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.
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