Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gary Alan Fine & Bill Ellis' "The Global Grapevine"

Gary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. His book, Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America was a finalist for the C. Wright Mills Award. Bill Ellis is Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is a Fellow of the American Folklore Society and has served as President of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.

Fine and Ellis applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, and reported the following:
Our thesis is that rumors are part of a working process of communal fact-finding, used by most people of all classes and levels of education, and hardly the trivial nuisance that previous researchers have assumed. Dame Rumor has been an essential part of culture since ancient times, and will doubtless remain so for the rest of human existence. For that reason, looking at page 99 of our book, just like looking at whatever rumors are afoot in 2010 (or 1784, or 2135), provides a useful microcosm of our book’s argument.

The page discusses the ways in which a recent influx of Latino residents to Hazleton, a small working-class town in northeastern Pennsylvania, led to rapid, visible changes in daily routines. This spurred a host of rumors focusing around the center of the new Spanish-speaking neighborhood. One such was:
[M]y great aunt ... told me a story about the Puerto Ricans that live on Wyoming Street in Hazleton. She said that her friend went to drive through the street but the entire street got blocked by Puerto Ricans. She said they demanded that the driver pay five dollars in order to pass. Eventually police showed up and the crowd disappeared.
The “Grapevine” rumor, in which unwelcome newcomers are said to harass residents by blocking the road, has older roots. It was found a generation earlier in Montana, the perpetrators being black-hooded satanists. And E. L. Doctorow used a similar scenario in his novel Ragtime; this time the culprits were Irish immigrants, and their victim was Coalhouse Walker, an upwardly mobile Black musician.

In all of these stories, the message is similar: doubt that local authorities are capable or even willing to deal with the menace. The only recourse is vigilante action, or a political crusade intended to give authorities wider power to intimidate newcomers into moving to another location. In Hazleton, where one of the book’s authors resided, the result was a political crusade in 2006 to enact draconian laws against immigrants, a solution more recently tried by the state of Arizona.

It is tempting to see such rumors and the crusades they mobilize as the result of ignorance or even racism. We take a more objective tack: rapid demographic changes always have and always will provoke rumors as residents, seeing their settled lifestyle disrupted, struggle to rethink their beliefs and habits. Rumor is just one highly visible tool in this complex process, whose political power cannot be underestimated.
Read more about The Global Grapevine at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue