November 9, 2021
EP. 130 — What is Xenophobia Exactly? with George Makari
Human beings have long been afraid of the “other.” But is this fear ingrained in our psyche, or a product of our surroundings? And where does the word even come from? To answer, on the show this week is historian and psychiatrist George Makari. Check out his book Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia, at http://factuallypod.com/books
130 — What is Xenophobia Exactly? with George Makari
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello and welcome to Factually. My name is Adam Conover. Thank you once again for joining me as I talk to another amazing expert from around the world of human knowledge about all the amazing shit that they know, that I don’t know and that you probably don’t know. My mind is going to be blown. Your mind is going to be blown. Our minds are going to be blown together. Today we are going to talk about xenophobia. See, humankind always seems to have a deep seated aversion to the other. We have a story that we tell ourselves about where this came from, a folk understanding of it. It goes something like this: long ago, in the cave person years, we used to live in tribes and those on the outside of our tribe were defacto threats. In the world of scarce resources and saber toothed everything, it made sense for our ancestors to pick up a club and bonk first, ask questions later. That story continues: to the way we talk about ancient civilizations from Rome to China, which often saw people from other places as barbarians that needed to be defeated. But is it really the case that xenophobia (that fear of the other) is somehow ingrained? Or is it something that we’ve learned; that we’ve taught ourselves culturally? It’s a worthwhile question to ask because over the last few decades, we’ve become an ever more global, ever more integrated society. Many of us have now been brought up with the idea that diversity, that being around people who are not like you in various ways, is an objectively positive thing. Beyond just being inherently interesting, other people have histories and knowledge that are useful to us. And also they are people, we’ve come to understand. People who are worthy of dignity and respect, the same as we are. But of course, this kumbayah vision of cosmopolitan acceptance is also pretty new, and it seems like the pendulum is now (sadly) swinging in the opposite direction. Immigration is now a hot-button issue in practically every country around the world, seemingly. Huge elections like Brexit and the US presidential election in 2016 have hinged on a heightened xenophobic fervor. So where, we have to ask, does the urge to demonize others come from? How old is it? And is it innate? Well, to answer our guest today is George Makari. He’s a historian and a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, and his most recent book, ‘Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia’ is out now. Please welcome George Makari. All right, George, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:02:57] Thanks for having me.
Speaker 1 [00:02:58] So let’s jump right in to the topic of your book, where does the term ‘xenophobia’ come from and what is the history of it?
Speaker 2 [00:03:06] Well, if I could give you a one sentence answer to that, I wouldn’t have written the book.
Speaker 1 [00:03:10] Fair enough.
Speaker 2 [00:03:13] Honestly, everyone thought they had a very simple answer. It was supposed to come from antiquity. There are two Greek roots, so everyone thought some wise fellow back in fourth century BC Greece put ‘xenos’ and ‘phobos’ together, and they came up with this thing that we know is a very old problem of enemies being strangers, strangers being enemies. It turns out none of that was true. So the story I ended up telling is one of a journey; where I try to sort out exactly your question, and it takes me on a lot of false turns. But then finally, it turns out that the term ‘xenophobia’ is pretty modern really comes from this phase of globalization in the late 19th century. So that was really surprising.
Speaker 1 [00:03:57] Wait, so did people not fear strangers as enemies before that? Is that a relatively new phenomenon as well as a word?
Speaker 2 [00:04:08] No, I think it’s probably a very, very old phenomenon and you can do just so stories about cavemen and intruders and stuff like that. I kind of don’t get involved in that. I think a lot of that can get pretty silly. But no, I think from the written record of certainly the western world, the Greeks thought anyone who spoke a different language were barbarians, which is what they called them. So the idea that strangers were enemies is a really old idea. The thing about xenophobia that’s different, is it starts to frame that equation as a problem; as immoral and as maybe pathological. That’s why it’s a phobia. Interestingly, that’s when we start to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. In a globalizing world, if we treat all the strangers as enemies then we’re going to be at war all the time. Maybe this is a really bad problem we have.’
Speaker 1 [00:04:59] I see, so it’s actually the opposite? It’s not that the phenomenon of fearing strangers is new, but our concept of that as a problem, as something that we would want to correct, that’s unique to our most recent century or so of globalization. That makes a lot of sense.
Speaker 2 [00:05:17] Yeah, that’s exactly right. I started to argue the need for a moral break on this; a psychological way of thinking about why we might be afraid but shouldn’t becomes really critical as the world gets flatter. And that’s a problem we’re facing now in spades.
Speaker 1 [00:05:39] Why is this something that you wanted to focus a whole book on? What is the importance of this topic?
