George Makari's ‘Of Fear and Strangers‘—A Review

French conservative radio host Éric Zemmour is mounting a presidential run, seeking to steal the mantle of right-wing populism from Marine Le Pen. Not only does the 63-year-old firebrand want to limit the number of immigrants who can come to France—a standard campaign promise for politicians of this type—he wants to ban Arabic names altogether. Even Donald Trump never went that far.

Zemmour’s announcement video presents a good synopsis of the reactionary populist worldview, warning the French that they are becoming strangers in their own lands. “My fellow countrymen,” he says, “for years, the same feeling has swept you along, compressed you, shamed you, a strange and penetrating feeling of dispossession. You walk down the streets in your towns, and you don’t recognize them. You look at your screens and they speak to you in a language that is strange, and in the end, foreign.”

Xenophobia has become one of the great ideological sins of our age. But for Zemmour, “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners, or of anything that is strange or foreign” (as Merriam-Webster defines it) is no vice. Preserving one’s heritage and culture is simply a natural human inclination. France should be for the French.

Americans have traditionally recoiled at this sort of rhetoric: Few of us are the descendants of Native Americans; we are instead a nation of immigrants—a great melting pot. Yet even on these American shores, voters recently elected (and then almost re-elected) a president who railed endlessly against Mexicans, Muslims, and Asians. Clearly, the rise of xenophobia is a global phenomenon. So it’s worth making a systematic study of where this impulse come from.

In his new book, Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia, Cornell historian and psychiatrist George Makari reviews xenophobia’s history in Western nations, beginning with the origins of the word’s modern usage (xenophobe) by an obscure French writer describing the Chinese Yihequan who killed Europeans during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899–1901. In the years following, “xenophobia” became a byword for the hostility directed at colonizers (or perceived colonizers) by members of a native population. Makari argues that the term’s medical connotation isn’t incidental: it offered a means for colonial powers to pathologize the anger expressed by people in the lands they were colonizing.

“When outbreaks of stranger fear and violence occurred in the colonies,” Makari notes, “a closed circle of interpretation neatly accounted for these distressing events. The Westerners had arrived on a civilizing mission. They had been met by a feral tribe, racially endowed with an irrational fear and hatred of strangers.”

Eventually, of course, this self-serving logic gave way to a more honest appreciation of the legitimate anger and grievances of colonized, or formerly colonized, parts of the world. In part because of European-initiated atrocities in the Congo and elsewhere, Westerners came to understand that opposition to their presence wasn’t an irrational “phobia,” but a legitimate form of resistance.

Around the same time that colonialism fell out of favor, the West threw open its doors to large-scale immigration from the lands they’d once colonized. As a result, the roles were reversed. And Makari does a capable job reviewing the manner by which anti-immigrant xenophobia spread and flared across Europe and the United States. But the book is less comprehensive when it comes to understanding the psychological roots of fear of strangers—an odd lapse given that Makari is a psychiatrist by training. (In this regard, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst does a better job.)

Because so much of Makari’s book focuses on the history of the development of various xenophobic schools of thought, it can be easy to come away from it with the impression that stranger-fear is simply an ideological mistake that everyone would cease making if we simply had more enlightened philosophers around to keep us from being led astray. And so we get digressions into such subjects as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre’s marriage instead of a deep dive into contemporary research on the factors that drive antagonism toward immigrants and other out groups. For instance, Makari might have examined a series of studies published in PLOS One that showed that ecological threats tend to be associated with a strengthening of a society’s social norms (along with stricter punishments for behavior that violates those norms), a process that can, in turn, be associated with greater prejudice toward out-group members.

