February 1, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I feel like the eighth guy in the Asch line-length experiment (video here .) since on one central issue I find myself siding with Glenn Beck and against the ASA.

For those who were out of the room and missed the commotion, Beck has been vilifying Frances Fox Piven, a 78-year-old sociologist who for decades has written and spoken about poverty and welfare. She has been a target of Beck’s before. This time, after she suggested that the unemployed take to the streets to demand government action that creates jobs, Beck called her an “enemy of the Constitution.” (more here)

Piven received hate mail and some death threats, presumably from Beck’s followers, who also posted truly vicious comments directed at Piven on Beck’s website The Blaze. The ASA called on the Fox network
to control the encouragement of violence that has run rampant in recent months. . . . . The right to free speech does not ever include rhetoric that encourages violence against one’s opponents.
It’s the free speech part that bothers me. I guess I’m more ACLU than ASA. Yes, the world would be a better place if Beck weren’t Beck. His faux-naïf, just-a-guy act barely hides the reality that he’s a nasty piece of work. And some of his fans are even nastier. What he says is often wrong – inaccurate, illogical, even nutty. But Beck didn’t call for violence. He just said that Piven is a terrible person who has dangerous ideas and says bad things.

If what Beck said “encourages violence” and is therefore not protected speech, then nobody can be allowed to say that someone has done something really bad (let alone being “the worst person in the world”). You could probably find equally venomous name-calling directed at academics like John Yoo. I mean, calling someone a war criminal is a fairly serious accusation. Possibly, those accusations made some readers so angry that they sent Yoo death threats. (If so, it would be altogether fitting, given his rather tolerant position on death threats.) Were those articles about Yoo at Salon, the Atlantic, and elsewhere “encouraging violence”? Were they therefore not protected free speech?

As someone said, you can’t blame an idea for the people who believe in it. After the Arizona shooting, people went scurrying around trying to show that the shooter had been inspired by books from the opposite side. Marx, Ayn Rand, and possibly Hitler were on Loughner’s reading list (so were Peter Pan and The Phantom Tollbooth). But even if we could pinpoint a particular book or TV show, even if Loughner had said, “The Manifesto made me do it,” the book and its writer still have the protection of the First Amendment. And that’s a good thing.

So the ASA is right to ask Beck to tone it down (not that it will have any impact on Beck even in the unlikely that he is listening). But they are wrong to imply that his rhetoric is not included as protected free speech.

In the Asch experiment, the subject – the eighth guy to offer his opinion – always felt uncomfortable when the other seven people saw things differently from what he saw. That’s how I feel, and it’s which is why I’ve hesitated to post this.


PCM said...

Good for you, Jay! I'm with you.

Arnie said...

I am in agreement too.

However, beyond the free speech issue, I'm concerned when Beck refers to the writings of Piven (and Coward) out of historical context. He references a Piven/Cloward article about overwhelming the welfare system which was written during the 1960's - at the height of the 'war on poverty'

In a similar vein other conservative pundits cite the writings of Saul Alinsky as though they were scripts for the overthrow of capitalism.

Time to get back to basics and read the primary sources.

Anonymous said...

Don't make an Asch of yourself in being concerned about group pressure. You should be more concerned about the 'liberal' view that free speech is sacred but becomes uncomfortable when expressing views contrary to the listener. This 'Rush' to judgment leaves liberals in 'Limbo (sp) when faced with ideas that seem untrue or counter to the prevailing belief of their group. The 'right' seems clearer and more comfortable shouting down and silencing opposing views. There is little doubt which side prevails in this conflict between ambiguity and manufactured clarity. The ASA appears to be seeking a middle road between your clear assertion of freedom of speech and the pragmatic assertion of a point of view. it is the "C'mon guys. Please play nice!" approach which stands little chance of having impact on Beck et al.

Yes, those philosophers Los Bravos had it right. "Beck is Beck. ... It's gray. It's gray!" (Do you still want your baby back?)

Jay Livingston said...

Right on, Anon. But maybe the better allusion is the electrified one, alternately or directly, from generation after yours (ours?)-- Beck in Blecch.