Gary Alan Fine, a sometime Reason contributor, has studied the sociology of rumor for decades. In his new book, The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, Fine and co-author Bill Ellis, a professor emeritus of English and American Studies at Penn State, dig into the rumors that both surround and shape America’s anxious entry into an interconnected global world.
Fine and Ellis explore the meanings of a representative set of such rumors, including rumors of wicked immigrants who simultaneously enjoy secret tax breaks and form hyperviolent gangs; rumors of terror threats masterminded by Arabs, Israelis, and the U.S. government itself; rumors of tourists adopting pet rats and contracting AIDS from malign foreigners; and rumors of international trade that brings disease and death to hapless Americans.
In doing so, they help us understand a nation that remains, as ever, riven by fears regarding an invading Other, whether metaphorical or actual. It is also, interestingly, a nation that seems prepared to take seriously the worst rumors about its own government. Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Fine, currently John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, by phone this week.
Reason: What do you find interesting about rumors as a topic of sociological study?
Gary Alan Fine: I have been studying rumors now for 35 years. I published my first book on rumor, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay, in 1976. In 2001 I published a book with Patricia A. Turner, Whispers on The Color Line: Rumor and Race in America. We attempted to analyze rumors told in white communities and in African-American communities and the ways some of the rumors were mirror images of each other, and the ways these separate pools of knowledge affected our race relations and made it so difficult for blacks and whites to get together. Very often they didn’t know what the other racial group believed.
I decided the next study of rumors I wanted to do was about rumors that deal with what we call global politics or international politics. Bill Ellis and my book speaks to that concern for the areas mentioned in the title: terror, immigration, and international trade. We also talk about tourism, and fears of organ theft.
One of the things we emphasize is that rumors do provide access to what people believe, and the beliefs they may keep hidden, private, because often these beliefs are hostile to a group. But rumors connect belief to some event, an event that may or may not have happened. But if you can point to an event and say, see, these Mexican undocumented workers are coming over and are engaging in these crimes, it is different than saying: “I believe that immigration is bad.” It is pointing to events, imagined or not, and therefore you are justified in making the claim. This became important. We talk about rumors as a canary in the coal mine. It allows us to see concerns that people have they might not often be willing to express in a more direct way.
Many rumors, particularly ones we talk about, are issues of public concern. When you spread those rumors, you are implicitly making a claim about the way the world operates either for good or for ill. We talk about what we call the “politics of plausibility” and the “politics of credibility.” The first refers to whether the substance of a specific claim makes sense, is feasible, plausible, might it have happened. Some claims people can make no one would take seriously, and those stand outside plausibility.
But other examples we give are of rumors that, regarding 9/11, that the Arab-American community was aware of the attack before it happened, or the Jewish-American community was aware of the attack before, or the U.S. government was aware of the attack before it occurred. Large groups of citizens in each case believe that that could have happened—that’s the politics of plausibility. The politics of credibility has to do with who told the story, and is that source someone you judge as having reason, likelihood to know what they are talking about?
Reason: It seemed interesting that unlike the rumors regarding immigration, a lot of 9/11 rumors cast doubt and fear not on underdogs or outsiders, but on our own government and media elites.
Fine: Those of us sympathetic to libertarianism know there has been a lengthy tradition, and I think a healthy tradition, of suspicion of state power, suspicion of governments. There has been an argument and let me describe it as plausible, that over the course of the 20th century with the rise of the megastate that there is even more concern with state power and thus rumors about what the state might do, what it might know, how it might mislead the public, have become increasingly prevalent.
People often speak of Watergate as changing the American public’s attitudes toward government. I think there is some truth to that, though there were certainly plenty of conspiratorial beliefs prior to that. But Watergate institutionalized the legitimacy of being suspicious of government.
Reason: What do we know authoritatively about how widespread serious suspicion of the government regarding 9/11 is?
Fine: We do have a number of surveys, which are only as good as the particular question asked. If you ask someone, “Do you think it’s possible the U.S. government knew of the attacks on the World Trade Center?” you tend to get a fairly high proportion—I think 25-30 percent—who think it is possible. Does that mean government was behind it? As we get to more specific claims [about what did happen], the number who would admit that decreases. Certainly the so-called “9/11 Truth” movement is alive and active, just as rumors about President Kennedy’s assassination were very active for 15 years after he was killed.
Pearl Harbor is the historical precedent that is most similar. There was a very active non-intervention opposition, often called isolationists, and they were powerful and held much sway to the annoyance of the Roosevelt administration. When Pearl Harbor happened some people thought—who benefits from this attack? The rumor was that the Roosevelt administration benefited, because it allowed them to intervene in the war in Europe [like they wanted]. Thus there were stories that the administration knew about or even provoked the attack. Historians I think would largely be in agreement that the Roosevelt administration was not behind the Pearl Harbor attack, but that they probably knew more than what they admitted on December 7, 1941.