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The Teach-In Lives!

Cornel West, Frances Fox Piven, and the ‘Tree of Corporate Destruction’

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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On the day Paul Ryan released his budget proposal, I went to Judson Memorial Church in New York City to gauge the left’s reaction. Judson Memorial was hosting “Fight Back USA,” where one could get tips on “fighting austerity, debt, and corporate greed” and listen to progressive superstars Frances Fox Piven, Cornel West, and Jeffrey Sachs. “ ’60s-style Teach-In Meets the Digital Age in Live Stream Webcast,” said the press release. A friendly aide told me that students at more than 200 schools were watching online.

Cornel West

Cornel West

Gary Locke

The day was overcast and rainy. The beautiful Gilded Age church, designed by acclaimed American architect Stanford White, was built in the 1890s with Rockefeller money. The interior is blue with yellow molding and contains 15 stained glass windows by John LaFarge, who decorated the homes of robber barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt. The irony of denouncing capitalism inside a building that owes its existence to obscenely rich industrialists seemed to be lost on the crowd. Then again it was hard to judge the emotions of the audience from the balcony, where the organizers had exiled the press.

The helpful aide said there were 300 people in attendance. My bird’s-eye view of the seating area suggested she was being generous. Another reporter approached me with a friendly expression and introduced herself as a writer for the liberal American Prospect. A grimace of horror flashed across her face when I told her I worked for The Weekly Standard, as if I’d said I’d just killed her dog. She scurried back to her seat at the far end of the row and pretended to check emails on her cell phone. A few moments later she asked, “So how is Bill Kristol doing?” in the same tone you’d use to refer to Carlos the Jackal. I said he was doing fine.

A lady who seemed to be stage-managing the event delivered some nonprogressive instructions. “Keep your voices down,” she told the students and senior citizens who made up the audience. “If you don’t agree with something, keep it to yourself.” Clearly this was not going to be Grant Park, 1968. The panelists walked on stage and took their seats. A thin woman with brown-gray hair and dangling gold earrings approached the lectern. “My name is Frances Fox Piven,” she said. “I want to welcome you to the first national teach-in on corporate greed and false austerity, debt, and how we’re going to fight back.”

From time immemorial Fox Piven has toiled in the dank and crowded back alley where academia and radical politics meet. She and her late husband Richard Cloward became famous in the ’60s and ’70s for urging poor people to mau-mau the government. But it wasn’t until 2009, when a researcher for right-wing media personality Glenn Beck found an article the couple had written for the Nation 40 years earlier, that Piven became a fixation of the right and martyr for the left. (Cloward died in 2001.) The piece in question was titled “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.”

The way to end poverty, Piven and Cloward argued, was to increase local and state welfare rolls to the point where the federal government had no option but to step in and institute a guaranteed annual income. Obviously the idea was a dud that went nowhere. But one can see how it appealed to Beck, who dubbed it the “Cloward-Piven strategy” and used it to suggest that Americans were unwitting actors in a sinister socialist drama scripted long ago.

Beck was wrong in thinking Piven and Cloward ought to be feared. To the contrary: Decades of academic research, countless books and articles and lectures, more than 25 years teaching at the City University of New York, and what has Frances Fox Piven come up with?

“Do we have the Tree of Corporate Destruction?” she asked the audiovisual crew. On the wall behind Piven there appeared a frightening black and white image of a tree whose branches bore the logos of major corporations. On the ground beneath the tree were two fallen limbs, with branches labeled “schools,” “civil servants,” “higher education,” “retirement,” “the safety net,” and so on. The trunk bore the name Glenn Beck, in large block letters. Below that an image of Ronald Reagan. And below that were the words “Corporate Personhood”: a legal principle that, according to the Tree of Corporate Destruction, has given rise to huge conglomerates that sever the American social contract in pursuit of profit. 

“This tree’s really the tree of American life,” Piven explained. “And you can see it’s been poisoned, it’s been polluted by corporate interests. Corporate influence has grown over the last 30 years especially.” In their rapacious exploitation of labor and the environment, the corporations had starved the public sector through austerity and drowned the American consumer in debt. “The tree of corporate destruction is endangering our future,” Piven said. “The future of young people, the future of our society, and the future of our planet.”

Piven handed the mike to New York state senator Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx, a charming 35-year-old whose day job is teaching political science at Pace University. Rivera, who did graduate work at CUNY under Piven, was the emcee for Fight Back USA. He introduced Judson Memorial’s minister, Reverend Michael Ellick.