Speaker 2 [00:05:45] Oh, just because it’s everywhere. That’s a glib answer, but in 2016, I was just looking for a new book topic and I was in London promoting my last book, and all my friends were talking about this weird thing called ‘Brexit.’ I really didn’t know much about it. They told me that there was no way it was going to pass, and I told them, ‘Don’t worry, Donald Trump’s not going to win. There’s no way.’ So we all turned out to be very wrong, and suddenly this word ‘xenophobia’ is all over the place. It sounds a little bit shrinky; I’m a psychiatrist and a historian, so I thought, ‘Well, let’s look into this word.’
Speaker 1 [00:06:24] Yeah. What are the most fascinating things you discovered about it when you were doing this investigation?
Speaker 2 [00:06:31] The first thing was, the shock that this was a story that had been missed for so long. That there’s no history of xenophobia, because everyone thought it went back to antiquity. The second was that the first usages were pretty esoteric; at one short period where it was maybe a diagnosis. That was when psychiatrists were going crazy with phobias and came up with a hundred different kinds, but that died rather relatively rapidly.
Speaker 1 [00:07:04] They thought you literally could have been diagnosed with xenophobia at one point?
Speaker 2 [00:07:08] Yeah. Well, ‘phobophobia’ is my favorite. That’s a fear of being afraid. There were a litany until people finally said, ‘Actually the people who are crazy here are the psychiatrist because they had 75 different phobias.’ So that died really quickly. Then there was another one that was about nationalism and ultra nationalism, also really idiosyncratic. I had to dig hard to find those. But then the really shocking thing, was that the way the term went viral was in a xenophobic way. It was a racist term that imperialists used to describe why colonized inferior people would rebel against them; why they wouldn’t accept the benefits of the civilization that the Westerners were bringing, it was because they were inferior and had this primitive, irrational fear of strangers that they called xenophobia, and that went viral. All the colonizers suddenly worried about this problem until it kind of does a U-turn and comes back to the colonizers themselves.
Speaker 1 [00:08:18] Wow. So when the term was first popularized, it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you rich industrialist in Britain or Europe or whatever, you shouldn’t be so afraid of people from the Far East who you’re frightened of.’ It was literally like, ‘Hey, why are all these people who we’re exploiting and enslaving hate us so much? Oh, it’s because they’ve got a phobia of people who aren’t like them. They’re uncivilized. They’ve got some brute psychological problem that we need to overcome, that we in the civilized world don’t have.’ That’s it? That is wild.
Speaker 2 [00:08:54] That was wild, and it was shocking. I thought, ‘I’m doing this history of this high minded concept and from the get go it is used in this weird brute power.’ The Chinese boxers were the first ones who were called xenophobic, but then the North Africans, the Arabs, the Africans, the Latin Americans, the Mexicans, all these different people suddenly were being accused of ‘Must be irrational, that they don’t want their land confiscated and their people indentured.’ It’s crazy. It shows you how the blinders were so intense in imperialism. The irony of this soon became clear to a whole bunch of moralists who said, ‘No way. This isn’t just about them. This is about us.’
Speaker 1 [00:09:49] Wow, OK. But that makes me wonder. I don’t often use the term ‘xenophobia,’ but I would know (if I was to use it) who I was going to use it about. Say a Brexiteer, as they say, who says, ‘Oh no, who are all these horrible people coming in?’ Is that a similar judgment that I’m making? That presupposes a lot as well, about what is natural and what is unnatural. It makes me wonder if my own frame for understanding this concept is a little bit convenient to me, in the same way that it was convenient to those colonizers.
Speaker 2 [00:10:25] Yeah. Look, that’s a very thoughtful comment and I think that is the the lesson of that early start of xenophobia is; we have to be careful about how we use these terms. If we’re not to hollow them out and make them all utterly useless and simply finger pointing or name-calling, we have to be clear about why we’re using it and what it means. I devote a lot of the book to, ‘Hey, how do you know it’s xenophobia and not your own prejudice? How do you know it’s xenophobia and not economic interests by rational economic actors?’ That’s one of the big arguments, or sane attempts to repel cultural invasion. Again, economic and cultural factors are often the ways that people explain away xenophobia. I say we have to take them seriously. They’re frequently not the case, but we have to take those arguments seriously. But once you say, ‘OK, wait, this isn’t really an economic threat. There are 10,000 people that you brought from Afghanistan.’ There is, symbolically, a threat. They’re not going to overwhelm your culture, those 10,000 people. That’s symbolically a threat. Now we feel comfortable that we’re in the land of xenophobia, not things that could be more adequately explained without irrational phobias.
