I was stunned when I saw CUNY’s own Frances Fox Piven was being attacked by Glenn Beck in the news. Shortly thereafter Anthony Picciano’s blog pointed me towards a New York Times article about the whole thing. As I’m sure you’ve read by now Piven has received some pretty nasty threats from the Beck set and, in the wake of Arizona, has talked to local law enforcement. Anthony Picciano pointed out correctly in his blog that getting yourself on Glenn Beck’s chalkboard is something of a prize, and considering CUNY’s long and storied history of such vile communist principles as free education low-cost education to anyone who wants it, it’s a wonder more of us haven’t graced that noble plane before.
What surprises me the most about this is that the only people publicly sticking up for her are the folks over at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Here’s a distinguished professor who is formerly the vice-president of the American Political Science Association, acting president of the American Sociological Association, and most importantly – she’s CUNY. Just like those ads on the train, “I Am CUNY.” She’s one of us! I know she isn’t a member of the Commons community (yet!) but she’s one of our colleagues (…or rather ‘comrades’ perhaps Mr. Beck?). The whole thing raises some interesting questions about what a community’s responsibility is to it’s members.
I latched on to this story about Frances Piven in part because I expected a little more from CUNY. On the one hand there’s a certain air of “all in a day’s work” at play here. Controversial or challenging work is par for the course for those of us who consider research to be a means by which the world is explored, considered and remade. That you will have detractors is expected, as anyone who’s had their work criticized by peers knows fully well. Raising the ire of Glenn Beck is particularly impressive considering that Professor Piven has published no papers on either gold markets or the psychological benefits and processes involved in weeping – to my knowledge. But what happens when the stakes of discourse are played much higher than scathing reviews in the next season’s journal? I can only assume that, like many of us, Professor Piven always expected her work to transcend academic circles and enjoy some air in the rest of the world. But that said, having your work interpreted by a television demagogue and cited as evidence of a vicious plot to topple the nation exceeds the limits of dialogue. There’s nothing intellectual about the exchange. That is not to say that Mr. Beck’s viewers are not intellectuals, but to say that this is exactly the moment where a genuine knowledge of and respect for your community is critical.
Though I have no evidence whatsoever, I can say with assumed confidence that the marketing department at NewsCorp knows Mr. Beck’s community of viewers very well. I am certain that there are countless reports detailing the average age, sex, income, education, affiliations and inclinations of Mr. Beck’s audience. And while saying this might very well put me in the same boat as Mr. Beck, that is to say speaking without a full or studied knowledge of the matter, they absolutely must know that when Glenn Beck singles out a person and refers to them as an enemy of the state there is the likely-hood that someone in that community will feel inclined to threaten violence upon them.
Way back in the golden days of January 2010 when I was a newly minted Community Facilitator and the Commons was but a sparse colony out there in the internet, everyone on Commons’ Community Team was still trying to figure out just what exactly we were supposed to be doing. How do you facilitate a community? There were, and continues to be, plenty of big obvious things; we have to make sure everything works, we have to make sure people know about it and how to use it, we must be innovative. Those principles will always be the engine of the Commons. The questions about what makes a community and how to keep a community going are harder. Before you can do anything to help a community you have to get to know them first. I think over the last year the Commons’ teams, both Community and Dev, have really started to hit our stride mostly because we have gotten to know our community. Over the last year we’ve been able to roll out new features as per your request and we’ve watched as new blogs and groups appeared that speak to the varied interests of the Commons community. I guess what irks me so much about this business with Glenn Beck is that, knowing everything he must know about his community, he still carelessly accuses people of treason. There’s no way he can’t know what could happen.
With that said though, what should the CUNY community do? As I’ve said before, if you’re on the Commons you not only care about education, but you clearly care about the internet as well and what it can do. What resources are available to us here in this community when something like this happens? How do we, as a community within a community, act if action is even appropriate? Is the sage internet maxim ‘Do Not Feed the Trolls’ enough?