Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia – Review

15 July 2022

A review of George Makari’s Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia (W.W. Norton and Company, 2021).


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “xenophobia” as a “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.” As a university student and young adult, psychiatrist and historian George Makari considered xenophobia to be a term applying mainly to the past, at least in the comfortable New Jersey world in which he grew up as the son of Lebanese immigrants. The young Makari assumed that the proverbial long arc of history was tilting, slowly perhaps but still surely, away from the irrational fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners that the word xenophobia appeared to refer to.



Makari maintained this reassuring view well into his adult years, as he forged his career as a psychiatrist and academic. Then came Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, two illusion-shattering events which, as he writes in Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia, “seemed to contradict assumptions I had held for most of my adult life.” Trying to make sense out of these events led him to reassess his own thoughts about the word xenophobia, dig into the word’s history, and consider its implications and ramifications. The result is a wide-ranging, erudite work that combines intellectual history, psychological analysis, and social commentary.


Makari starts with a study of how the word xenophobia emerged, in French in the late 19th century, then in English and other European languages, and the settings in which it has since been used. French print journalism initially linked the two Greek words, xénos and phobos, in a manner that seemed to be associated with medicine and science, but actually referred to a “new kind of political antipathy,” a “malady called ‘nationalism,’” arising in the context of European colonization and closely related to racism and hostility toward foreigners.


Makari then dons his psychoanalytic hat to explore whether the cluster of attitudes and habits that we group under the word xenophobia tells us anything meaningful about the human character: are there generalizations we can make about why people fall into a fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners? And what about the objects of that fear and hatred—what psychologists and social commentators often lump together as “The Other”? Here, Makari ambitiously presents his own synthesis of the diverse explanations about the nature of xenophobia. In the book’s final portion, he zeroes in on how the word’s history and its psychological implications might assist us in understanding Brexit, Trump, and related contemporary phenomena.


No reader should be surprised to learn that the dictionary definition provides us with at best only a partial understanding of the word xenophobia. Digging deeply below the surface, as Makari has done here, reveals a surfeit of complexity. New words gather new meanings over time, Makari notes. They “grow and mutate … words transform … they suddenly travel and pop up amid new signs and symbols … The story of xenophobia has been of a word that has gone through a series of alternations and migrations.”


As he started his etymological dig, Makari was surprised to learn that the word xenophobia could not be traced to the ancient Greeks.


As he guides us through these alterations and migrations, Makari provides short biographical sketches of numerous thinkers who have in one way or another contributed to our understanding of the word xenophobia. These include such familiar 20th-century figures as Sigmund Freud, Walter Lippman, Richard Wright, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Frantz Fanon. But the lead figure among the luminaries whom Makari portrays is Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Spanish Dominican priest.


Las Casas gained notoriety in his time by calling attention to the barbarity committed on the island of Hispaniola and elsewhere in the Caribbean in the name of the fledgling Spanish Empire. His best-known work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which came out at a time when religious wars were tearing Europe apart, reached a startling conclusion: “everyone should be judged by the same principles; therefore, strangers were not necessarily the enemies of righteousness. We, the Christians, may be.”


As he started his etymological dig, Makari was surprised to learn that the word xenophobia could not be traced to the ancient Greeks, even though it is derived from Greek components, xénos and phobos. Xénos in ancient Greek means “foreigner” or “stranger,” but mostly in a relational sense to a host, like “guest”; phobos means “fear” or “dread.” Yet Malaki could find no indication that the Greeks or their counterparts ever put the two words together. Although much ancient literature has been lost, those who assume that our word xenophobia descended from ancient Greece are “simply wrong” (of course, there are ample examples of Greeks acting in ways we would today describe as xenophobic, many ascribed to Aristotle).


Rather, the emergence of the word xenophobia can be pinpointed to the last third of the 19th century. At a time when medicine was beginning to affix the word “phobia” to a host of disorders, such as “agoraphobia,” which came into use in 1871, and “claustrophobia,” which appeared in 1879, a medical dictionary from this decade defined xenophobia as the “morbid dread of meeting strangers.” But this early usage never caught on. As a medical diagnosis, “xenophobia was a flop, perhaps due to the proliferation of phobias that brought many others into disrepute.”


The triggering event linking the word xenophobia to its modern usages was the “Boxer Rebellion” in Northern China, an uprising that took place between 1899 and 1901 that was the work of young Chinese who began as what Makari terms a “loose cluster of thugs who indulged in looting and thievery,” with the announced mission of attacking and destroying foreigners (they were called “Boxers” because their mastery of Chinese martial arts seemed to Westerners similar to the sport of boxing). In 1900, Makari discovered, a French newspaper reported from Shanghai on an ominous xénophobie movement afoot in China. Three days later, future French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau used the term. French newspapers were soon all over the idea that xénophobie was out of control in China.


