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Canary in the Coal Mine

May 25, 2010 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- "Surge in Immigration Laws Around U.S.," "Poll Shows Most in U.S. Want Overhaul of Immigration Laws," and "ICE Officials Set Quotas to Deport More Illegal Immigrants."

Prior to these recent news headlines and all the hoopla about the new Arizona immigration law, rumors already were circulating coast to coast about the cause and effect of illegal immigrants on local communities.

Northwestern University's Gary Alan Fine addresses immigration and rumors related to terrorism, trade and tourism in his new book. In "The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration and Trade Matter" (Oxford University Press, June 10, 2010), Fine and co-author Bill Ellis, professor emeritus of English at Penn State University, ask what claims or rumors are considered "plausible" -- what claims fit in with popular belief systems, and which claims are "credible" -- what claims come from sources deemed reliable.

Fine and Ellis also reveal how the rumors we spread hint at how we are grappling with the new global world.

"This turns out to be a very active moment in rumor dissemination, because we are discussing immigration again," said Fine, the John Evans Professor of Sociology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

The book addresses beliefs about immigrants causing crimes, in particular Latino gangs. "We also look at beliefs about immigrants bringing deadly illnesses," Fine said. "There are fears about sexually transmitted diseases, fears about AIDS, swine flu."

H1N1 originally was called the Mexican flu. "We're operating again, in a political moment in which many Americans are frightened about immigrants in our midst," he said.

The reality of living in a global world hit close to home for Americans on Sept. 11, 2001. After which, said Fine, rumors surged, as did rumors about conspiracies.

"Certainly in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a strong desire on the part of Americans to figure out what was going on, and rumors were a part of this process even though they were not always correct," he said. "But they still provided comfort for people in uncertain and troubling times."

A series of rumors suggested that Arab Americans knew of the attack before it happened. "Other rumors said that it was the Israeli Secret Service behind it and...still a third said the U.S. government knew about the attack," Fine said.

He says to think of rumors as the canary in the coalmine, an indicator of people's fears and concerns, adding that rumors often take beliefs and connect them to claimed events.

"In other words, you don't have to say, ‘I am prejudiced' or ‘I am fearful,'" said Fine. "You can say, ‘This gang from El Salvador is actually killing people on the streets of our town.' So you don't have to say you're worried about people from Central America. But you point to this ‘fact,' this rumor, and this provides justification for the public statement of belief."

Rumors at the extreme, Fine concludes, can lead to prejudice and discrimination.

"Rumors can alert us to problems, can alert us to our fears, but at the same time, if not looked at properly and carefully, can lead us to a greater degree of anxiety than otherwise would be the case," he said.

Topics: Research