Ellick’s biography on the church website says he became a man of the cloth after trying his hand “as a courier, a fast-food cook, a fact-checker, a fresh juice delivery person, a copy editor, an event planner, a barista, a financial analyst, an Internet help desk, and even an assistant at a Marine Biology lab.” Finally, after earning an M.Div. at Union Theological Seminary, then studying for seven years with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Ellick discovered his calling as a William Sloane Coffin wannabe. “The question that is in front of us,” Ellick said, “is whether or not we will remain a democracy, or will the growing trend toward plutocracy​—​a government run by the rich​—​continue to become entirely official.”

“As a Christian minister here,” Ellick went on, “I know my political tradition gives an unambiguous mandate to serve the poor in all capacities. Because we are gathered here in this space, I wanted us to start with a brief moment of prayer. Let us pray: O God of many names, instill in us the skillful means and steady heart to believe in the days, the weeks, and years ahead.” Amen.

Next up was African-American studies professor Cornel West, who’s been a leftwing fixture since the publication of Race Matters in 1993. He became an icon in 2002 when a new president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, fired him for neglecting scholarship in favor of making hip-hop albums. West landed on his feet at Princeton, where he’s written a memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, assembled an anthology, Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom, and appeared alongside Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and the videogame Enter the Matrix. In the science-fiction series West portrays an elder statesman who serves on the governing council of the underground city of Zion. “Councillor West” dispenses advice to the weary band of humans fighting the robot armies. He delivers faux-philosophical lines like “comprehension is not a requisite of cooperation.” He’s hilarious.

In his greatest role, however, West portrays Dr. Cornel West, renowned public intellectual, racial oracle, and philosophical expositor of the American pragmatist and Marxist traditions. West has been doing this shtick around the country and in various media for decades, but this was the first time I’d caught a live performance. The experience was captivating.

West approached the lectern wearing his trademark three-piece suit. A gold chain hung from his vest. His afro was teased to dizzying heights. The strands of his scraggly beard pointed in every direction. He gave Gustavo Rivera a bear hug and moved toward the microphone. Then he gripped the lectern with both hands, hunched his back like a feline’s, and launched into a dizzying, ecstatic, boisterous, compelling, totally incomprehensible monologue.

West’s voice is a remarkable instrument. He whispers, speaks, bellows, screams, and hisses in volumes ranging from barely audible to jackhammer loud. Unfortunately the church’s poor acoustics and West’s erratic delivery combined to make his lecture unintelligible. He unleashed a torrent of words from the stage. Picking out a few phrases from the din required total concentration. “I am here because I believe like you that many of our brothers and sisters of all colors are suffering and in misery that’s .  .  .​ ​not .  .  .​ ​necessary .  .  .​ and we plan to do something about it,” West said. “We approach this day fundamentally committed to what brother Martin Luther King was committed to: unarmed truth.”

West hit all the leftwing hot spots: “Prison industrial complex .  .  . unavailable child care​—​still unavailable health care after Obamacare .  .  . military industrial complex .  .  . imperial presence in Afghanistan and Iraq .  .  . levels of greed that even Charles Dickens would have problems with. .  .  . The entertainment complex, who bombard our young people with weapons of mass distraction to keep them titillated and stimulated and infuriated that they are no longer part of or fundamentally focused on the [word indecipherable on my recording] decency, courage, and compassion manifest in the short movement from womb to tomb.”

The program said West’s topic was the “crisis facing youth.” But the speech really consisted of track numbers one through seven on Cornel West’s Greatest Hits (not a real album). There were plenty of racial politics: “In this age of Obama let us be very clear,” West said. “Even as we celebrate his symbolic cosmetic and cathartic victory and presence, we all want to be sure, and we’re going to do all that we can, so he doesn’t become just another black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs!” He implored somebody​—​it wasn’t clear who​—​to “Tell us the truth.” His vision was global in scope: “We learned in Madison, we learned in Indiana, we learned in Ohio, and we learned in northern Africa, Tunisia, and Egypt, just like we learned in the early nineties with Nelson Mandela and others .  .  .” What we learned I can’t say, because at that point West reverted to gibberish. By the time he’d ended by screaming the word “SWINGING!” the house was on its feet. 

According to his website, you can catch Dr. West live at the Texas Tech University auditorium at 7 p.m. on April 15. Don’t wait: Book your tickets today.

