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Confusing the Real Issue

Ronald Radosh

John McWhorter today writes an interesting response to the attack made upon him at TPM Café by writer Jim Sleeper, who accused McWhorter and David Horowitz of both joining Glenn Beck in attacking Frances Fox Piven and thus endangering her life. As Sleeper puts it, “When Beck started in on Piven last year, the clever, sad writer John McWhorter did, too, as did right-wing provocateur David Horowitz.”

First, note Sleeper’s disingenuous style. He says Beck attacked Piven, the brilliant McWhorter whom he insults by calling him a “sad writer” then supposedly follows suit, and of course, so does Horowitz, whom Sleeper identifies as a “right-wing provocateur.” For the liberals who read Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (TPM), these are code words so they know who the bad guys are.

Sleeper then says what he thinks of McWhorter. Because McWhorter criticizes Piven, he calls him “a young black linguist-turned-conservative racial bargainer.” This, of course, makes little sense, since Sleeper himself is a critic of Piven. But Sleeper thinks he has a right to do that, since by his own account, he is a bona fide left-liberal. But McWhorter is an African-American. To Sleeper, that means if McWhorter is a critic of Piven, he obviously is a conservative.

Of course, Sleeper thinks he is beyond criticism, since his self-definition is that he is “scathing of both left and right, not because both sides are equally bad but because Piven’s left plays inexorably into the hands of the more-powerful right. They do it every time, and they know not what they do.” Get it? He only attacks the left when the left inadvertently helps the right; therefore, only he- Jim Sleeper- has the credentials to criticize someone like Fox Piven.

Anyone who thinks Sleeper might have had the last word has to turn next to John McWhorter, who knows how to take care of himself. The first point is that McWhorter stands by what he wrote earlier about Piven, and indeed, reprints the essence of his harsh characterization of the theory she and her late husband, Richard Cloward, unveiled in the mid 1960’s. He writes:

I have written, often, that Columbia social work professors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (who were married) wreaked havoc on poor black communities in the sixties by openly calling on poor blacks to seek welfare payments rather than work. The story is simple and sad. Early last year I told it thusly in these pages, and see no reason not to simply present exactly what I wrote then. To wit, Piven and Cloward hoped that this would bankrupt the government and force a complete overhaul of our distribution of income. It wasn’t that they thought there was no work for blacks—just that it was beneath blacks’ dignity to do it. By 1968, the organization was staging more than two hundred protests a month, sometimes assisted by the Panthers.

. . . For three decades, welfare was an open-ended program, unconcerned with whether people got jobs or whether children’s fathers were present or able to work. The government never fell, and meanwhile black neighborhoods started falling to pieces. The near-fatherless tracts now thought of as normal would have sounded like science fiction in even the poorest black districts before the ’70s. Rarely in American history have people with such a destructive agenda had such power over the lives of the innocent. I wish Piven and Cloward had stayed obscure teachers instead of helping to ruin the lives of, for example, some of my relatives.

McWhorter not only does not back down, but notes how angry he is that Piven continues to argue that what she advocated was good and correct, which to McWhorter seems “callous.” But turning to Glenn Beck’s current attacks on Piven, McWhorter suddenly loses his own argument. Rather than acknowledge that Beck both accurately quotes Piven and says essentially the same thing as McWhorter is saying, he argues that the death threats against her “chills and disgusts me.”

I agree. I wrote previously that Beck should have taken them all off The Blaze.com, and should fire those who allowed them to appear there while he was on vacation. (Despite this, Piven on TV the other day listed me in particular, along with Fred Siegel and Stanley Kurtz, and Beck of course, as being responsible for the death threats.)

McWhorter continues to say he never is in favor of waging “witch-hunts… against anyone whose views I disagree with,” nor does he wish to paint Piven’s ideas as “inherently ‘un-American,’” and favors her right to express her views. But what he is really angry about is that Sleeper accuses him of “taking a page from Beck,” when as he points out, he was criticizing Piven and Cloward when Beck never had heard of her.