The closing section of the book includes somewhat predictable hand-wringing about Trump and Brexit. “During the postwar years, xenophobia had become a curse,” Makari writes. “Its problems seemed to belong to a bygone era. It was hard to imagine they would ever return.” We’ve hard variations on this kind of lament so often during the Trump and post-Trump eras that many of us have stopped thinking about whether the words are actually true—let alone examine survey data that would allow us to evaluate the depth of the problem. And as it turns out, American attitudes toward Muslims and immigrants actually grew warmer during the Trump years. Moreover, while the British may have narrowly voted to leave the European Union, the UK also has one of the most diverse and well-integrated immigrant populations in Europe. Fifty-three percent of white voters voted to leave the EU. But so did roughly a third of non-white voters.

Reducing xenophobia to a cognitive flaw exhibited by one side of the political spectrum is well in keeping with our culture-war debate protocols. Yet one expects more than an extended-form Politico article or Twitter thread from a book written by an academic of Makari’s Ivy League stature. Xenophobia isn’t an artifact of Western colonialism, but rather a core feature of the human mind. And while conquering (or at least managing) the impulse is difficult, it isn’t impossible. The social psychologist Gordon Allport, for instance, has shown that under certain conditions, intergroup contact can be a powerful tool for breaking down barriers. But this kind of insight won’t bear fruit if we cast such exercises as top-down exercises in remedial ideological instruction.

I’m a Muslim son of immigrants, the sort of person who, if I lived in France instead of the United States, would be the target of Zemmour’s xenophobic invective. But even so, I can understand his appeal. When he describes France as the “nation of Joan of Arc and Louis XIV; of Bonaparte and de Gaulle; of knights and ladies; of Hugo and Chateaubriand; of Pascal and Descartes; of La Fontaine’s fables, Moliere’s characters, and Racine’s verses,” he is offering the French public a powerful verbal balm.

For millions of French citizens, the COVID pandemic has been just one factor upending an existence that’s already been disrupted by globalization, technology, and, yes, immigration. Reaching back to France’s past giants is a way of staying rooted to something—even if that something is a hagiographic pastiche. The fact that we don’t want to see Zemmour elected doesn’t mean we should ignore the political reflexes of those who do.

Xenophobia is an inherently hypocritical creed because, with vanishingly few exceptions, all of our ancestors came from somewhere else. Zemmour himself is the son of Berber Jews who came to France from Algeria. And his dramatic announcement video features Symphon No. 7, which was composed not by a Frenchman but by a German, Ludwig van Beethoven. Indeed, the symphony’s first performance, conducted by Beethoven himself, took place at an 1813 charity event honoring soldiers who’d been wounded fighting the French at the Battle of Hanau. And a French patriot of that era would have been horrified to imagine that this Germanic composition would one day be used to rouse France’s citizenry against a (purported) foreign encroachment.

All of which to say: Zemmour is (albeit unwittingly) more in favor of integration than he realizes—as are most populists, once they permit themselves to appreciate the benefits of a multicultural society. I agree with Makari that awakening these better angels of our nature is the way forward. It’s just too bad that his book does little to facilitate the task.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/12/08/george-makaris-of-fear-and-strangers-a-review/

This review is good - it does what reviews should do: let us know whether to spend our time and money on the book. Good job.

But these kinds of discussions kind of miss the important point.

The author’s right - it’s not a matter of a cognitive flaw, or ideological mistake.

Start with the term. “Xenophobia”. Like many of the other so-called phobias (homophobia, transphobia) it isn’t a phobia at all. At least not in most cases. People aren’t scared of immigrants, generally; though the publicized accounts of immigrant crime do inspire fear. Desire for less, or no, or (very) little immigration is more a matter of dislike; possibly hatred; or most commonly, simply a judgement that one doesn’t want to be neighbors, fellow citizens, with these folks. Edward Abbey (an icon of The Left) took a lot of flak for saying just this, about immigrants from Mexico.

I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about it. People in the U.S.A. for example can generally count. There are about 350 million of us, we get along tolerably well, we like it more or less like it is, here. Not to ignore the real problems which have gotten worse in prior decades. But look at the world as a whole: with about 8 billion people. Suppose we threw open the gates; further suppose that a billion Africans came to live here. How would things work? In a democracy they’d run the show. Read up about South Africa to see how well that has worked out.