Speaker 1 [00:11:48] I see. So if I was going to talk about immigration, having studied immigration in America a lot. Specifically, immigration over our southwestern border. The striking thing is, when you learn about it, you learn that people have been crossing that border ever since the industrial revolution in America to work. That’s literally been the basis of a huge swath of American agriculture and industry. We had the Bracero program, in which we invited migrant workers. Migrant laborers crossing that border has been happening for hundreds of years. The framing of ‘Oh these folks are coming to take our jobs’ is not true because this is a job that’s only ever been done by this sort of person, by people crossing that border. So I get what you’re saying: if we eliminate those other things, we can say, ‘OK, maybe that’s xenophobia.’ But that leads me to the question of do you draw a distinction between xenophobia and racism in your work? Because the more I think about it, the more I feel like those are things extremely tightly linked.
Speaker 2 [00:12:49] Yeah. I argue that they’re a bunch of different terms that we have to sort through: racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism and so on. We have a lot of terms that name the victims and they seem to be, often, separate spheres. It’s not 100 percent clear how they’re all connected. I argue that xenophobia actually is qualitatively different, because it focuses on the victimizers and it really redirects us towards these people, who a lot of studies have shown that the choice of their object for bias is whatever the society gives them: they’re happy to be anti-Semitic if they’re in Europe and happy to be racist if they’re in America, and they might be both. So I argue that there’s a potential risk in seeing all of those as different silos. There’s this really observant but sad comment by this guy, Frantz Fanon, who was a black French psychiatrist. He went over to Algeria, where he got a job, and he said he realized something: the French hate the Jews, who hate the Arabs, who hate the blacks. And of course, we can just imagine the circle to keep going. I thought there had to be a unifying way of thinking about these kinds of prejudices. Xenophobia points us to the fear of the stranger, which stranger is an important historical question. Different societies and cultures will throw up different scapegoats and different minorities. Race certainly is the central one in America, I would argue.
Speaker 1 [00:14:37] Wow, OK. That is really interesting, because we often think of racism in America as being the uber prejudice; the thing that motivates all these other things. But you’re right, if you talk to somebody who’s racist, well, that person is probably not that big a fan of trans people. Or at least those things maybe go together or that those would be co morbid, as issues.
Speaker 2 [00:15:06] Exactly. Well, by the time the 50’s came along, people had done the studies. The studies were right after World War Two, so they were intent on finding where anti-Semitism lived. Then the researchers realized, ‘We have to open up the category because the same people who are anti-Semitic are ultra nationalist, authoritarians, and racists. So the category of antisemitism actually isn’t pure. It doesn’t hold. We have to think about these things in a broader bucket because these people dislike a lot of folks.
Speaker 1 [00:15:39] Ah, so xenophobia is the name we might give to the underlying cause of someone feeling that way about all these different groups? Yeah, this is ultimately fear of the stranger fear, of someone who’s not like you. That could explain why some people are very prejudiced against disabled folks, right? Because I see someone and think, ‘Oh, this person doesn’t walk like me. This person doesn’t move like me.’ It sort of all comes together on one bucket. I see. That’s really interesting.
Speaker 2 [00:16:15] Yeah, that’s my argument. That xenophobia is not just about immigrants, which I think it is the narrow definition. When you look at the history, it’s been used to really refer to a lot of different kinds of strangers and that if we think of it that way, it really opens us up to thinking about what the commonalities are here, what is going on here underneath the hood that makes for this problem? It takes the focus off the victimized group and says, ‘Yeah, there may be whole grades of problem;’ like everything from simple problems: everyone is a little nervous with a stranger. OK, we have dialog, we have communication. We have ways of figuring out whether they’re dangerous or not. That’s just part of life. That’s just ontological (that’s the big fancy word), and then we have a little bit more if they don’t speak the same language and they don’t have the same customs and we have to figure out ways to manage stereotypes, and that is also kind of in the middle ground. Then all the way over here, the most extreme, are people who are fundamentally committed. Their personality is built around hating a degraded other. Those are the most committed xenophobes. Those are people who might look like violent anti-Semites in Germany and are really deeply racists in America, but they have the same underlying problem.
Speaker 1 [00:17:53] Hmm. So man, there’s a lot to unpack in that last answer. The first one that I have, let’s start with the first thing that you said. Do you feel that the xenophobia is something that we share in common? That’s it’s part of the human condition in any way, because I’ve certainly have experienced in my life, seeing somebody who was unlike me in a way and having a reaction and then having to reconsider that reaction, saying, ‘Wait, why did I have a negative reaction to this person, to sharing a subway car to passing them?’ You know what I mean? Why did I clench up or look away or whatever my reaction was? That’s something that I feel that I’ve unlearned or taught myself not to do, especially the more that I start to live around other folks. That made me think, ‘OK, is that an innate reaction in people to the other;’ of the person who’s different than your identity or folks who grew up around? Is that something that you feel is universal?
