Xenophobia All Over the Place?

Commentary No. 288, Sept. 1, 2010

The dictionary defines xenophobia as “fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.” It seems to be an endemic plague everywhere in the world. But it infects larger numbers of people only sometimes. This is one of those times.

But who is a stranger? In the modern world, it seems that the strongest single loyalty is that to the state of which we are a citizen. It is called nationalism or patriotism. Yes, some people put other loyalties ahead of patriotism, but it seems they are in a minority.

Of course, there are many different situations in which people express their nationalist feelings. In a colonial situation, nationalism expresses itself as a demand for liberation from the colonial power. It seems to take similar forms in what some call a semicolonial situation, which is one in which the country is technically sovereign but lives under the shadow of a stronger state, and feels itself oppressed.

Then there is the nationalism of the strong state, which expresses itself in an assertion of technical and cultural superiority, and which its proponents feel give them the right to impose their views and values on weaker states.

We may applaud the nationalism of the oppressed as something that is worthy and progressive. We may condemn oppressive nationalism by the strong as unworthy and retrogressive. There is however a third situation in which xenophobic nationalism rears its head. It is that of a state in which the population feels or fears that it is losing strength, is somehow in “decline.”

The sentiment of national decline is inevitably particularly exacerbated in times of great economic difficulty, such as the world finds itself in today. So it is no surprise that such xenophobia has begun to play an increasingly important role in the political life of states around the world.

We see it in the United States, where the so-called Tea Party wants to “take back the country” and “restore America and…her honor.” At the rally in Washington on Aug. 28, the organizer, Glenn Beck, said: “As I look at the problems in our country, quite honestly, I think the hot breath of destruction is breathing on our necks and to fix it politically is a figure that I don’t see anywhere.”

In Japan, a new organization, the Zaitokukai, last December surrounded a Korean elementary school in Kyoto, demanding to “expel the barbarians.” Its leader says he has modeled his organization after the Tea Party, sharing the sense that Japan now suffers from a loss of respect on the world scene and has gone in the wrong direction.

Europe, as we know, has seen in almost every country the rise of parties which seek to evict foreigners from the country and return the country to the exclusive hands of the so-called true citizens, although how many generations of continuous lineage it takes to define a true citizen seems to be an elusive question.

Nor is this phenomenon absent from the countries of the South – from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. There is no point in spelling out the multiple and repeated instances of when and where xenophobia has reared its ugly head.

The real question is what, if anything, can be done to counter its pernicious consequences. There is one school of thought which essentially argues that one has to coopt the slogans, repeat them in a watered-down form, and simply await the cyclical moment when xenophobia will have died down because economic times are better. This is the line of most of what may be called the Establishment right and center-right parties.

But what about the parties of the left and center-left? Most, although not all, of them seem to be cowed. They seem to be fearful that once again they will be tarred as “unpatriotic,” as “cosmopolitan,” and worry they may be swept away by the tide, even if the tide may recede in the future. So they speak, feebly, of universal values and of practical “compromises.” Does this save them? Sometimes, but often not. They are often swept away by the tide. Sometimes, they even join the tide. The past history of fascist parties is replete with the numbers of “left” leaders who became fascists. This was after all the story of the man who virtually invented the word, fascist – Benito Mussolini.

The willingness fully to embrace egalitarian values, including the right of all kinds of communities to observe their autonomy, in a national political structure that accommodates the mutual tolerance of multiple autonomies, is a politically difficult position both to define and to sustain. But it is probably the only one that offers any long-term hope for humanity’s survival.