In less than a year, the word xénophobie became “part of the French vocabulary.” As news of the Boxer uprising spread, xénophobie migrated to English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other languages, with readers throughout the West suddenly aware of a “new kind of beastly hatred for foreigners” emanating from China. The Boxers “promoted a violent hatred of all those from other lands and made no effort to distinguish the beneficent from the rapacious ones.”


Several European nations joined with the United States and Japan to crush the uprising and topple the Chinese government, but the memory of the rebellion persisted in the age of Western imperialism. It was, Makari writes, “as if cognoscenti around the world awoke from some confusion, and all at the same time fastened to a clarifying word that spelled out something they had vaguely suspected but never named.” In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, xenophobia now referred to an “overheated hatred” of Western foreigners, immigrants, strangers, and travelers.


Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce asked whether the problem was not the ‘yellow’ or ‘black peril,’ but the “white peril.”


By the early 1900s, as European empires stretched across the globe, seeking new markets, cheap resources and forced labor, xenophobia had become a “powerful biopolitical tool tied to science and race.” The term defined who was “primitive” and who was “civilized.” Discrimination against immigrants or minorities was “not based on the ancient notion that the ‘stranger is my enemy’; this was not a phobia, tribalism, or emotional partiality. It was predicated on cold, hard facts.” Thus, the concept of xenophobia “went to work for expanding Western empires.”


As powerful Western nations spread across the globe, journalists, diplomats, and racial scientists linked xenophobia to a “kind of primitivity that afflicted only the colonized, non-Europeans.” In this “up-is-down” world, as Makari aptly terms it, the “primitive hosts were mistreating the civilized immigrants—that is, the Western missionaries, traders and colonists.” ‘Primitive’ “races,” so the conventional wisdom held, were “instinctively fearful of outsiders and perceived all strangers as enemies.” Xenophobia was said to be ingrained in Africans, Asians, and other non-Westerners. But the age of imperialism also gave rise to attacks upon these legitimizing narratives of colonialism.


Writers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, and Mark Twain played lead roles in undercutting the notion that xenophobia was a primitive reaction by non-Westerners. Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce asked whether the problem was not the ‘yellow’ or ‘black peril,’ but the “white peril.” A journalist writing in The Nation coined the term “xenophobic imperialism.” As World War I approached, those seeking to justify beneficent white rule over hostile communities “began to lose their credibility, and were thrown open to accusations of deception, hypocrisy, and the justification of rapacious cruelty.” Much of the world knew by then what las Casas had emphasized in the 16th century—that “behind the moralizing cliches and race science, evil of stunning proportions had transpired.”


Xenophobia thus mutated again, from “being a convenient accusation by Westerners against foreigners to the failure of the ethic of toleration among those Westerners themselves.” The tribulations of minorities and immigrants in Great Britain, France, and the United States, the “supposed standard bearers of liberalism, toleration, and individual rights,” exposed xenophobia as a phenomenon that “thrived in these Western democratic lands.” The term came to be pressed into service, Makari writes, to “make sense of British and French anti-Semites, French haters of Italians, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Chinese Americans, and others who, while championing equality for themselves, seemed all too eager to deny it to others.”


Xenophobia became official state policy when the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s, wrapping into an ideology the virtues of “treating minorities like serfs, or finding ways to dispossess and eliminate them.” As the crimes committed pursuant to this ideology were revealed in all their immensity after the Nazi defeat in 1945, the word xenophobia appeared infuriatingly inadequate. The Nazi crimes seemed to have “broken the back of language itself,” Makari observes. Dismissing Nazi crimes as xenophobia “simply would not do. This was not some mere act of bias against strangers.”


Yet, the Holocaust raised innumerable discomforting questions about human nature, with something akin to xenophobia seeming to be part of the answers: what was the source of the malicious desires that led to mass murder on an unprecedented scale? Where did such inhumane hate come from? Was it something that remained latent in most of us most of the time, but surfaced at times of strain and stress? When and where would it start again? Despite numerous efforts to provide answers to these and related questions, the word xenophobia in the post-World War II era seemed to lurk in the “cracks of history,” Makari writes. The “nature of this beast remained elusive.”