Speaker 2 [00:18:54] I do. I think that children have stranger anxiety that they grow out of when they learn language. I think we all have a modicum of anxiety around someone whose mind we can’t read, what’s going on in his head. And if I don’t understand his customs, if I can’t assume that he or she is like me, I get a little bit more nervous. I think that’s part of the human condition. I think we have a lot of customs and ways of trying to manage it, but it’s part of the human condition and you could say that is the lowest grade of – I call it, ‘other anxiety’ because I say maybe we shouldn’t use the word xenophobia for that. That’s kind of ‘other anxiety.’ That even includes having implicit biases that are due to cultural stereotypes; that if I’m not deeply committed to that stereotype, I just happen to live in a culture that taught me that. If you ask me to rethink it, I’m like, ‘Sure, why would I rethink it?’ and you tell me why. That’s not the same thing as being deeply committed to hating a different group and degrading them. But these are all, you could say, grades of xenophobia from zero to 10. I think it’s really important to make these distinctions because there are different remedies for these different problems. Some of them are human, so we shouldn’t mix up what’s human with what is very, very difficult and pathological and hard to manage. Which are these deeply, deeply committed, hard core haters.
Speaker 1 [00:20:28] Yeah. So even if this is something that we individually carry with us, to some degree or are born with and can unlearn that sort of – I heard a good term, actually. In relation to animals, ‘neophobia,’ have you heard of that? This is something that describes horses. Also, I would say my dog. Where if there’s something new, they are frightened of it. My girlfriend has a horse, so if there’s something new in her stall then the horse just doesn’t like it, no matter what it is. That’s just very basically imprinted in these animals, I can think of something similar in humans. We’ve got a little thing that we got to get over about new things or different things, especially as relates to people. But there are also folks who, as you say, are committed to that point of view. Who are embrace it, who live in that world and so let’s talk about those folks. I think we all know that such people exist, and we’ve probably all known some people who are gleefully hateful or frightened of others and embrace that. Why do people embrace it? Is it something that is born into certain people? Or is it something that is taught, is it learned? Very deep questions on this podcast right now.
Speaker 2 [00:21:53] Let’s go back to your dog. Let’s start with your dog, because that’s one model, and that model is basically Pavlov. It is a model for xenophobia and for racism, and you could think about how people get startled by novel threats and have a little bit of a fight or flight reaction, which then locks in. Watson was the guy who put this on the map of the behaviorist model. For instance, you talk to a subject: a Caucasian woman, who says that a Chinese man chased her through the woods when I was a little girl, I was terrified. Ever since then, I’ve hated the Chinese. That’s one model for what happens with your dog and your horse, right? And the good news is, we know how to fix that. We know how to fix that, it’s called desegregation. Behaviorists have terms for it, habituation and exposure. But it means that you put the dog with the horse again and again and again and again and then again and after a while, they’re going to realize like, ‘This isn’t such a novel threat. The dog doesn’t bother me. The horse doesn’t bother me. Actually, we might be friends.’ That works. That’s desegregation: you put people like this woman from before with a whole bunch of Chinese folks, working and playing and loving with those people. And you know what? She’s going to stop hating Chinese people and she’s going to stop being so fearful of them. So that’s one model, that is if we distinguished that then we know what to do about it. Now the second group you talked about, they don’t operate like that. You can put them together with the group that they hate, and it doesn’t go away. This really begs the question of ‘why?’ And for the answer to that, we have to go to psychoanalysis; because Freud and his followers started to say, ‘Hey, there are these folks [and you used the word] that are giddy with hatred, that they’re ecstatic with it, that there’s something that’s a great relief about hating this degraded other.’ The answer, in the simplest way to put it, is the concept of projection. That these people have shame and guilt that they cannot tolerate internally. And they projected onto some minority that their culture throws up for them and feels so relieved, so serene, so stabilized by the fact that all of that is out there and not in here. That’s the upside of projection. That’s the upside of hatred; is actually it’s much more easy to live with yourself. And so, those folks can go to those bias trainings at work, they can watch movies that upends stereotypes. They won’t watch the movie. They won’t listen to the anti-bias training. They are committed. They have a great upside in hating. So that’s a tougher problem: about what we do with subcultures of shame that then start to try to relieve themselves with racist solutions or white superiority and things of that sort.
Speaker 1 [00:25:10] Well, now why do some people do that and some people don’t? I remember right around Trump’s election, there was a lot of talk about the (you probably will know it better than I) idea of there being an authoritarian mindset or personality. That some people (and I never really knew how to take this, if I agreed with it or not) but that some people have innate gravity towards authoritarian leaders, authoritarian ways of thinking. And that had some resonance for me. I think about the fact that some people like to be told what to do and they like to say, ‘I like a strong leader’ and they want to see the villains punished. That had some resonance. Is it something like that? When you’re born, do they roll the dice and say, ‘Well, here’s how susceptible you are to that sort of hardcore xenophobic thinking?’ I know what I can solve ‘nature versus nurture’ right here on this show. But I’m curious about your view as to that. Why are some people that way and some or not?
