Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia
Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award
A Bloomberg Best Nonfiction Book of 2021
A startling work of historical sleuthing and synthesis, Of Fear and Strangers reveals the forgotten histories of xenophobia—and what they mean for us today.
By 2016, it was impossible to ignore an international resurgence of xenophobia. What had happened? Looking for clues, psychiatrist and historian George Makari started out in search of the idea’s origins. To his astonishment, he discovered an unfolding series of never-told stories. While a fear and hatred of strangers may be ancient, he found that the notion of a dangerous bias called "xenophobia" arose not so long ago.
Coined by late-nineteenth-century doctors and political commentators and popularized by an eccentric stenographer, xenophobia emerged alongside Western nationalism, colonialism, mass migration, and genocide. Makari chronicles the concept’s rise, from its popularization and perverse misuse to its spread as an ethical principle in the wake of a series of calamites that culminated in the Holocaust, and its sudden reappearance in the twenty-first century. He investigates xenophobia’s evolution through the writings of figures such as Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, and Richard Wright, and innovators like Walter Lippmann, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Frantz Fanon. Weaving together history, philosophy, and psychology, Makari offers insights into varied, related ideas such as the conditioned response, the stereotype, projection, the Authoritarian Personality, the Other, and institutional bias.
Masterful, original, and elegantly written, Of Fear and Strangers offers us a unifying paradigm by which we might more clearly comprehend how irrational anxiety and contests over identity sweep up groups and lead to the dark headlines of division so prevalent today.
Animosity toward those different from oneself has been the subject of long and convoluted debate, according to this scattershot study. Psychiatrist and historian Makari (Revolution in Mind) revisits milestones in Europe's hatred and oppression of outsiders from the Spanish conquest of the Americas to the Holocaust, but focuses on complex and sometimes contradictory intellectual explanations of xenophobia. It has been described, he notes, as a neurological ailment, an ideological prerequisite for nation-building, a response to economic competition, a conditioned reflex, or an outgrowth of cinematic stereotypes; meanwhile, thinkers including Freud, Adorno, and Sartre made xenophobia central to psychological development, proposing that the antagonism between "self" and "other" was at the heart of man's existential predicament. Makari's wide-ranging treatment draws on psychiatry, sociology, literary criticism he devotes many pages to Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Richard Wright's Native Son and his family's immigrant journey from Lebanon to suburban New Jersey. It's elegantly written, erudite, and often intriguing, but Makari's concepts of otherness and alienation are so vast that he includes everything from Simone de Beauvoir's take on sexism to Michel Foucault's interpretation of madness as critiques of xenophobia. The result is a distended theory that clarifies little by explaining too much. Photos.