Unlike Beck, John McWhorter is a certified intellectual, a man with advanced degrees who writes carefully and seriously. I can understand how furious he is to be identified by Jim Sleeper as someone who has chimed in to Beck’s campaign, thus as he writes, “banging out a screed designed to shore up the base that Beck and his ilk preach to.”

So McWhorter is furious that he is subject to “constant misinterpretation,” and people think that he is a “right-wing Republican because I disagree sustainedly with many of the tenets of the Civil Rights orthodoxy and worked for a conservative think tank.”

I ask simply: why is John McWhorter so surprised at this charge? Welcome to the club! All of us who have moved away from the old liberal shibboleths have faced the same charge. If you break ranks—you are a right-winger, a member of the lunatic fringe, a fanatic rabid rightist, etc. etc. etc. You are no longer a heretic, as the old neo-Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher once put it, but a “renegade,” one beyond redemption. How dare you whom we used to respect now make the same argument as a hated figure on the political right? If you are, you too must be a rightist yourself.

McWhorter is easily able to show that he has written critically about Piven and Cloward since the year 2000, and as he says, “I do not need Glenn Beck to teach me my social history.” (In fact, I wish Beck would take some time out to read John McWhorter.) Yet Sleeper blasts him as a “conservative movement water-carrier.” He is deeply angry, since as McWhorter writes, “I am a cranky liberal Democrat.”

In making that known—McWhorter is ironically engaging in precisely the same tactic used by Jim Sleeper—who as we have seen, already has written that when he criticizes Piven and Cloward, it is because he wants to save the left, not reinforce the right. McWhorter’s saying that he too is a liberal, however, will not serve to soften the truth that his own critique of Piven and Cloward is more damning than anything Glenn Beck has written.

Not content with making his political allegiance known, McWhorter continues to specify that he “supports Barack Obama, reviles the War on Drugs, supports gay marriage, never voted for George Bush” and so forth. All of these make McWhorter a traditional liberal, not a black conservative. And he has a right to be angry that Sleeper writes that he has been “co-opted by the riches and fame offered him by the right wingers.” This too is an old charge. Piven said I had shifted from Left to Right because “the pay is better on the other side.” We all should be used to that canard by now. (How I wish it were so.)

Ok, so we now have learned John McWhorter is a liberal, not a conservative. Fine. That is his choice. But why is he so surprised that so many people think he is one? The answer is rather clear. Many of his arguments on black culture and the black experience echo that of those few black conservatives who proudly proclaim themselves conservative, like Shelby Steele.

I must add that when I met McWhorter years ago, I was already familiar with his work, and had profitably read one of his books. But I met him as a fellow speaker at David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend, which as everyone knows, is a conservative event sponsored by a very conservative organization, now called the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

At that particular event, other speakers included Ann Coulter and Christopher Hitchens—the first a hard conservative; the second an iconoclastic contrarian who was and is an enemy of radical Islam. I did not assume that because McWhorter was there he considered himself a conservative. But we talked in particular about the Black Panther Party, and his own personal knowledge of the evil effect that group had on his own family. Much of what he said was in fact similar to the criticism of the Panthers made by Horowitz. McWhorter’s views were his own; he did not need Horowitz to instruct him about the Panthers. But he should not be surprised to find that his appearance at this event and the similarity of his critique to that of a white conservative would lead some to charge that he was a water-carrier for David Horowitz.

So I take McWhorter at his word when he writes that he has “disappointed countless right-wingers” who think he is another Shelby Steele or Ward Connerly. Fine. But does he really have to point this out, and condemn them in order to get people to listen to him? Can’t we assess the views of Steele or Connerly without branding them first, so that people will evaluate their arguments on the merits, and not on where they put themselves in the political spectrum?

And yes, as long as Glenn Beck is accurately quoting Frances Fox Piven, and I believe that he is, can’t we evaluate the truth or falsity of what he says even though he is on the right? If it is similar to the argument made by McWhorter, is Beck’s conclusion wrong because he said it, while McWhorter’s is correct because he is a liberal?

The truth is, a liberal and a conservative can both be right. And in the case of Frances Fox Piven, they both are.

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