Speaker 2 [00:26:17] You know, look, it’s a great question. It’s an empirical question. So I don’t think we can answer it today. But I would say that there’s a lot of indicators that temperament by itself, which is what you get genetically, doesn’t dictate whether you are prone to authoritarianism or not. They’re shy temperaments. They’re more assertive temperaments. There might be a little bit of a contributing factor there, possibly, but folks really have looked at authoritarian families. That’s a look at why kids living in authoritarian households become both attracted to authoritarians later in life and very attracted to hating minorities who are weak, pathetic losers, i.e., they’ve projected that from their own childhood onto someone else and are attracted to authoritarians. So that’s the most sophisticated model. A lot of people just throw around the term, and as you say, suggests that there’s a thing called ‘the authoritarian personality’ that just is there. I don’t think there’s any evidence that it’s there from the get go, but there is a lot of evidence that more authoritarian cultures create more authoritarians. More authoritarians at home and at the kitchen table, create kids who are attracted to, and shamed by,l their experience with authoritarians.
Speaker 1 [00:27:54] Hmm. This is all so fascinating, but we gotta take a really quick break. We’ll be right back with more George Makari. OK, we’re back with George Makari. Before we jump in and talk about xenophobia more, I’m just curious about one thing: because I’ve heard you mentioned a couple of times, your sources and the material that you’re drawing from for this work. You’ve mentioned psychiatry, you mentioned Freud, you mentioned Adorno. And then you’ve also mentioned studies, evidence, that sort of thing. I’m just curious about, this is frankly my first time having on the show, someone coming from that sort of tradition of thought. Why psychiatry specifically as a background? Well, I guess that’s what you do. But what do you think it brings to the study of this phenomenon that say, someone from a cognitive psych background (or something) might not have?
Speaker 2 [00:29:05] Yeah, look, I wear two hats: I’m mostly a historian of ideas and a psychiatrist, and I’ve always kind of done both. The psychiatrist part of me, I think, allows me to really have a sense of what is an important and a less important idea; vis-a-vis psychological explanations. Those things I’ve studied in depth, and I think I have a sense of what counts as a major theory and what doesn’t. That was really helpful, because there are a million different ideas out there. To write a book, you have to be pretty strict about what you include and what you don’t include, and you have to have a rationale for it. So I think I was able to write a book that’s not 900 pages and encyclopedic, but rather more directed and tries to really edit out things that are secondary from things that are primary. In part because as a psychiatrist I had a sense of those things; from , working with patients, teaching students, studying these different things myself.
Speaker 1 [00:30:14] Cool. OK, well, let’s jump back in and talking about xenophobia. As you said, it’s become very much a hot-button word over the last couple of years in some circles. Do you feel that anything has changed about xenophobia itself over the last few decades, or is it really just our reaction to it? Right. Are people clutching their pearls a little bit more and saying, ‘Look at all this xenophobia,’ because it’s suddenly more apparent? Or is there actually a change in the prevalence of this phenomenon?
Speaker 2 [00:30:49] Yeah, I think there’s a change in the prevalence. It’s not simply the last couple of years. If you look at Google Ngram and track the word, you see that there is this explosive growth that happens after 1989. So the word kind of isn’t as important after 1945 as genocide, as the Holocaust, as antisemitism. If it’s not the same as anti-Semitism, xenophobia is kind of a second tier problem (or it seems that way). After 1989, it goes through the roof: there’s this graph that looks like it suddenly just takes to the skies and hasn’t stopped. European scholars were talking about what they called the ‘new xenophobia’ in the 90’s. And so I really try to think about what happened. It’s not 2008, it’s happened before that and it’s not 2016. It happened before that. What happened? So I start to argue that the end of the Cold War, actually, is the critical event that has created a lot of anxiety: about identity, about nationalist identities, about tribal identities. That these super national identities of ‘I’m part of the red, white and blue’ or ‘I’m part of the red’ collapsed with the end of the Cold War. And as much as that was a great victory for America, it’s cause trouble for us and for Europe. Yugoslavia was the great tragedy, but there could have been 20 more Yugoslavia, I argue, if it wasn’t for the EU emerging and bringing people in to a more European identity and a globalist identity. I think that saved a lot of civil wars and nationalist wars. I can’t prove it, but I think it did. But xenophobia really still kicked up, and has been kicking up in the United States more and more. So that now without a common enemy, the Soviet Union, the right and the left have started to look at each other as enemies.
