Canaries in Coal Mines

The metaphor of the “canary in the coal mine”, is apparently an overworked one, so says an article by the Wall Street Journal.  But it’s just so darn useful.

I often use it when explaining the causes of many social problems.  Groups with less money, education, social, and cultural resources tend to be “canaries”.  The problems they endure presently often become the problems of wider society in the future.  It was the poor and minorities who first began defaulting during the housing crisis.  We have a heroin epidemic in this country, hitting poor white communities the hardest.

Disadvantaged groups suffer social problems at higher rates than other groups because they don’t have resources to shield themselves from these problems.  When things happen  – the economy tanks, a new narcotic enters the market or bacteria is introduced – they get the worst of it.  Just like the canary in the coal mine gets the worst of a mine filled with toxic gas.

Now let me shift gears…

In the recent European Parliament elections, far right groups made impressive gains.  While many people are surprised by these gains, scholars who study online speech should not have been.  They had seen many online “canaries” pointing to the rise of anti-immigrant, extremism in Europe.  I also like to explore content online, and I’ve seen similar canaries that point to this same phenomenon occurring in the United States.

A Breeding Ground for Canaries

The canary in a coal mine metaphor has an understandably negative connotation.  But the idea of a particular person or group’s behavior being a portent of things to come for all does not have to mean the thing to come is negative – just different.  And so, before talking more directly about far right politics, here are a few very interesting content producers in the digital environment that I personally like:

Dan Carlin – 2 Programs: Commonsense and Hardcore History

  • A political commentator and historian.  Takes a very libertarian approach to political issues, and his history shows tend to revolve around war and empire.

Mindah-Lee Kumar – The Enthusiastic Buddhist

  • A former Buddhist nun who does YouTube videos about Buddhist thought and practice.  She is mastering the art of dispensing knowledge in short YouTube Videos.

Stephen West – Philosophize This!

  • Does short podcasts on philosophers and their ideas.  He shuns high faluting language, but does a good job of explaining core ideas and how they were produced within a particular socio-historical context.  His personal story is quite interesting, by the way.

They are “canaries” for the same general reason that disadvantaged groups are more likely to succumb to various social ills: they lack the type of resources that other content producers have.   They have very little (or no) advertising revenue.  There was no capital investment from a big studio or network.  No focus groups to understand what would garner the biggest audience.

However, and luckily for us, this disadvantage is a good thing in this case.  It is accompanied by a type of freedom.  Not having millions invested in something lets you tinker.  Not worrying about ad revenue means you can say what the hell you want to say and do it how you see fit.  Not trying to garner a big audience means that content does not have to be reduced to the least common denominator.

Despite being on the outside looking in, their work has gained a following.  Like canaries, their popularity is (has been) a sign of upcoming wider changes in society.  Mindah-Lee Kumar’s podcast is one exemplary example of how Buddhism is reaching out to people in the West (she is from Australia) without a historical foundation or institutional support.  Stephen West’s approach to podcasting is in my view much more effective than some of the heavy handed, plodding ways that professors try to teach using technology (myself included).  In Dan Carlin’s case, he has already been prophetic.  He  was clanging his pot for years about the NSA before the Snowden revelations came out.

The digital environment is a breeding ground for canaries.  If one is lacking in resources, one can still express oneself and communicate because so little investment is needed.  Moreover, because there is so much traffic online and so much competition for clicks, if one of these potential canaries attracts an audience you can be sure that they are saying something that others find compelling.  It’s then time to take notice.

Extremism Online

And so what in the world does this have to do with the far right in Europe?

We have what the BBC calls a “Euroseptic Earthquake“.   Political parties that are anti-immigrant and anti-European Union gained seats in recent parliamentary elections:

  • In Britain, the UK Independent Party (UKIP) outperformed the established Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties
  • In France,the Far Right National Front garnered a quarter of the vote
  • Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) gained a fifth of the vote

The gains of these far right parties were signaled by a vibrant online community.  They had their canaries.  For at least the past 15 years, scholars have been exploring the rise of far right and extremist content online.  The same logic applies.  Someone who wanted to voice opinions contrary to multiculturalism would get little support from the mainstream media and little capital from investors and donors.  But this initial disadvantage becomes a kind of advantage, as they now have the freedom to say what they want.

I’ve explored far right content online myself.  Maybe “far right” is not the apt term.  I consider the Tea Party the far right.  Maybe it is best if I label these sites “extremist”, as they are even further to the right of what is considered far right in the US.  Because of the racial and homophobic themes on these sites, they are often considered purveyors of hate speech.   Some that I have explored are:

Council of Conservative Citizens
Political Cesspool
American Renaissance

The concerns raised on these site can be economic: “immigrants come in, take jobs, or live off of public assistance”.  They can be cultural: “immigrants come in and change the European or Christian character of our country”.  They can be pseudo-scientific: “blacks are genetically inferior and less intelligent than whites”. They can be a strange mix of moral and political rationale: “why must we let immigrants into our country?  we cannot simply go into theirs.”  They can be conspiratorial: “Jewish people are trying to destroy the Christian character of our country through organizations like the UN, EU, and WTO.”

Most of the people and organizations behind this content are too raw to gain traction in the US.  But like Carlin’s and Kumar’s podcasts, they attract a good bit of web traffic, suggesting that what they are saying is hitting home with some people.

I am all but certain that these websites, too, are “canaries”.  They foreshadow an American political future where mainstream political candidates will be openly anti-immigrant and pro-white…and politically successful.


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