It’s silly to call people hateful racists who prefer to live and interact with people like themselves. Almost all humans prefer to hang out, do business, live with people like themselves. It’s only natural.

Of course we could in theory, and according to many, we should, broaden our definition of what “like me” means. Christians especially. Your brother or sister from another continent and of a different race, religion, language, and country, is not to be seen as fundamentally different from you; rather, get it into your head that you are like them, they are like you.

The problem is that few people really feel this way; not naturally. Some may; others may be able to talk themselves into feeling universal brotherly and/or sisterly love with aliens. Even if you do, different people have different ways of doing things. The best example is that “democracy” means quite different things to different people.

I have talked with libertarians who maintained that there should be no borders; anyone should be able to move, live, travel to wherever they want. Of the 6 or so fundamental tenets of libertarians, this one was the one that divided libertarians the most. (Going by memory here; the points were enumerated on a small card being handed out at a gun and knife show.) About half of libertarians said “absolute liberty except for that one”. The U.S. Libertarian Party just had to accept that that point, was not going to be agreed upon by all. They just had to put it out there in a kind of separate category.

For me an issue is violence. There are countries where violence is seen as an acceptable behavior. People from those places tend to act in accord. I don’t want to live with people like that.

Living in the U.S.A., we’re more or less in the middle as regards this. Obviously there are countries that are way less violent than the U.S.A.; also obviously there are countries (and peoples) that are more violent.

/ramble

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The cultural Left want to burn down what we have, are own Western cultures so they build the self-same accursed utopia which has lead to such humanitarian disasters in the past- all 42 times. The depiction of Liu Cixin’s more extreme version of oikophobia in The Three-Body Problem- shown as a desire to destroy humanity, rather than simply one’s own culture, may be somewhat hyperbolic, but it does tie-in with the well-known association that elites are as likely to loathe their own culture as refer to humanity as a cancer on the planet.

Anyway, as Brexit so aptly proves, the instinct of those who would limit migration is more to preserve one’s own culture, rather than manifest in any particular loathing or hatred for the foreign- with the notable exception of the tiny number of fringe basket cases who invariably garner outsized attention in the media patronised by the chattering classes. In particular, any claimed racial animus is immediately deflated like a kid’s inflatable ring with a fast puncture. So the British are racist against… white people. How exactly does that work?

Ingroup is largely a function of home environment and socio-economics. Relative affluence does predict low ingroup, but parental education also plays a strong role. In other words, it’s class-based. Those who despise their own culture are far more likely to come from the upper echelons, those who cannot be happy or thrive without are always the roughly 60% to 70% who are further down the socio-economic spectrum. Besides, one would have thought the multiculturalists would be a little longer term in their thinking- give multiculturalism a couple of generations globally and they’ll be no culture anyway. But then perhaps that’s exactly what they want? A blank, faded canvass upon which they can paint whatever monstrosity they want…

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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The populist pushback is not against “immigration” as a legal system. All countries have a body of laws around importation of new citizens that provides for vetting the background of new arrivals and staging their integration into society through residency to eventual citizenship based on sworn acceptance of the nation’s common culture. In the US and EU there is special handling for refugees from societies where political persecution has singled out some specific segment of the population. As we gain understanding of a given refugee culture, we can expedite the vetting of immigrants who are part of it. Over recent years the US has integrated large numbers of Hungarians, Cubans, Vietnamese and Iranians through this process.

But when large numbers of unvetted people gain entrance to a country without going through any formal process, the public has valid reason to complain. Thousands of mixed-nation refugees show up at a border overpass in Texas, and get eased into permanent residency scattered across the country without going through the legal immigration system. Meanwhile, your uncle from Athens had to spend the usual five years being vetted and qualified at his own expense.

Similar ragtag bands have been showing up on the borders of Europe, and being admitted en masse by whichever member state feels like assuaging the guilt of a racist past by giving them instant free access. In addition, member states that once had colonies in the developing world have laws granting free immigration as a right to any citizen of one of its former colonies. This is now France found itself with hordes of people who have no intention of integrating into the nation’s common culture.