Speaker 1 [00:33:11] Hmm. OK. I have a million questions about this. My first one is why would the end of the Cold War result in more xenophobia? I think what I’m piecing together from what you just said, is that once the big external enemy is gone and you can no longer do the Orwellian five minutes of hate against a big imaginary enemy that’s far away. You start looking closer to home. Is that it?
Speaker 2 [00:33:41] That’s partially it: that a common enemy or external enemy (everyone knows) unites a populace and gives them a kind of sense of purpose. But I just started with the empirical fact. If you do research about the usage of the term ‘xenophobia,’ it goes through the roof after 1989. So I started with that and then I had to try to explain why. Well, when you look at it, the end of the Soviet Union means that there are now 30 different new nations who are struggling for identity. Between (usually there are) two forces: ultra nationalists who want to go back to old traumas, and ‘We are not like the little one next to us that we used to all be part of a bigger thing. But we are not them because of some old trauma or some some exaggerated difference.’ Versus those who said, ‘You know what, we want to be part of the EU. There are a lot of goodies if we create democracy and we don’t go down that ultra nationalist road’ that you’re talking about, which would have been xenophobia: the ultra nationalists need an enemy. That’s how they define what’s inside and outside, what’s us and what’s them. The pro-European groups in these countries mostly won because there was so much economic upside to joining the EU, that being part of that broader identity (which did not require an enemy) after 1990 in a lot of places was very, very compelling. So that is part of what happened in Europe with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think what happened in the United States is a slightly different story. What you had here was: a world where it’s now the new world order. There’s one great superpower. It’s us. We don’t have a common enemy. There’s one historian who’s argued the collapse of the Roman Empire happened after they defeated their arch rival, who they had been at war with for three decades. This militaristic culture that had been built around an enemy, started to collapse because it turned into a country filled with civil war. It’s a disturbing analogy, and it’s one that I don’t think is exact. But you could look at the tribal hatred inside America and the lack of of compromise, and the vilification of people who are on the other end of the political spectrum and the polarization and look and see parallels. If you’re a cold warrior at the end of the Cold War, what the hell do you do? That was your identity. That was your political a to grind. You’re screwed. You’ve got to find someone else. They found someone else.
Speaker 1 [00:36:32] You know, there’s also some resonances there with the theory that you often hear, at least that I’ve often heard about, as an explanation for political polarization in America. That in the forties and fifties (and maybe even a little bit of the sixties) we had a lot of bipartisan work done in Congress; we had Democrats and Republicans that are ideologically heterogeneous and they would get together and work on things. That Republican liberals are getting together with Democratic liberals, etc. The story is ‘Well that’s because they were keeping black Americans down the entire time. They had a common enemy, in that regard.’ Then after the civil rights movement, that was the beginning of the splintering of these groups. I don’t know if that tracks for you, but it’s certainly what it makes me think of. That there was a racial hegemony that was upheld and that once it started to break down, there was no longer a common person to hate for our white lawmakers as well.
Speaker 2 [00:37:38] Yeah, no. I think that’s a very good point. I tread lightly on these notions of what happened after 1989. It’s one chapter in my book, and I don’t pretend that it is conclusive. So I did feel like it was incumbent upon me to try to say something about what was happening to us now, even though it’s tentative and even though (surely) it’s multifactorial. But yeah, I think that’s a very good point. The civil rights movement and the way that the Democratic and Republican parties kind of sorted after that. I think is compelling, given the argument you just made.
Speaker 1 [00:38:23] The only thing I have to push back on, though, on the argument that you made (if you don’t mind) is that I still notice that even when there is that common enemy or that coming together, you still have xenophobia poking through, right? During the Cold War, there were communist witch hunts in America that were extremely destructive. My industry, here in the entertainment industry, as much as anywhere else with the blacklist and the fight against the labor unions being ‘infested with communists,’ or whatever. And then in Europe, the rise of the EU also led to Brexit, right? There wouldn’t have been a Brexit if there hadn’t been an EU, to a certain extent.
Speaker 2 [00:39:10] Yeah, I think you could say that, but I think that would miss the point of 20 years of the EU and what it was able to accomplish. The fact that many years later, it’s in trouble, I think is indicative of what’s happening now, not what was happening back then.
Speaker 1 [00:39:30] I see.
Speaker 2 [00:39:30] Back then, there was a way that it really diminished the possibility of of nationalist wars in the former Soviet Union states. This is a fifty thousand foot view in one chapter of my book that really that really does – I’m trying to engage people in conversation about this and create more dialog, more nuanced insight. This isn’t a book that ends up with a final period and says, ‘Ta da. That’s it.’ Fixing these problems is really deviously difficult. Some of them will never go away and it’s a matter of managing them, diminishing them. Healthy societies diminish these kinds of hatreds. They don’t eliminate them. And really unhealthy ones do terrible, terrible, terrible things. So I’m trying to think about this in a way that allows for more nuance. But there is so much more work to be done.