Cornel West is a tough act to follow. The schedule called for Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, the noted Columbia University economist, to address the teach-in via webcam. Sach’s image was to be projected on the back wall, where the Tree of Corporate Destruction had been. “And now,” said Gustavo Rivera, “live from Boston​—​this is the wonder of technology, ladies and gentlemen​—​live from Boston, we are joined by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.”

Nothing showed up on the wall.

“It’s possible that this is showing up online,” Rivera said.

Still no Sachs.

“Now we know how the folks at Saturday Night Live feel like,” Rivera said.

The audience chuckled nervously.

“Should we move on to our next guest?” Rivera asked his overseers.

Their answer was yes. Rivera introduced Heather McGhee, a young analyst at the leftwing think tank Demos, who delivered the standard progressive critique of American politics: Everything was fabulous in this country until Ronald Reagan’s election, when the rich took over the government and destroyed unions and immiserated the middle class through tax and trade policy. Don’t believe your lying eyes: The last 30 years have been an absolute nightmare. It’s a wonder Americans haven’t turned to cannibalism to survive. The benighted populace, McGhee said, has “scapegoated the poorest among us, blaming immigrants brought here by the exact trade deals being cut in that other room, and now even attacking the last middle class workers standing among us,” i.e., public sector unions.

Then there’s Paul Ryan and his budget, a “desperate Hail Mary” that “doubles down on every single bad economic decision of the past 30 years.” If Ryan had his way, well, that would be “truly the end of America as we know it, the end of the middle class.” The “hysteria over the deficit” has been manufactured “by Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson” and “oil billionaires such as the Koch brothers, among others.” But there’s good news: “We’re going to take our country back.” Before we do that, however, we have to sit through the rest of this teach-in.

As McGhee was speaking it occurred to me that conservatives have the left all wrong when they argue liberals have no solution to the fiscal crisis. Liberals do have a solution​—​it’s just that few of them say it out loud. The liberal solution to American insolvency is to soak the rich. The liberal way to curb inequality, close the deficit, and pay for all those electric cars is to take money from the greedy and give it to the U.S. Treasury. Of course, taxing Sam Walton’s family will only get you so far. To come anywhere near paying for the society Frances Fox Piven, Gustavo Rivera, and Heather McGhee want, you’d have to gouge the middle class once you’d finished off the wealthy, and in the process collapse the economy. But at least the lefties on stage at Judson Memorial Church are honest enough to admit it.

The techies figured out how to project Jeffrey Sachs onto the wall. In the 1990s Sachs was known for administering “shock therapy” to post-Communist regimes willing to listen to him. He urged a rapid transition from public to private ownership in places like Russia and Poland. As the name implied, shock therapy did not come without social, economic, and reputational costs. So Sachs has spent the last decade reinventing himself as a champion of foreign aid, adviser to U.N. secretary generals, critic of American foreign policy, and president of Columbia’s Earth Institute.

“It’s a memorable day,” he said. “It’s the day that the Republican party showed us what they really have in mind.” Professor Sachs has run the numbers on Representative Ryan’s budget. If the Ryan budget became law, Dr. Sachs has concluded, “We would cease to be, to be blunt, a modern country. We would end up with no policies for energy, no policies for infrastructure, no policies for job training, no policies for education, no policies for child care, for early child development, for all the things that make a decent society.”

Sachs’s rant grew in intensity. “There’s nothing bold about this,” he said. “There’s nothing clever about it, there’s nothing thoughtful about it, there’s nothing innovative about it, it’s just one bald assault by the rich on the poor. And that’s the spirit of the times right now.” The audience hung on Sachs’s every word.

He impugned both parties for turning America into a “corporatocracy” where the “corporate sector has taken hold of government.” He seemed physically ill while describing the world’s corporate masters. He sarcastically parroted the corporatocracy’s lies: “We have to sacrifice community development, we have to sacrifice job training, we have to sacrifice education, we have to sacrifice an energy system, we can’t afford new infrastructure. It’s a shocking, shocking abuse of power.”

The crowd was getting really stoked. The temperature in the church kept rising. The students seemed ready to seize some pitchforks, torches, tar, and feathers.

“It’s shocking irresponsibility,” Sachs said. “And the saddest part​—​”

The room vibrated with the echoes of long-ago battle cries: Storm the Bastille! Vive la révolution!

“And the saddest part​—​”

Everyone leaned forward to hear what came next.

“The saddest part of all is that​—​”

The video connection blanked out. Sachs disappeared.

The deflated crowd let out a frustrated moan. The tree of corporate destruction​—​it had struck again! And somewhere up above, the plutocrats who’d built Judson Memorial Church were smiling.

Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard and author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin.

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