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Jeremy Young: Communities of Rumor and the American Electorate

[Jeremy Young is a doctoral student in 20th-century U.S. history at Indiana University. He has been blogging for six years at a variety of locations around the web and is a writer for the History News Service.]

I really can't understand people who look at Sarah Palin, who listen to her obvious incompetence, and see an inspiring leader and future President. Or people who felt the same way about George W. Bush in 2000. Or people who not only hate gay marriage, but honestly believe that it's the greatest threat that faces America today. It's not a matter of disagreeing with those people, as I do with, say, libertarians; their opinions and views simply feel alien to me. How can people in my country look at the same events I'm looking at and see them so differently? Are they wrong, or stupid, or something else?

A book I read last week, Alain Corbin's The Village of Cannibals: Rage and Murder in France, 1870 (translated by ProgressiveHistorians blogfriend Arthur Goldhammer), suggests an answer. Corbin's book concerns a similarly head-scratching event: in a remote village in industrializing France in 1870, a group of townspeople suddenly turned on a local noble, convinced themselves against all evidence that he was a Prussian and a Republican enemy of the French Emperor, and proceeded to torture him to death over a period of two hours and then burn his corpse in the public square. (They did not, as rumor had it, actually eat him.) Setting aside the stark brutality of the act, how could these upstanding townspeople ignore mountains of evidence and eyewitnesses who insisted they had seen the man many times and that he lived two towns away, and remain convinced that he was in fact a Prussian spy? And in what universe were the monarchical Prussians and French Republicans the same thing, or in any way related?

Corbin's answer to these questions is very interesting. I'm simplifying his argument a bit, but in brief, he suggests that there are two types of people: those who have access to a steady stream of reliable information about the wider world (in this case, city-dwellers, bourgeois, and the rich) and those who don't. People with little direct knowledge of events, like the peasant murderers in The Village of Cannibals, continue to get indirect knowledge, but it comes in the form of rumor, of bits and pieces of truth intermingled with scraps of various lies. Contrary to what some of us blue-state folks imagine, these people aren't stupid or irrational. Instead, they do the same things the rest of us do with the information they have: take it in, try to make sense of competing data, construct a coherent mental narrative, and interpret observed events in light of that narrative. What's more, they don't do this in isolation, but in near-constant communication with one another -- forming what can perhaps best be described as a" community of rumor." Certainly some people in that community have a better understanding of the wider world than do others, but it's very hard to tell which is which when everybody believes something different. Eventually a consensus is reached, and that becomes"truth." It's a process very familiar to us in the"reality-based community," except that the raw material -- actual, comprehensive knowledge of situations and events -- is missing. There's nothing wrong with the way these people think -- the problem is with the information they have to start with.

In the case of Corbin's villagers, a lot of their reasoning was sound given the information they had to go on. A lot of their confusion centered on the issue of taxation. The Orleanist monarchy, which ruled from 1830-1848, had imposed a crushing tax on the already-poor peasants. When the Republicans came to power, they had promised to repeal the tax but hadn't followed through, leading the peasants to view them as double-crossers probably in league with the monarchy. The Emperor (Napoleon III), on the other hand, repealed the tax immediately when he first took office in 1849; obviously he was on the side of the peasants and cared about their welfare. In 1870, when the Empire collapsed, the peasants were terrified about what would happen to them without their beloved Emperor. Meanwhile, wild rumors spread about the Prussians, a known militaristic power with expansionist designs. They wanted to attack the Emperor, which meant they must be in league with the monarchists and the Republicans (and also the Catholic clergy, who had also opposed the Emperor for seizing their property). Perhaps the Prussians had spies even now among the French peasantry! Maybe they were members of the old aristocracy, the strongest supporters of the monarchy (and therefore Republicans and Prussian sympathizers). It turned out that the cousin of the murder victim had been in the village advocating for the Republic. When the victim was told about this, he was surprised that his cousin would do such a thing and responded that he didn't think it was likely. There was the evidence! He was sticking up for a known Republican; therefore, he must be a Prussian spy. And so the villagers murdered him, expecting that the Emperor would award them medals for their action. (Instead, four of them were guillotined.)

There's certainly an element of mob hysteria in all this, but what's surprising is how many of the connections make sense if certain important information is omitted or not known (for instance, that many monarchist politicians were actually friendly with Napoleon III, or that the Republicans were opposed to all forms of undemocratic power, or that nobody in France actually supported a foreign invasion by the hated Prussians). The same forces are clearly at work in the"American heartland" where"hockey moms" and"Joe the plumber" live. It's easy to dismiss as stupid people who believe that, say, Obama is a secret Muslim or that gays are out to take over the world -- but such a view is both untrue and unfair. How can we expect someone to listen to our truth that Obama is a Christian when their co-worker is sending them an e-mail forward saying he's a Muslim, and their father-in-law is convinced he's a terrorist? Why are we more right than those people are? How do they know who to trust? And if they're not sure, should they vote for someone who might secretly be a terrorist?

These people are suffering from what Dan Cohen diagnosed at his recent IU lecture as the biggest problem of the information age: abundance. There's simply too much information out there, and so much of it is contradictory, that people who don't have a lot of time on their hands can't really make sense of it. But they still try, and what they do is turn to others in their communities of rumor who seem to have more information or a clearer sense of what's going on. For many people, ministers and church leaders seem like the obvious choices. For others, it's friends or co-workers who seem up on the news and send out e-mail forwards with their findings. It's often the loudest people, or the most prominent people, that ordinary Americans trust. And the Republicans have become experts in exacerbating this problem by feeding wild rumors about Democrats and liberals through this network of authority, often targeting the most trusted locations, like churches and e-mail. Get people started forwarding around e-mails about Obama being a secret Muslim, and it becomes true and real. Once these ideas have taken root in communities of rumor all over America, reasonable people in those communities will refuse to consider even abundant evidence to the contrary. What Corbin shows us is that it's not because they're somehow alien, but because they are in fact just like the rest of us: resistant to ideas that contradict what they know to be true.

How to fix this problem? There's no easy answer, but Corbin's work suggests that the remedy involves getting more information more reliably to more people. How can this be done? Al Gore argued in his book that the internet was the answer, because it put all the knowledge in the world at the fingertips of every American. But the internet is chiefly responsible for the problem of abundance. It doesn't fix the problem so much as it exacerbates it, adding a huge flood of new information to the already overstrained mind of the average busy American. People are always going to turn, for the most part, to"information filters" they feel they can trust. (Tina Brown's new website, The Daly Beast, is a perfect example of a product designed expressly as such a filter.) Perhaps the challenge for liberals is to make sure those filters themselves are well-informed and present that information to those who trust them.

Read entire article at ProgressiveHistorians