Speaker 1 [00:40:34] Well, let’s move to somewhere else in the world quickly, because I’ve been studying the history of China over the last year or so. I know you wrote about the Boxer Rebellion and events like that in China. How did xenophobia express itself in that nation?
Speaker 2 [00:40:52] That was a period of time around 1900, where the Chinese empire was really collapsing. The Qing Dynasty was failing and the way that manifested itself, was that a whole bunch of European powers were gobbling up its properties and its domains. There were Germans and French and British and of course, the Japanese. So they’re kind of shaky, and what happens in the northwest province of Qigong is that boxers emerge. Their motto is really to kill all these strangers. They want to get rid of them all. So this elicits a war; where all these global powers get together and crush them. But it also elicits a sense that there is discontent in the populace in China. Interestingly, the boxers become kind of rehabilitated by the Chinese communists later on as a kind of peasant revolution. Their fate after they were crushed, for the history of China, becomes a very important story. It’s not one I wrote about, but it is fascinating to track.
Speaker 1 [00:42:13] Got it! OK. When we’re talking about this term, where does it come from? What is the source of the term itself?
Speaker 2 [00:42:22] Yeah. So as I said, I found some really esoteric ways that it was used, ways that we’re surely headed for the historical dustbin and then it takes off in France in 1900. First in one newspaper and then, suddenly, all the newspapers. The Chinese Boxers are referred to as ‘le xenophobe’ and again and again and again it goes. So I found this, I was sure it was right. No one else talked about it, so I was a little bit worried about that. But who coined the term? How did actually this term get coined? It seems to be a neologism. It’s a neo Grecian term. Someone came up with it. At that point, what I knew was; articles in French newspapers like this were not signed. A dispatch, it said, had come in from Shanghai. So a dispatch had come in to (someone who sat perhaps at the Reuters desk or something like that) a stenographer or someone who then translated it and sent it out in French to first the French newspapers and then the world. So I’m thinking, ‘OK, there’s a guy right at the center of this web. I don’t know who the heck he is, but I’ll never find him.’ There’s just no way. I mean, how do you find a needle in a haystack? And then I found the needle and that really that blew my mind. I found this letter to an editor in The Globe in London. This cranky guy, kind of narcissistic and the kind of guy who loves to correct other people’s grammar. He wrote them a letter saying they had used this term incorrectly. It was a French derogatory term about Germans. That hey didn’t know the roots of it and the roots were this, and it went back to the Latin. And you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s insufferable.’ And then he says in the next paragraph (as an aside), ‘The way words get adopted into languages is quite a fascinating thing. A few years ago in France, I coined the term xenophobe, and now it’s in all the encyclopedias.’ And I went, ‘What?’ So this guy was the stenographer for Reuters. I could place him in Paris when these things were coming in over the wire. It’s this fascinating story about technological change – Because they’ve now got wires and even telephones, that are communicating globally. He then sends it out through that same communications network, he’s right at the center of it. So I dug up a lot (as much as I could) on him. But it was a really interesting story because one of the things that’s so parallel to us right now, is that globalization was happening because of novel communication technologies, as well as capacity to move ideas and troops and products across the world. The world was getting smaller and this was (in a way) such a beautiful microcosm for how the world getting smaller creates fear and creates conflict, as well as a more unified human community.
Speaker 1 [00:45:49] Yeah. When you find something like that, as a historian, what does that feel like? It’s probably like what a zoologist feels like when they discover a new species of bird, or something. You’re like, ‘Oh my God, I found the guy who coined the thing.’
Speaker 2 [00:46:04] Yeah, and no one knows. No one knows, except for me. It’s very weird feeling. No one knows this. I just found it. No one knows who this guy is. This is such a weird – You know, you feel kind of lonely at that moment. You’re like, ‘Whoa, this is weird. I shouldn’t be the only person who knows this.’ If he hadn’t written this weird letter kind of slightly bragging about himself, no one would know it.
Speaker 1 [00:46:32] But is your next thought, ‘Well, no one’s going to believe me.’
Speaker 2 [00:46:38] Precisely. My thought first is, ‘I don’t believe me.’ That’s where your scholarly chops come in and you do every possible thing you can to batten down the hatches: where was this guy when that first wire went out? Oh, he has an ad in the newspaper advertising for his services that say he’s in Paris at this street at this time. OK, was Reuters really the place where that these people got their information from? What newspapers got it right? I did the best I could. I would say that I convinced myself and I laid out the evidence for others. The other thing I thought was, ‘Why would anyone lie about something no one cares about except for George Makari, like, 140 years later?’ He’s not going to get any money for this, he’s not going to a prestige. So it would be a very odd thing to brag about, if it was a lie.