Of course the public is going to object to this, including those who immigrated through the legal process. They are being practical, not racist.

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This is exactly true and highlighted in the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind which identifies that there are zero social grouped animals on the planet that are not xenophobic. There is always an Us and a Them. This is true in the aggressive chimpanzee colonies and even the more egalitarian bonobo groups. Quickly identifying Us and Them was a critical survival mechanism.

This goes in deep to who we even consider people. Though in the ‘us’ group are people, those in the ‘them’ group are not. In the language of the Dinka people of the Sudan, ‘Dinka’ simply means ‘people’. People who are not Dinka are not people. The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer. Nuer means ‘original people’. In Alaska the Yupiks are the ‘original people’.

So yes, this is not a white European issue. This is deeply evolutionary and cross cultural.

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The mere existence of in and out-group identity is just a basic logical consequence of cooperation as a survival strategy, not “xenophobia”. The term refers to a specific, pathological excess within human psychology. Part what makes something a “pathology” is being harmful to survival. Just as cancer is cellular reproduction continuing past its usefulness to the organism, psychological pathologies consist of ordinarily beneficial mental traits that have been exaggerated to morbidly counterproductive extremes.

For instance the boxer rebellion did huge damage to the legitimacy of traditional Chinese authorities, undermined its cultural and social cohesion, and compromised the civilization’s ability to resist the very foreign influence that was its entire raison d’etre.

Redefining “xenophobia” until it describes the biologically successful behaviors of ant-colonies and lion prides is a colloquial misusage that trivializes the term into meaninglessness. Something that Sapiens, and pop-evolutionary-psychology in general, tends to do a lot.

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Are you suggesting that unrealistic/exaggerated/illogical/ inexplicable fears of out groups can’t exist?

No, I’m saying that the concept of an “unrealistic fear of strangers” only has meaning in reference to human psyches.

Well, when people run around claiming that anything that puts preference on ‘us’ vs. 'them as xenophobic, racist, etc. I’d say maybe we need some correction. But you did a little slight of hand there @dOrleans, you went to ant colonies and lion prides. Those aren’t the social groups that Sapiens talks about. You might stretch on Lions but not ants. Ants aren’t social. They are hive mind.

So my point here? When one group claims everything is xenophobic (closing borders to prevent covid) and then reacts to nuance by taking an equally extreme reduction ad nauseum approach down to ants and I think we begin to see why this article was written to begin with :wink:

quote=“Beowulf_Obsidian, post:10, topic:38230”]
When one group claims everything is xenophobic (closing borders to prevent covid) and then reacts to nuance by taking an equally extreme reduction ad nauseum approach down to ants and I think we begin to see why this article was written to begin with
[/quote]

You seem to have me confused with, apparently, some sort of internal gestalt of leftist fallacies. I’m not a leftist, I never even vaguely alluded to any contemporary political issues whatsoever (Though as it happens I’m not against closing borders either during pandemics or out of them), and the only thing I called xenophobic at any point was the boxer rebellion.

There was no sleight of hand, and I didn’t reduce anything to the point of absurdity. I directly responded to the thing you actually wrote, in all its subtlety, with two entirely appropriate examples based on the parameters you explicitly stated. Here’s what that was -

See? No reduction required. And although describing the behavior of chimps as representing “an irrational and excessive fear of outsiders” is equally meaningless, I chose lion prides and ant colonies due to their universal fame as examples of social animals, and because they’re harder to anthropomorphize. Which is a matter of clarification, not obfuscation.

Yes, ants are social. They are not a hive mind, because hive minds don’t actually exist. They’re a sci-fi thing. Ant, or termite or bee, colonies don’t share a directing intelligence, they’re made up of individual organisms that use chemical signals to communicate.

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You mean apart from at certain Big Tech companies?

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