Glenn Beck isn't responsible for the crazy actions his listeners take, but he is responsible for creating a toxic atmosphere that can lead to things like sending old ladies death threats. Anyone who has any sort of audience has a responsibility to speak in such a way as to create a respectful atmosphere. There is nothing wrong with vehement disagreement, but it shouldn't cross the boundary into over the top denunciations of your opponent ("Ground Zero mosque supporters are Nazis!") That doesn't move the debate forward at all not to mention if you make connections like this, mentally unbalanced people are going to think, "Gee, shouldn't we be taking drastic action to stop this person if they are a Nazi/Communist/unAmerican?"

Again, Beck (or Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Dinesh D'Souza) is not responsible for the actions taken by some nutjob who listens to them. That doesn't mean, though, that they should just say whatever they want and then after something happens, shrug, saying "It's not my fault."

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