Speaker 1 [00:47:31] Yeah. Wow. Well, congratulations to you, and I hope your discovery stands the test of time.
Speaker 2 [00:47:38] I do, too.
Speaker 1 [00:47:39] Maybe at the next conference, a whole bunch of historians will wag their fingers at you. But it sounds like you did your due diligence. That’s incredible, and it’s also fascinating to me that the term came from these communication networks becoming prevalent so that we could communicate faster and that it came from a European looking at the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxer Rebellion was certainly an example of xenophobia, I think we have to call it that. But that it came from someone looking at strangers and strangers coming into into connection with each other. That is really fascinating.
Speaker 2 [00:48:21] Right, exactly. It does beg your first question; which is the ethical responsibility before you use the word xenophobic, is to recognize that the people that you’re looking at as strangers are probably looking at you as a stranger too. Who gets to call whom a stranger might be a matter of power, not just moral or psychologically sound reasoning. That’s why I think that there’s a kind of responsibility that goes along with these terms to not misuse them, because they’re really important. The tradition that I found of people who established xenophobia, prehistory of it going back to Bartholomew Las Cosas who who called out his own brothers and sisters and what they the Spanish were doing in the new world. To Lemkin, who coined the term ‘genocide.’ Lemkin says, ‘We stand in a tradition that starts with Las Cosas,’ and he marches it out. This is a hugely important part of our inheritance. Our inheritance is not just racism and stranger hatred, it’s also these folks who stood up against it and tried to create an ethic that said, ‘This is wrong, this is evil. This will destroy societies.’ So I try to really lay out this string of folks who, very bravely, pointed the finger at their own people. Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement. There is a list of people that we want to think of the challenges they face because we face the same challenges.
Speaker 1 [00:50:06] Wow. That’s an inspiring vision. What are we then do, if we fear that we live in an age where there’s more xenophobia (or more fear of the other) in our own society? What do, other than wagging our finger at and just saying, ‘Oh, people shouldn’t be that way?’ Which we’ve been doing for at least a century now, with mixed results. How do we affect it in our daily lives?
Speaker 2 [00:50:38] Yeah, I think that depends on the scale and level of the problem. The simplest problem with strangers and the word that is commonly used is recognition: you don’t turn them into a thing, you allow their subjectivity to be alongside your subjectivity and that allows for the possibility of mutual recognition. Not one group turning the other group into categories and things. The second is, we know that we live with categories in our heads of groups of people. Those are called stereotypes. We all have them. In America, I argue that we inherit our culture, which is divided and often torn between emancipatory and quite opposite discriminatory impulses. So our inheritance is to have stereotypes that are racially biased, that are ethnically biased. It is part of our inheritance in the same way our inheritance gives us, ‘All men are created equal.’ So we have to own that, and work on that and be honest about that and think of that as a work in progress. Stereotypes are things that if you’re open about them, you shouldn’t be shamed. You should be applauded for learning and trying to change. We all have them, and then the really difficult problem is the folks who really don’t want to change their stereotypes and are deeply committed to them. Whose personalities are built around them. That becomes a problem that I argue we need a lot more study of and that we need a lot more research on. If we are more clear about those folks and their problems, perhaps we’ll come up with better solutions. Rather than putting them all in the same pot and getting super confused.
Speaker 1 [00:52:31] Well, George, this has been fascinating. Thank you so much for being here. The title of the book is where can people get it?
Speaker 2 [00:52:36] It’s ‘Of Fear and Strangers: a History of Xenophobia,’ and I suppose it’s at the fine bookstore near you.
Speaker 1 [00:52:44] Yeah, you can also get it at our special bookshop: factuallypod.com/books. When you get it there, you’ll be supporting not just this show but your local bookstore, too. Or walk down to your local bookstore and just buy it. George, thank you so much for being here. Can’t thank you enough.
Speaker 2 [00:52:58] Adam, thanks. It was a lot of fun.
Speaker 1 [00:53:04] Well, thank you once again to George Makari for coming on the show. I hope you found the conversation as fascinating as I did. If you did, why don’t you do me an email to tell me about it? My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. If you shoot me an email, I might read it. I might reply. No promises, but I do always enjoy hearing from you. I want to thank our producers, Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Our engineer, Ryan Connor. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode for you on. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. You can find me online at @AdamConover wherever you get your social media or at adamconover.net via your web browser. Until next week, we will see you next time on Factually. Thank you so much for listening.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books