Three major lines of inquiry sought to pin down the elusive beast: the nature of human identity, its relation to emotions like fear and aggression, and the nature of groups. But the three lines became siloed in the post-World War II era; they were separate areas of research and thought, with little interaction between them. There was no theoretician, no one to tell us why or provide “explanations that might make sense of this trouble’s origins and menacing power.” And so it remains. “No grand synthesis or novel paradigm has since emerged.”


Different types of xenophobia?

Makari seeks to fill the void by constructing a synthesis of the diverse explanations about the nature of xenophobia. Drawing upon a host of 20th-century thinkers who proffered their own interpretations, Makari’s proposed synthesis turns on distinctions between “Other anxiety,” overt xenophobia, and covert xenophobia. Other anxiety is a normal and familiar human reaction, one that “can be managed.” Social mixing and integration can diminish conditioned reflexes; unconscious biases can be reworked through relearning. “Dialogue with the Other can restore the capacity for empathy and the possibility of mutual recognition,” he writes. But Other anxiety can slip into overt xenophobia, in which “fear and hatred of the Other has solidified into more than an errant anxiety or a cognitive error.”


Overt xenophobes, Makari notes, “need their villain; they hate the xénos so as to stabilize themselves.” Overt xenophobia is marked by stereotypes that are more rigid than those of Other anxiety, and more difficult to alter. Signs that suggest that an individual’s Other anxiety may be heading toward overt xenophobia include a vanishing capacity to consider interim positions; an inability to tolerate ambivalence; and the loss of a capacity for guilt. In-between arguments are “swept aside as weak. Shaming the offender only provokes rage. Sadism is prominent in overt xenophobia.” If the social conditions are right, xenophobic groups can grow quickly. The “ameliorative effects that quell Other anxiety fail here … Exposure and habituation with this population go nowhere.”


Makari cites the famous pediatrician and Vietnam War critic Dr. Benjamin Spock as having found a promising potential answer to overt xenophobia. Social groups that emulate Spock’s call for less harsh, shame-driven forms of child rearing, Makari suggests, “may be less prone to authoritarian solutions.” Radical egalitarianism, he goes on to argue, poses the greatest threat to xenophobia. Toleration must be a rule for all, not simply a liberal value. We “therefore confront bigotry while offering acceptance to all, except those who, as Karl Popper argued, would destroy toleration.”


Xenophobia is “not literally an illness”; it cannot be reduced to “some genetic defect or neural pathology”


Covert xenophobia, by definition, “operates in the shadows.” One of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s principal insights was that highly socialized and accepted forms of xenophobia “disappear into norms, conventions, and discourses” of any given society. Resistance to change then becomes a defense of xenophobia. No individual need take responsibility for covert xenophobia. “Rule-based dictums inscribe hierarchies, logical relations and differentials, all of which support discrimination against the degraded group.” The trap of covert xenophobia ensnares “not just France’s anti-Semites, American racists, colonizers, patriarchal men, and homophobes but, in ways hard to acknowledge, you and me,” Makari writes.


Makari does not need to embrace the full implications of covert xenophobia to reach his conclusion—the synthesis of his synthesis—that xenophobia is a “form of darkness” that lurks in the “most destructive corner of the everyday mind.” Xenophobia is “not literally an illness”; it cannot be reduced to “some genetic defect or neural pathology”; it is not “hardwired in some subset of the human population.” Rather, and more disturbingly, it is “part of the psychic violence of everyday life.”


The word xenophobia, Makari finds, is sufficiently sturdy—both broad enough and specific enough—to embrace such manifestations of stranger hatred as ethnocentrism, ultranationalism, racism, misogyny, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia. By recovering the word’s rich past, he argues, and by “examining the numerous concepts of stranger hatred to which it is linked, we may repurpose this term so that it serves to organize and promote attempts at synthesis.”


Makari’s intrepid effort to construct a synthesis around diverse interpretations of the word xenophobia might have seemed like an interesting academic exercise in the 1990s.  But the election of Donald Trump in 2016, a “would-be demagogue” who seemed to be “searching for whatever negative stereotypes of the Other would stick,” led him and many others to discover “to our shock that a startling number had done just that.”


Makari’s suggestion that 2016 was the year when he awoke to realize that xenophobia had not been confined to the dustbin of history need not be taken literally. Events such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the worldwide economic downturn of 2008, and the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, he acknowledges, allowed overt xenophobes to emerge from the shadows to vilify minorities and vulnerable groups as the alien Other.


The words racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment did not quite capture what had been happening earlier in the 21st century, Makari contends. The word xenophobia may suffice, he suggests, in no small part because it is not “some antiquated, classical term.” Rather, xenophobia is “our word,” a point he drives home convincingly in this deeply serious yet eminently readable work.

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